Garden competitions: Help or Hindrance?

I cringed recently as I drove by a sign near my house announcing that it was time again for this year’s garden competition. Perhaps it’s due to the visits I’ve had to some extravagant gardens that seem beyond the reach of the normal gardener … or maybe I just have a case of “garden envy”.

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To me, however, I just can’t help but wonder if these competitions are a help or a hinderance, as they encourage an environmental disaster in my neighbourhood when people frantically mow and fertilise lawns, put down too much smelly dynamic lifter (pellet chicken manure) and plant exotic annual plants that will die after the judging. Does this competition simply herald the spring with a “mine is better than yours” mentality among neighbours?GA Magazine.png

So I’ve decided to lay aside my prejudices (fears or perhaps jealousy) and put a challenge to the Editor of ABC’s Gardening Australia magazine, Jennifer Stackhouse, to see what her view is on such competitions. With their “Gardener of the Year” competition also coming up, here’s her responses to my questions.

Veggie Lady (VL): What trends have you seen in the entries for competitions like Gardener of the Year in recent years?  How have they differed from past winners? 

ABC’s Gardening Australia Magazine (GA): The Gardener of the Year competition is a fabulous opportunity to celebrate the many passionate gardeners who have made a difference to lives through gardening and the competition gives us an opportunity to hear their stories. Over the years we have noticed more people dealing with more difficult conditions including drought, flood and fire and there has been a greater interest in sustainability – how the garden is created and maintained.

VL: Do competitions like Gardener of the Year just encourage people to force feed their lawns with high nitrogen fertilisers that have the potential to produce harmful outbreaks of algae in our waterways and pollute our water supply?

GA: The competition is not about achieving the greenest lawn by any stretch of imagination and given the small number of people who actually take part in such competitions their use of fertiliser is probably not a major environmental issue. More worrying would be general gardeners applying masses of fertiliser at the wrong time of the year such as during winter. As most competitions are in spring when gardens are growing then any lawn fertiliser applied is more likely to be taken up by the lawn and therefore not as likely to be washed into water courses. 

VL: How would you encourage ‘responsible stewardship of land’ in a garden competition? 

GA: As well as assessing the gardener’s contribution we also judge their gardening skills which include:

* design – how it relates to their need and those of the site;

* how and what they do to manage the garden’s resources and sustainability;

* plant choice – how well they have selected plants for the local environment;

* maintenance – how they look after the garden all year.

So all these directly speak to a responsible stewardship of the land.

VL: What about vegetable gardens?  A productive garden isn’t always pretty, so is there a place for the ‘best veggie patch’?  What criteria would a productive garden be judged on? 

GA: As I mentioned earlier, we are judging the Gardener of the Year and their story behind the garden rather than the garden on its own. Prettiness isn’t actually what’s being judged here and most of the gardens entered include productive gardens. The criteria for judging productive gardens would include all of the relevant judging criteria mentioned above.

VL: Some gardens may be viewed by other people as a selfish indulgence for the gardener’s own pleasure, what do you feel about this and is there a place for public spaces or community gardeners to be winners? 

GA: The Gardener of the Year competition is a fabulous opportunity to celebrate the many passionate gardeners who have made a difference to lives through gardening. As a result we have entries from community and school gardens as well as private gardens. But I don’t consider any garden to be selfish or indulgent – gardens and gardening are a vital part of our environment and provide benefits for the gardener in terms of health and well being. We are celebrating those people who are sharing their gardens and their gardening knowledge with others – that in itself is forging greater bonds with the community.

VL: Costa has been covering ‘The Verge Garden’ on the show, could a verge garden win a competition like this?

GA: Certainly… see above. 

VL: In my work with horticultural therapy in disability, mental health or aged care facilities, gardens sometimes aren’t as productive or attractive as others might be, but the gardeners looking after them are immensely proud of what little they have been able to achieve despite their circumstances or health conditions.  Is there any scope in recognising the efforts of a gardener without relying on the appearance of the garden?  In other words, how do you reward the process rather than the quality of the garden? 

GA: This is exactly what the competition is all about – we are looking for a passionate gardener with a story to tell. Please encourage them to enter.

Thanks Jennifer, your comments challenge anyone who may be skeptical about garden competitions. Next time I drive by the sign I saw recently in my neighbourhood, I’ll have a little smile as I think about who I’d like to nominate now.

The Gardener of the Year 2012 competition is open now, entries close 27 July 2012. The prize package is valued at $15,000 and the prestigious Golden Spade is up for grabs. You can find out all the info on the competition in the July issue of ABC Gardening Australia.

For a chance to win a copy of the July issue of the magazine leave a comment below or on Facebook on how you feel about garden competitions.