Sydney is Australia’s oldest and largest city, centred on one of the most beautiful harbours in the world.
Gardens to see and visit in Sydney and the nearby NSW Central Coast are filled with warm temperate to subtropical plants and show many garden design styles, from slick and ultra modern to flower-filled cottage gardens, colourful subtropical foliage gardens, and formal and informal 'green-on-green' gardens. There are many free entry gardens to see such as the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney and its native plant garden at Mount Annan, the garden of artist Wendy Whiteley, the Japanese garden at Gosford, public-access green roofs, historic Vaucluse House, and garden-filled cafes and restaurants.
Garden Travel Guide to Sydney and NSW Central Coast
Getting to/from/around Sydney and the NSW Central Coast
Sydney is located on the east coast of Australia at 34 degrees south of the equator and 151 degrees east and is the capital city of the state of New South Wales. It has an International Airport with connecting flights to/from all major cities.
Sydney is an easy 3 hour drive north of Canberra, 9 hours north of Melbourne and 11 hours south of Brisbane.
Some of Sydney’s garden destinations that are closer to the city are accessible by public transport, including train, bus, light rail and ferry, but many gardens that are more than a few kilometres from the city centre will be difficult to access without a car.
Although you can catch a train from Sydney to Gosford (the main city on the NSW Central Coast) garden visiting when you are there will be very difficult without a car.
Sydney geography and population
Sydney is a large, sprawling mostly suburban city covering about 1800 square kilometres and with a population of about 4 million of whom 39% were born overseas, giving the city a rich and ethnically diverse culture. Only a very small percentage (1.4%) of Sydney’s population are indigenous Aboriginal people.
Sydney is bordered by the Pacific Ocean to the east, and densely forested national parks to the west, south and north.
Sydney Harbour is a significant and very beautiful waterway that stretches halfway across the city west to east, roughly dividing the city into northern and southern halves.
Sydney enjoys a climate best described as sunny and ‘cool subtropical’ with more than 340 sunny days per year. As Sydney is in the southern hemisphere, its coldest month is July and January the hottest. However as its climate is also affected by subtropical weather systems of wet and dry, its seasons are not a simple reverse of those in the northern hemisphere. January-March are the warmest months with warm to very warm, humid days (26-33 degrees), tempered by cool sea breezes near the coast.
The highest rainfall is in February-March, often falling during afternoon thunderstorms. Autumn/fall occurs quickly through April-May with many delightful mild, sunny days and winter is June-July with daytime temperatures around 16 degrees. By August it’s already warming into Sydney’s first spring (also dubbed ‘sprinter’) with occasional days in the mid 20s and by September even the low 30s. Sydney’s ‘second spring’ (or ‘sprummer’) runs from October to mid December and is mild to warm, dry and with low humidity, showing the climate influences of the dry subtropics.
Sydney can suffer significant droughts and water restrictions during prolonged El Niño climate events which can also lead to summer bushfires during extreme temperatures.
Sydney natural vegetation
Sydney’s eastern and northern suburbs are built on hilly sandstone terrain or deep coastal sands, while the west and south west areas are flatter with mostly clay or alluvial soils. A narrow band of richer volcanic soil runs down through the North Shore area.
Due to its cool subtropical-style climate and medium (800-1100mm) but sporadic rainfall, Sydney’s native vegetation is low open forest on more exposed sites through to tall open forest in gullies and areas of richer soil. The dominant native canopy trees are Eucalyptus, Corymbia and Angophora. There are large areas natural bush close to the city and several large native plant parks and National Parks throughout Sydney where you can see abundant spring wildflowers from late July to mid-September.
Sydney Harbour is a significant waterway of world renown that stretches east-west halfway across the Sydney Basin, which it divides north from south. The two tidal rivers and many creeks that run into it create estuarine wetlands.
Sydney garden styles
Most of the Sydney population lives in low density suburban housing (55%), however there are a number of medium density suburbs and high density areas close to major retail centres, the Sydney CBD and also medium to high density older suburbs close to the city featuring late 19th century terrace housing.
Older suburbs, especially wealthier areas close to the harbour and on richer soils, have large gardens filled with mostly exotic plants from China, South America and South Africa. A ferry ride around Sydney harbour or the Parramatta River showcases substantial harbourside gardens which look particularly colourful in mid November when the exotic purple jacaranda trees are in flower.
Medium density areas and newer suburbs have more native plantings, especially as street trees. While Sydney enjoys a relatively mild climate, gardeners have to work hard to build and nourish their gardens due to either free draining sandy soils in the east or heavy clay soils in the west and south-west.
More recently there has been a significant increase in high density living and balcony and roof tops gardens in Sydney with, in particular, productive gardens being grown in pots or in shared roof top/street verge spaces.
Due to the incredibly diverse ethnicity of Sydney’s population, many residential backyards often feature productive vegetable gardens and unusual fruiting trees.
If Sydney has a dominant design style it is the ‘green garden’ rather than a flower garden, often defined by hedging and featuring plants from both cool climate and subtropical origins with a range of foliage textures and plant forms.
Garden Tours in, and to, Sydney
Sydney is rarely on an international garden tour destination list, even though it has many fine gardens to see, both public and private.
• Each November there are garden tours by boat on Sydney Harbour that view the magnificent jacaranda trees in flower.
• Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney offers free guided tours with knowledgeable Foundation and Friends volunteers at 10.30am and 1pm Monday to Friday and at 10.30am on Saturday and Sunday.
• Australian Garden at Mount Annan has free guided tours of the garden on most days – inquire at the Visitor Centre.
• The Chinese Garden of Friendship at Darling Harbour has free 35 minute garden tours (after ticket entry)
Best open gardens to see and visit in Sydney – FREE entry
Best open gardens to see and visit in Sydney City and East free entry
• Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney – open sunrise to sunset every day, feature gardens include the indigenous garden Cadi Jam Ora, herb garden, cactus and succulent garden, palm garden and fern house.
• Centennial Parklands – rose garden, subtropical garden around the cafe, column garden, and duck pond; vehicle access sunrise to sunset, pedestrian access all times.
• Vaucluse House gardens, Wentworth Rd – one of Sydney’s few 19th-century mansions still surrounded by its original gardens and wooded grounds. Gardens always open.
• Barangaroo Reserve, between Darling Harbour and Walsh Bay – this award-winning headland park has transformed an old industrial waterside site into a spectacular park opposite Darling Harbour. Featuring a spectacular sandstone block shoreline and recreated natural ecosystems, Barangaroo is named for a powerful indigenous woman who played an important role in the early days of colonial settlement. Access from Towns Place, Argyle Place, and Hickson Rd. Open 24 hours, free entry. Opened August 2015.
• The Goods Line – an urban renewal park project designed by ASPECT Studios transforming a disused rail corridor from Ultimo to Darling Harbour. Opened September 2015.
• The Grounds Cafe, 2 Huntley St Alexandria – popular cafe with large outdoor eating area with kitchen gardens, wall gardens, vine-covered pergolas, pots everywhere and fabulous garden ambience. Open 7am-4pm weekdays, 7.30am-4pm weekends. Group bookings only.
• acre – a garden-to-plate restaurant in 31a Mallet St Camperdown set alongside a large, sustainable productive garden run by Pocket City Farms.
• Botannix Studio Cafe, 25 Swinburne St, Botany – Botannix Yoga, the popular yoga studio has a lovely cafe with plant-filled outdoor area and kitchen garden. Opens very early for breakfast and closes just after lunch.
• Vertical garden at 1 Bligh St, Sydney – 377 square metre vertical garden designed by Sue Barnsley Design. Accessible every day, free.
• Paddington Reservoir Gardens, 251-255 Oxford Street Paddington – award-winning reuse of old reservoir site with sunken garden, salvaged industrial elements and imaginative night lighting. Always open, free entry.
• Great vertical gardens to see in the Sydney CBD include the Trio Building, One Central Park and No 1 Bligh Street – self guided tour
Best rooftop gardens to see in Sydney:
• Conservatorium of Music, Conservatorium Road, Sydney
• Domain, Prince Albert Road, Sydney
• Prince Alfred Park, Chalmers Street, Surry Hills
• Central Park, Broadway, Chippendale
• The Wayside Chapel, Hughes Street, Potts Point (by appointment)
• Woolloomooloo Bunker, Lincoln Crescent, Woolloomooloo
• Darling Park, Sussex Street, Sydney
• Beare Park, Ithaca Road, Elizabeth Bay
• Embarkation Park, Cowper Park Roadway, Woolloomooloo
Best open gardens to see and visit in Sydney’s North – free entry
• Lex and Ruby Graham Gardens – Sydney’s first ‘guerilla garden’ started in 1959 by a couple living adjacent to what was steep, weed-infested wasteland. Walk along the foreshore path from Cremorne Point.
• Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden – steep hillside ‘guerilla garden’ created by cultural icon Wendy Whiteley OAM, (wife of the late Brett Whiteley, one of Australia’s best known late 20th century artists) on vacant railway land in Lavender Bay. Now preserved under a 30 year lease. Access through Clark Park off Lavender crescent, Lavender Bay
• Lilian Fraser Gardens, Cnr Bellamy and Laurence Streets, Pennant Hills – a large, traditional woodland garden open every day from sunrise to sunset, free entry, contains many unusual plants.
• Lisgar Gardens, Lisgar Rd, Hornsby – a 2.6 hectare traditional woodland garden cascading down a steep hill to lawn areas and fish ponds below, open M-F 8am-3.30pm, Sat & Sun 10am-4pm (5pm in summer) closed public holidays.
• Fagan Park -38-48 Arcadia Road, Galston – 10 hectares of ‘Gardens of Many Nations’, including Japanese, Dutch, Chinese and Mediterranean gardens, plus the Eco Garden. Open 7am-5.30pm (until 6.30pm in summer) every day except Christmas Day.
• Swain Gardens, 77 Stanhope Rd Killara – 3.4 hectares of rambling traditional English gardens and natural bush. Sunrise to sunset every day, free entry.
• Eden Gardens Nursery, 307 Lane Cove Rd, Macquarie Park – 1.2 hectares of display gardens including 7 special inspiration gardens, open 9am-5pm every day (excepting some public holidays)
• Ku-ring-gai Wildflower Garden, 420 Mona Vale Rd St Ives – native gardens amid natural bush, 8am-5pm every day except Christmas and Easter public holidays.
• Stony Range Regional Botanic Garden, 810 Pittwater Rd Dee Why – an oasis of 3.3 hectares of Australian native plants located at Dee Why in the heart of the northern beaches. It is famous for its spring floral displays and is the perfect place for a walk or picnic. Every year it hosts a Spring Festival. Open every day 8am-5pm.
Best open gardens to see and visit in Sydney’s South and West – free entry
• Joseph Banks Native Plant Reserve, Manooka Place via Alpita St, Kareela. Garden devoted entirely to Australian native plants. Open 7am-3,30pm M-F, Sat and Sun and public holidays 10am-5pm
• Campbelltown Arts Centre gardens, 1 Art Gallery Road, Campbelltown – Japanese garden and sculpture garden. Open 10am-4pm daily, closed public holidays.
• The Australian Botanic Gardens, Narellan Rd, Mt Annan – open 10 to 5pm every day, free entry, Australian native plants with feature gardens for wattle, grevillea, banksia, conifers, subtropical species and the rare Wollemi pine. Home of PlantBank, housing Australia’s seed conservation work. Tours available.
• Penrith Regional Gallery and The Lewers Bequest gardens, 86 River Rd. Emu Plains, surrounding historic Lewers House and more modernist Ancher House, both frequented by artists during the late 20th century. Many sculptures by Gerald Lewers through the garden and mosaics by Margo Lewers. 9am – 5pm daily. Cafe at Lewers open daily 8am-3.30pm.
• Sylvan Grove Native Garden, Sylvan Grove, Picnic Point – a unique haven of natural bushland and over 1500 species of native plants displayed along a winding bush track. See spectacular displays of flowers during the spring months, August-November. Open weekdays all year 7am-3pm, weekends mid-August to mid-Nov, 9am-4.30pm. Guided tours by appointment, phone (02)97079699. Click here for Sylvan Grove brochure
• EG Waterhouse National Camellia Garden, corner President Ave and Kareena Rd Yowie Bay – although the main camellia seasons are autumn and winter, the gardens have something to offer all year round. M-F 9am-4pm, S & S 9.30am-5pm (until 6pm in summer). Closed some public hols.
• Secret Garden and Nursery, University of Western Sydney campus grounds, Richmond. A large display garden and therapy garden associated with this not-for-profit community nursery which offers horticultural training to those with mental illness and other disabilities. Large range of plants for sale suited to Sydney’s western districts. Open Tuesday-Saturday 9am-5pm. Enter via College Drive from Bourke Street, Richmond. Turn right down the dirt road at the security hut and follow ‘The Secret Garden & Nursery’ signs.
Best open gardens to visit in Sydney – PAID ENTRY
• Chinese Garden of Friendship, Darling Harbour – a traditional Chinese garden with waterfalls, lakes, exotic plants, pavilions and hidden pathways
• Elizabeth Farm – original home of John and Elizabeth Macarthur set within a recreated 1830s garden
• Japanese Garden at Auburn Botanic Gardens
• ‘Nutcote’ house and gardens Neutral Bay – home of author May Gibbs (1877-1969), author of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie
• Lindesay Historic House and Garden, Darling Point
• Eryldene, Gordon – historic 1914 home and restored and well-maintained garden of famous Australian camellia expert and breeder, Professor Waterhouse
Garden Festivals in Sydney and NSW Central Coast
• ‘hidden’: designer gardens open over one weekend in late March-early April.
• VIVID, is held every night for a month in winter with over 80 light installations at Circular Quay, The Rocks, Campbell’s Cove, Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, Walsh Bay, Martin Place, Sydney Opera House, University of Sydney, Pyrmont, Central Park and Chatswood.
• Better Homes and Garden Live: mid November.
• Collectors Plant Fair: Clarendon, early April.
• Plant Lovers Fair: Kariong on the Central Coast, September
• Artisans in the Gardens: over 50 artisans’ work in the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney in mid October.
• Sculpture by the Sea:, Bondi to Tamarama coastal walk over 3 weeks late October to early November
• Galston Open Gardens: 3rd weekend in October.
• Hunter Valley Gardens, Hunter Valley (2 hours north of Sydney), hosts a number of festivals each held over one month – Festival of Flowers in September, Rose Spectacular in October and November, Christmas Lights Spectacular in December
How to find Private Gardens in Sydney (not regularly open to the public)
• Check Garden Travel Hub’s ‘What’s On’ calendar for open garden listings
• Most open during spring and autumn and are privately advertised in local nurseries, tourist information guides or on local radio.
If you would like to view the gardens (from some distance) of the rich and famous that look out onto Sydney Harbour we recommend taking a ferry ride with your binoculars!
Best time to visit gardens/garden festivals in Sydney
• Late summer and autumn (March – May) as many subtropical plants well-suited to Sydney’s climate are showing their best
• Spring (August – November) – native bush plants in August, warm-temperate spring flowers and garden festivals Sept-Oct, then jacarandas around Sydney suburbs and the Harbour in early November
Alternatives to gardening activities in Sydney
Visit The Rocks markets
Sydney Festival during January
Take a ferry ride across Sydney Harbour to Manly
Visit Taronga Zoo
Walk along iconic Bondi Beach (south side) or Manly Beach on the north side
Climb the Harbour Bridge
Drive or catch a train just over two hours west to see the Blue Mountains
Fun Facts about Sydney
More plant species (2500) are native to Sydney than the British Isles.
The Sydney Harbour Bridge is the widest long-span bridge and tallest steel arch bridge in the world, and the 5th longest spanning-arch bridge according to Guinness World Records. The Harbour Bridge is known by the locals as ‘The Coat Hanger’ due to its distinct shape.
Sydney locals are called Sydneysiders
It was the site of the 1st European colony in 1788 when convict-bearing ships of the first fleet came from England to set up the colony of New South Wales.
Many of Sydney’s wonderful and unusual place names like Woolloomooloo are derived from English versions of words used by the original local Darug, Kuringgai, Wiradjuri, Gandagara and Tharawal people.
George Street is the oldest street in the whole of Australia.
Operating since 1875, Sydney Ferries carries over 14 million passengers each year in and around Sydney.
ONE HOUR FROM SYDNEY
The Blue Mountains
The Blue Mountains are easily accessible by train, bus and car from Sydney. For more detail, see the Garden Travel Guide to the Blue Mountains and Central West NSW
NSW Central Coast
The NSW Central Coast surrounds the significant waterways of Brisbane Waters and Tuggerah Lakes and has many beautiful Pacific Ocean beaches. Its climate is similar to Sydney with many warm, sun-filled pockets for brilliant sub-tropical gardens throughout its mostly hilly sandstone country.
Best open gardens to see and visit on the NSW Central Coast – only a one hour train trip or drive from Sydney the NSW Central Coast has several free-entry large gardens to visit including:
• Gosford-Edogawa Commemorative Gardens – 36 Webb Street, East Gosford (Central Coast) – based on a traditional ‘Shuyu’ (strolling style) garden, covering an area of approximately 4000m2. The meandering pathways lead to traditional Japanese features including, a Japanese teahouse, raked dry stone garden (Karesansui), stone lanterns and a pond filled with Koi fish. A roofed pavilion overlooking the Koi Pond is a popular choice for wedding ceremonies. There are guided tours of the garden, available by booking through the gallery office. These are conducted by trained volunteer guides who skilfully explain the Japanese aesthetics and philosophies of this garden. Open 9.30am-4.30pm daily. Free admission.
• Mt Penang Gardens at Kariong – a modern-design Australian native plant garden covering 8 hectares and featuring 12 separate garden rooms, a large collection of sandstone sculptures, water cascades and an aquatic garden with an adjacent cafe. Open 9.30am to 4.30pm each day (except major public holidays.) Free entry.
Another hour’s drive from Kariong takes you to Newcastle and the Hunter Valley, which includes the large Hunter Valley Gardens at Pokolbin, a one hour drive north-west from Newcastle.
The new Calyx and its chocolate-themed first exhibition in the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney is fun, educational and worthwhile for both chocoholics and plantaholics.