Sustainable Canberra Garden   

Introduction to Fact Sheets

photo calthorpes house 1939

A hand coloured photograph of Calthorpes' House, Mugga Way, Red Hill taken in 1939. The photo illustrates the ornamental front garden comprised of exotic shrubs, lawn and a semi-circular driveway. Glimpses of Eucalyptus woodland can be seen in the background. Image from ACT Parks and Conservation Service (1988) Calthorpes' House Brochure.



History of Canberra Gardens

Gardens have been made in a diverse range of styles since European settlement of the Canberra district.  Early settlers converted the landscape into a series of sheep paddocks.  Pastoral stations needed to produce vegetables and fruit, so the first Canberra gardens were borne.  Lanyon Station, near Tharwa, is a surviving example of an early homestead surrounded by extensive gardens and grazing land.

The newly formed gardens of early Canberra, in suburbs like Ainslie, had many characteristics in common.  The front garden was the public face of the home.  Plants were mostly chosen for their ornamental characteristics.  Many hardy exotic plant species were used for hedging, such as Pyracantha (Firethorn), Cotoneaster and Ligustrum (Privet) and are now regarded as environmental weeds.  Hedges were deliberately kept low, allowing conversations between neighbours and fences were forbidden.  Exotic plants like roses, feature trees, lawn and flowers for picking were also planted in these front gardens.  Grander homes like Calthorpe's House at Red Hill often included a circular driveway.

>> Garden Plan - Calthorpe's House


Nature strips of trees under planted with grass and an absence of front fences created a unified appearance to Canberra’s early streets.

Rear gardens were functional and consisted of clothes drying areas, sheds, vegetable gardens, chicken pens, lawns and fruit trees. 

A cheap and plentiful supply of potable water allowed gardeners to grow a wide variety of plants and maintain extensive grass areas.  From 1930, Yarralumla Nursery issued an unlimited supply of plants to leaseholders.  This practice was later reduced to a smaller number of plants and continues today.

Advances in refrigeration, transport and lifestyle changes meant growing fruit and vegetables was no longer a priority.  As a result gardens were made in a variety of styles based on appearance rather than fresh food needs or as a response to the conditions of the local environment. 


Ongoing Drought

Canberra’s ongoing drought has led to a reassessment of gardens which use large amounts of water on ornamental plants.  Lawns are being pared down or removed and residents are more conscious of incorporating drought hardy plants into their gardens. Anecdotal evidence from local retail nurseries suggests many people stop gardening when their lawns brown off in summer. 

The current water crisis in the Murray-Darling Basin, Australia's food bowl, has highlighted the need to return to growing food in our local communities.

>> Growing vegetables and fruit


Sustainability Principles

By adopting sustainability principles we can create gardens which require less resources for their upkeep and look attractive all year.  A sustainable garden addresses the following features:


Case Studies

Five case studies of gardens incorporating sustainability principles are included.  These illustrate how a range of Canberra gardeners have addressed important issues like food production, water harvesting, reuse of landscape materials, habitat creation and making a regional style.  Each garden is a  unique solution to a particular site and set of owners' needs. 

Remember, sustainable gardens don’t have to incorporate native plants exclusively nor need they look messy.  Any style of garden, including formal gardens can be created using sustainable principles.


>> ACT Government's Think Water Act Water Strategy

>> Towards an environmental ethic for Canberra Gardens - 23 page thesis

This website was developed by
and the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects
(Edwina Richardson AILA)
with assistance from an ACT Government Environment Grant

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