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Garden Design

Does an Australian garden style exist?

Dr Anne Vale

Dr Anne Vale

April 6, 2017

Does an Australian garden style exist? In the post WW11 years some of our now most revered garden designers rebelled against imported garden design traditions and experimented with creating a nature based Australian style. Ellis Stones and Gordon Ford from Victoria and Jean and Betty Maloney from NSW created unique interpretations of an Australian Style garden replicating the Australian landscape by utilizing rocks, water and the Australian bush.

Phillip Johnson’s garden at Olinda. Photo Anne Vale


We also had a ‘grow native’ fashion faze through the 1970s and 1980s. Promoted as low maintenance these Australian style gardens frequently resulted in overgrown, woody, short lived shrubberies combined with majestic gums which dominated suburban gardens. They made it almost impossible to plant anything new and caused much angst when eucalypt limbs dropped onto houses, cars and even people.

Fast forward three decades and it is quite a different story. For starters Australian style gardens are being created in every State not just Victoria and Southern NSW. Contemporary Australian designers have also championed the concept of the outdoor kitchen/entertainment space which some may argue are often not gardens at all as they frequently lack any significant planting.

Andrew Laidlaw designed the wonderful Children’s Garden at Melbourne’s Royal Botanic Garden. Photo Jasmine Fairhurst


This very recognizable Australian style is recreationally driven. It features swimming pools, BBQs, pavilions, outdoor televisions, outdoor kitchens trampolines and playgrounds. The whole concept is based on the blurring of the boundaries between inside and outside. Typically we use timber decking and natural materials whereas in England and Europe they would use stone as the basis for their garden structures. There is an emphasis on natural colours to blend with Australian plants or landscape. It is a style that acknowledges that Australians spend a lot of time outside, alfresco living, dining out doors.

We have seen some very upmarket examples of Australian landscape design on the current ‘Dream Gardens‘ show on ABC TV. Michael McCoy does a brilliant job of hosting this series. He is a natural in front of the camera and his design and plant knowledge is second to none. However, it is rather disconcerting to find that so many of the owners of these designed spaces are not interested in gardening at all!

Travelling across Australia to conduct interviews for Influential Australia Garden People: their stories I quickly came to the conclusion that designing gardens specifically for local conditions and local architecture was now entrenched thinking. The one thing that people agreed upon was that talk about a universal Australian style was just nonsense. Our country is too big, with extremes of climatic zones, topography and lifestyles. Many felt annoyed with popular media for constantly referring to ‘Australian style’ or plants that did well in ‘Australian conditions’ as if one size fitted all.

Arno King’s local ‘Australian style’. Photo Kim Woods Rabbidge


As Queensland landscape architect Arno King puts it,

“The north is so different from the south, the centre from the west and by trying to create something that is representative we don’t celebrate the local or the individual. It just becomes this dirge and I think that has been killing our designers here. If we would celebrate our top designers and celebrate the local we would be like England or New Zealand or other countries that don’t have ‘The Australian Cringe’.”

Localised Australian styles do make a lot more sense, if we consider the style of Philip Johnson, Fiona Brockhoff or Kate Cullity there is clearly Australian context to their gardens and they are also ‘of their place’. They are all vastly different from each other but they have a recognizable Australian style. The Australian garden in Cranbourne reflects the Kimberly’s and the Pindan. Philip Johnson’s style is all about billabongs, waterfalls, rocks, native plants and habitats and Fiona Brockhoff is known for her sculpted native plants and a bleached look that is perfect for the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria.

Fiona Brockhoff’s clipped native plants. Photo Virginia Cummins


There are other Australian style gardens too. Myles Baldwin and Michael Bligh create gardens around heritage homes and they produce a particular Australian aesthetic. As Myles puts it;

“who does the best Victorian gardens in the world? Australia does. The Victorian garden consists of a collection of plants from across the globe; they can be seen at their best in the colonies where they don’t have to be cosseted away in a glass house. We created these amazing Victorian era botanic gardens with a great diversity of plants because we had the right climate in those places.”

A perfect example is the garden that Myles worked in for many years at Bronte in NSW. Here he created a Victorian garden with rich colour schemes and a vastly different collection of plants and eclectic areas with various zones for specialized plants.

Bronte House garden. Photo Simon Griffiths


Michael Bligh has made a name for himself on large rural properties in NSW by creating a colonial Australian aesthetic which incorporates the borrowed view of eucalypt clad hills and contented cattle grazing in the paddock.

There is no doubt that our connectivity to global trends has also shaped the ideas of this generation. We are no longer an isolated backwater. Through the internet, Pinterest and Instagram our designers can instantly see the latest ideas from overseas which creates a globalization of the Australian aesthetic. This is reflected in the attitude of all the designers that ‘it has to be ‘the right plant for the right place.’ There may be a preference for an Australian plant, if a nature style garden is being created, but on the whole designers are more interested in selecting plant material that is functional and sustainable. The planting plan has to be appropriate for the built landscape that it invariably accompanies. Many of our designers were not at all interested in being pigeon holed into having a particular personal design style. Their emphasis is on using the genius of the site, working with plants that are appropriate for the client and making something that is uniquely different.

Michael Bligh design – a flower-filled garden with views of eucalypt-clad hills beyond. Photo Kim Woods Rabbidge


There was universal condemnation for highly paved, mono culture gardens of the like planted by developers in urban infill growth corridors and by some new home owners. Plastic grass, impermeable surfaces and glass mulch was viewed with great alarm especially in arid, drought prone regions. The consensus was that we need to get young parents with young children to plant real gardens. We need green space with a variety of plant material to attract micro organisms, layers of plant material including shady trees and places for birds to perch.

Designers were keen to point out that sustainability for them is about designing landscapes that last a long time. Edna Walling’s name came up time after time as a perfect example of good design with lovely trees and hard landscapes that utilized local materials.


[This is an extract from Influential Australian Garden People: Their Stories, available through your local bookshop or signed copies direct from Heriscapes


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Michael McCoy
6 years ago

I totally agree, Anne, that globalization makes it seem very unlikely that a recognizable ‘Australian Style’ will evolve in garden design.

I’m also convinced that any self-conscious attempt to develop such a style will only inhibit any natural evolution in that direction. While it’s entirely appropriate and desirable for commentators such as you and Catherine Stewart to examine and evaluate what’s going on, garden makers would be much better to avoid making any assessments of the potential influence of their own work, and just get on with the job of creating gardens that emerge comfortably and naturally out of the local conditions and climate.

There’s also big questions around the most likely sources of future design directions for really good gardens in Australia. As a designer myself, I find it a bit sobering that none of my favourite gardens worldwide (with a few minor exceptions) were designed by a professional garden designer. I console myself with the truth that most professional garden design work has to be reduced to relative fool-proof-ness for disengaged owners. Garden lovers don’t tend to hire designers. They make their own gardens.

As a consequence of the almost inevitable compromises associated with professionally designed gardens, I’d argue that new directions are more likely to emerge from really engaged and passionate home gardeners, rather than from professional designers, as such. Or, perhaps, designers temporarily freed from the constraints of their practice, such as Phillip Johnson or Fiona Brockhoff, whose work (and this is surely no coincidence) is most frequently illustrated, and best known, by their own – spectacular – home gardens.

Anne Vale
6 years ago
Reply to  Michael McCoy

Dear Michael, thanks for taking the time to respond. You have voiced something that has been bothering me for ages and your comments have helped chrystalized my thinking. Much as I really admire many professional garden designers I have to agree with you that the gardens I like best and the philosophies I can relate to tend to emanate from people who are very hands on and very individual in their approach to their own garden and to their concept of ‘what a garden is’ in the first place. I do hope that ‘Dream Gardens’ continues and evolves, I would love to see more focus on plants, connection to place, and sustainability in future programs.

6 years ago

This is an interesting point of view about contemporary gardens and Designers: maybe it doesn’t make any sense of talking about a national style but it’s more correct to talk about school of thoughts. Each designer choses the philosophy closer to his point of view, despite the country where he lives.

Having worked both in Australia and Europe, I am not sure that there is a difference in the use of materials: Europeans use timber or stones indifferently according to the chracteristics of the project.

I think that the main difference sits in the environment in which European Designers work and in the resources they can use.
European environment is, most of the times, highly modified by centuries of human activities so that you don’t know if what you are looking at is ‘authentic’ or not. At the opposite, I find authenticity in your landscape because, for example, you haven’t uncontrolledly imported plants form other Countries.
Secondly, European Designers have an almost endless range of plants and materials they can use for their projects which is not necessary good: here if you want to create something new you’re forced to reinvent what you already have.

Anne Vale
6 years ago
Reply to  carlogabriele

Some excellent points Carlo thank you for your comments

6 years ago

This is music to my ears, Anne! Fiona Brockhoff and Kate Cullity’s work was a huge inspiration to me when I arrived in Australia and I do hope design of this calibre is on the increase. As Carlo suggests, Australia has a unique opportunity to create truly authentic landscape designs; when I see them it makes my heart sing, I think more so than any English garden ever can. If only there were more of them and more passion for plants over paving and Australian over nondescript!

Anne Vale
6 years ago

Dear Janna, so pleased you enjoyed the artical It was a privilege to interview these wonderful garden people and to get an invite into the direction Australian design is going