17 May 2024

A 'nightmare to plant' but this year's arty Floriade set to be blooming fantastic

| James Coleman
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Tim Howard

Tim Howard has been head gardener for Floriade for three years now. Photo: James Coleman.

Just when the frosts are settling over Canberra to kill pretty much everything else, it’s prime time to grow tulips.

By the end of May, tipper trucks will have poured 3000 cubic metres of potting mix and gardeners will have planted about 440,000 bulbs and 540,000 annuals at Commonwealth Park in preparation for the return of Australia’s biggest flower festival.

This will be the third Floriade for head gardener Tim Howard, who also has years of experience at the National Arboretum and Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens under his belt.

“We’ve got about two more weeks of planting. Beyond that the ground becomes frosty and icy cold and the annuals we plant do not like that, so we start in March so we can have everything in the ground before June,” he says.

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Tulips, on the other hand, “love cold”.

“Unlike humans, tulips want the cold to get growing, so through the winter is their time to shine.”

By now, anyone who’s lived in or visited Canberra at any point over the past 37 years will know what to expect – up to 13 garden beds bursting with colour and punctuated by a mix of market stalls, food vans, performances, and, of course, the famous Ferris wheel to overlook it all.

Floriade Community is also back for 2024, with a further 300,000 bulbs and annuals going to gardens and planter boxes around the city.

The Starry Night

Van Gogh’s The Starry Night awaits. Photo: James Coleman.

Nightfest returns between 3 and 6 October, expected to draw nearly 30,000 visitors over the four nights.

For the final day on Sunday, 13 October, dogs are welcome, and anyone will be able to bring a trowel and shovel on the following Monday and get stuck into the garden beds for the ‘Great Bulb Dig’.

But every year has its own theme, and this year’s is ‘Art in Bloom’. Hence why Natasha Ruschka from the Grainger Gallery attended the official launch event on Thursday (16 May), and brought along her oil paints, easel and brushes, as well as a selection of her artwork.

“We’ve been very ambitious with the bed designs this year,” Tim adds.

Natasha Ruschka

Natasha Ruschka from the Grainger Gallery in her element. Photo: James Coleman.

For instance, the garden bed we happen to be standing next to might look uneventful at the moment, but Tim assures it has been painstakingly laid out so that once the flowers start popping up, they’ll form Vincent van Gogh’s famous painting The Starry Night.

“As far as a planting challenges go, it’s been a nightmare but it will be worth it.”

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Floriade is put on by the ACT Government’s events agency ‘Events ACT’, with support from major sponsor Synergy Group.

Events ACT CEO Ross Triffitt says visitors will be able to wander through flower beds inspired by other pieces of art, as well as 3D sculptures and “representations of architectures, literature, music, cinema and theatre”.

“So, we’ll have a garden bed dedicated to film, another to themes, and a group of garden bends representing the fine arts and paintings. There’s a real mix trying to represent the majority of art.”

Last bulbs

The last bulbs will be in by the end of May. Photo: James Coleman.

Last spring, Floriade and its theme of ‘Floral Wonderland’ attracted almost half a million people – half from interstate – and provided a total economic boost to the ACT of $51.1 million.

The Great Bulb Dig also raised more than $65,000 for Roundabout Canberra and the Indigenous Marathon Foundation.

The last few years of wet weather have nearly flooded out Floriade on a number of occasions and turned the gravel paths to mush, but apart from a deluge of close to 90 millimetres over two days in early April, head gardener Tim says this year is shaping up to be “fantastic”.

“For construction, the ground’s firm and we can get materials and everything into place easily,” he says.

“As far as growing flowers go … I think we’ll be using the irrigation system more this year.”

Floriade is open every day from 14 September to 13 October at Commonwealth Park. Entry is free.

Visit the Floriade website for more information.

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