Australian Garden History Society 39th Annual National Conference

Southern Highlands, NSW, 26th-29th October 2018

Gardens in times of Peace and Conflict

The annual Australian Garden History Society (AGHS) conferences are always a stimulating fusion of on topic lectures and garden visits that showcase the host region’s garden-making history. The 2018 conference was held in the Southern Highlands of NSW which has a permanent population of approximately 50,000. The lectures and garden visits focussed on the broader landscape and the townships of Mittagong, Bowral, Moss Vale, Bundanoon and Robertson as well as the historic town of Berrima. At just 110 km south-west of Sydney, the Highlands geographically sit between 500m and 900m above sea level on the Great Dividing Range. The region’s cool temperate climate, fine wines and beautiful gardens attract local and international visitors alike.

The area boasts an eclectic mix of contemporary homes and historic cottages as well as many magnificent ‘estates’ set amongst beautifully landscaped grounds. Evergreen hedging and conifers are the preferred property boundary-markers augmented by Australian trees and a wealth of evergreen and deciduous European trees. Beautifully presented gardens large and small are evidence of a very enthusiastic gardening community. The larger more prestigious properties are kept in pristine condition by a local cohort of horticulturists, arborists and landscape contractors.

The lectures commenced with an introduction to the physical and historical evolution of the landscape and the establishment of the some of the earliest gardens including Oldbury Farm (1822), which we had the privilege of visiting over the weekend, and the Parsonage at Berrima (1850s).

Craig Burton, architect/landscape architect, suggested that the historical evolution of the area, from the last 40,000 years to the present, could be seen in six historical layers as follows,

  • the Indigenous cultivation of the landscape over millennia
  • the adaptation of the indigenous park-like setting for Colonial occupation
  • the establishment of a network of roads, railway, paths and village centres evolving to towns throughout the rural region
  • the introduction of exotic flora, particularly the impact of Pinus radiata tree plantations and the introduction of cool climate coniferous species as well as deciduous and flowering plants
  • subdivision of larger rural estates and the introduction of row plantings of coniferous species
  • the threat of invasion of new land uses on a larger scale than previously existed such as mining and gas fracking, ironworks, shale, oil, coal, cement works and stone quarrying.

The Conflict aspect of the conference theme of Gardens in times of Peace and Conflict was explored through many of the lectures. We were inspired to learn of the Remembrance Driveway that runs from Sydney to Canberra. Ian Scott AM and Greg Jackson described how the Driveway was established in 1952, the Driveway honours those who served in the Australian Defence Forces during World War II. It is marked at the Sydney end with two plane trees planted by Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh in Macquarie Place in 1954. The Remembrance Park behind the Australian War Memorial, at the Canberra end, features three red spotted gums, planted by the Governor-General in 2002. The Remembrance Driveway has continued to evolve as roads have changed with some re-routing, and rest areas dedicated to Australian Victoria Cross recipients from World War II and Vietnam have been enhanced with new plantings and infrastructure.

Through a lecture by Frances Simons, we also learnt how garden making ingenuity was exemplified by the creation of some very large, productive and ornamental gardens in a Berrima camp for prisoners of war. At the outbreak of the First World War, Germans, Austrians and Hungarians living in Australia were declared enemy aliens by the Australian Government. Thousands of men were imprisoned from 1914 to 1919 in internment camps throughout Australia. The Berrima camp was established in the area they called New Pomerania. Using found materials and a great deal of ingenuity, gardens and huts were built along the Wingecarribee River. Essential for the mental and physical health of the prisoners the sharing of plants and produce with the local population fostered good relationships and a peaceful existence throughout the years of conflict.

A lecture on  ‘The war on weeds’ by Dr John Dwyer gave us a rather different perspective of the theme Peace and Conflict. Dwyer’s research into our often conflicting and emotional response to weeds, or what we perceive to be weeds, was derived from his well received 2016 publication Weeds, Plants and People. John encouraged us to ‘ be slow to judge plants by their origin, and to accept that native species are weeds when seen as too successful; and should not allow ourselves to be conscripted to attacks on plants that cause little harm.’

A Parcel from France: The Poppy Seed Project was a fascinating talk by Linda Emery about the origins of the red poppy grown in many Australian gardens today. Much respected as a symbol of individual sacrifice Linda described how a parcel of poppy seeds was sent to Joseph Henry Maiden, the director of the Botanic Gardens in Sydney, in January 1920. The poppy seed had been gathered in the Somme Valley by the school children of Villers Bretonneux and came with a request that the seed be distributed to the relatives of the Australian and New Zealand soldiers that had fallen fighting on the battlefields. Lynda explained that as ‘Joseph Maiden was a meticulous man, with a methodical mind ad working habits  he had kept registers of seeds and plants coming  in and out of the Botanic Gardens. The names were recorded of all those people who applied for and received poppy seed to plant in their gardens in memory of their loved ones. The Poppy Seed project has involved tracing the recipients of the seed and the soldiers in whose memory they were planted.

Further talks covered War memorials, Avenues of honour, and Gardens of Remembrance resulting in a much-improved understanding of the region before embarking on our tour of local gardens.

The garden visits are enjoyed over two and a half days if one includes the optional extra day after the conference officially closes (Delegates can also attend a pre or post conference tour).





Images by Anne Vale


Every endeavour is always made to showcase a variety of gardens including botanic gardens, small town gardens, prestigious estates and broader more extensive landscapes.

The Southern Highlands now has its own botanic garden established in just the last decade. The gardens have been designed by Kate Cullity from the award winning Australian landscape architects Taylor Cullity and Lethlean with the theme of four seasons in a cool climate. The concept is a series of ‘journeys’ through landscape and seasons of the Southern Highlands.

One of the benefits of belonging to the AGHS is that garden visits are often to private gardens not generally open to the public. Those we were privileged to visit included Greenbrier Park in Mittagong, a country garden set within 115 acres, created in the English style and incorporating Australian shrubs and trees. Oldbury Farm (1828) at Sutton Forrest, one of the most important historic properties in the district, features an English 18th century style farmhouse surrounded by sweeping lawns. These are encircled by layered hawthorn hedges and original elms and oaks. A very pretty cottage garden and a productive vegetable garden nestle close to the house. An extensive arboretum has been established with a contemporary gathering circle, created with local stone from the property, at its pinnacle.

Somerley House (1875) in Sutton Forrest has a more charming and relaxed style. Home to the Governor of New South Wales from 1882, Somerley has hosted many Australian notables over the years including Dame Nellie Melba, Prime Minister Billy Hughes and Sir Percy Spender. In addition to the house, surviving historic structures include the original stables, summer house and cottage. We were there in time to see the season end of some very special camellias and various forms of wisteria in full bloom.

Carisbrooke in Bowral was a tapestry of colour, form and contrast and thoroughly enjoyed by all the plant and tree enthusiasts. This intensely planted town garden, on two acres, delighted at every step with surprises hidden from view by hedging, winding paths, and screens of espaliered fruit trees.

Gardens with public access included Red Cow Farm, Southdown, and Retford Park, the latter a magnificent property of historic significance. James Fairfax AC developed the grounds and maintained the mansion for fifty years before gifting the thirty-three-hectare estate to the National Trust of Australia in 2016.

Conference delegates enjoyed visiting many other historic properties for functions as well as garden visits. The Southern Highlands branch hosted a stimulating and inspiring Australian Garden History Society Conference with many take-home messages and enjoyable memories. Next year’s conference in New Zealand is already highly anticipated.

 Diversity of National Trust gardens showcased in new book

Gardens of the National Trust Australia (Victoria) $49.95

Books on Australia’s garden history has been recounted the story in many ways; through the achievements of influential people, the history of significant elements and the focus on particular eras. Gardens of the National Trust of Australia (Victoria), hereafter referred to as ‘the Trust’, takes the reader on a tour of Australia’s garden history through the lens of an organization dedicated to saving and showcasing a diversity of gardens throughout Victoria.

Researching the history of a garden can unearth a rich and often complex narrative. The archives of the Trust revealed a treasure chest of historic documents and images. Some of the original garden designs associated with Trust properties have disappeared but they are not forgotten. Many bear witness to the past through remnant vegetation, garden structures, extant trees, or foundations of garden beds and paths. Some Trust gardens have been rejuvenated or recreated in a style that denotes a particular period of time.

The story of the Trust gardens is the story of how some of our towns and cities were established. It tells of gardens made when South Yarra was ‘so far from town that first inhabitants felt lonely and cut off from society’. There are gardens that were established in remote country Victoria where today there are wall to wall housing developments.

The Melbourne garden treasures of Como and Rippon Lea are familiar landmarks to many, much loved for their botanical riches and their idyllic settings. When Como was built in 1847 the settlement of Melbourne was barely more than a village. The original 54.5 acre site, on South Yarra hill overlooking the Yarra River, was purchased in the first land sales held south of the Yarra. Between 1854 and 1864, the grounds were professionally landscaped by William Sangster (1831–1910). Sangster was to become an acclaimed landscape designer, but when he designed Como’s garden he had only been in Australia for two years. His Picturesque style embraced the natural and the irregular, as opposed to the formal geometric visions of the architecturally refined Arts and Crafts gardens that were to become popular by the turn of the century.

The garden at Rippon Lea Estate is without doubt the jewel in the crown of the Trust gardens in Victoria. It is the legacy of Sir Frederick Thomas Sargood (1834–1903). The original design is credited to Edward La Trobe Bateman (1816–1897). In 1885 the garden was extensively re-landscaped by the now eminent William Sangster. It was added to the National Heritage list in 2006 and is the last of the great privately owned 19th century suburban estates to survive largely intact.

The Trusts collection of early colonial settlement gardens includes Mott’s Cottage in Port Fairy, La Trobe’s Cottage in Melbourne, Gulf Station in the Yarra Ranges and The Briars and McCrae Homestead both on the Mornington Peninsular. Some of these properties have recreations of typical early colonial settlement gardens which enhance the surviving structures and collectively tell the story of how people existed in the 1800s. 

The 1850s rural villa The Heights in Aphrasia Street, Newtown, is one of the oldest private gardens in Geelong, established by colonial settler Charles Ibbotson (1813–1883). Some of the original trees are still extant complimented by layers of garden styles from later years.

In the same period, Jonathan Porter O’Brien, merchant, and his wife Ann bought a block of land stretching down to the river in Newtown. They built a substantial brick Gothic Revival villa and created a lovely garden of trees and shrubs including a distinctive fountain below the house. They called their property Barwon Grange.

Barwon Park at Winchelsea, designed by Architects Davidson and Henderson, was built between 1869 and 1871 for prominent Western District squatter Thomas Austin (1815 –1871) and his wife Elizabeth. It survives as perhaps the most notable homestead designed by this prolific practice. A grand ball was held on 30 June 1871 to celebrate the completion of the building. An extensive garden was no doubt intended but the death of Thomas, five months later postponed any grand plans. A much simpler garden eventuated that included a carriage circle, trees and a parterre. As with all the Trust properties, volunteers have been essential in creating and maintained an appropriate landscape around the restored mansion. Landscape architect Andrew Laidlaw designed a contemporary parterre, on the footprint of the original, which was planted out by Trust staff and volunteers.



Images by Anne Vale

Botanic extravaganzas attached to grand mansions built during Melbourne’s 19th century boom years had gardens of extraordinary size and complexity. Labassa had just such a garden attached to the lavishly decorated 19th century mansion. The original property encompassed the entire northeast corner of Balaclava and Orrong Roads, Caulfield. The property was subsequently sold off into various parcels of land and the mansion became crowded by new subdivisions. The house fell into disrepair and the garden all but disappeared save for a few trees. However, today the mansion has been substantially restored and a revitalised garden was designed by AGHS member, Landscape Architect Elizabeth Peck. This has immeasurably lifted the presence of the mansion within the current suburban streetscape, and once again gives a compatible and attractive curtilage to the grand mansion.


Two gardens created in the 20th century include Mooramong at Skipton and Mulberry Hill at Baxter. Scobie Mackinnon and his glamorous American film star wife Claire Adams hired Marcus Martin to redesign the Victorian homestead and Edna walling to design the garden. There is an oft repeated story that the strong personalities of both Edna Walling and Claire Adams resulted in a dispute that stopped the collaboration in its tracks even if ultimately the design was loosely adhered to.

Mulberry Hill is a very lovely example of a ‘between the wars’ 20th century country home created by Joan Lindsay, most famously known for her mystical tale Picnic at Hanging Rock, and Daryl Lindsay who became a distinguished painter despite the demands of his work with the National Gallery of Victoria. Daryl was responsible for remodelling the existing cottage and designing a larger home. Joan and Daryl, both novice gardeners, had ideas of an English style garden but these were soon abandoned for a more realist style suited to the climate and soil. One extraordinary survivor within the walled garden at the rear of the house is the mulberry tree (Morus nigra). Joan described it in 1925 as ‘the enormous mulberry tree spreading its leafless branches over the yard.’ Ninety plus years later, it may be supported by props and chains but it is still there, creating shade and providing fruit.

Extract from: Anne Vale. Gardens of the National Trust Australia (Victoria) (Melbourne: The National Trust of Australia (Victoria), 2018)



Remembering Melbourne 1850-1860 by Richard Broome et al.

(Published by The Royal Historical Society Melbourne, 2016, $35.00)

This new release celebrates the history of the suburbs and the city of Melbourne. The RHSV, in collaboration with historians and local historical societies, has delved into its incredible collection of images (35,000 photographic prints) to produce this well indexed and captioned reference. The evolution of photography, coinciding with Melbourne’s progression, has facilitated this record of architecture, parks and gardens and Melbournians going about their daily business.

Part One takes the reader on a journey down the streets and back lanes revealing the mixed heritage of styles and eras throughout the city. Part Two explores suburban Melbourne with images and captions of the built environment in each local area. Open space, the Yarra River and our most significant parks and gardens complete the record of Melbourne’s development. Thank goodness for our founding fathers wisdom, as the developer’s practice of filling every space with built structures is as evident in the 1860’s images as it is today.

Anne Vale – contributing author

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