Australia, popularly called 'Down Under', is a large island continent with a semi-arid interior and where most people live around the coastal fringe. About half of Australia is in the tropical zone above the southern hemisphere's Tropic of Capricorn, although the strongest garden traditions are found in the cooler Mediterranean climate areas of the south and south-east. Many cultivars of Australia's unique indigenous plants have become popular ornamentals around the world including grevilleas, eucalypts and kangaroo paws.
Australia has a very wide range of gardens to see and visit: tropical gardens in the north, subtropical gardens on the east coast, dry subtropics gardens in western Queensland and northern Western Australia, Mediterranean and dry climate gardens in the west and south, cool-climate gardens inland and arid gardens in the Red Centre.
Local guides within this country:
"I love Australia's smorgasbord of different climate gardens, ranging from the tropical north through the arid centre, subtropical east coast, dry west, Mediterranean climate of the southern areas, and on to cool climate island of Tasmania.
Australia has many garden designers of world note, including Phillip Johnson, who won Best in Show at Chelsea in 2013, Jim Fogarty, Kate Cullity, Ian Barker and Charlie Albone, and also the biggest garden show in the southern hemisphere in Melbourne in March."
Garden Travel Guide to Australia
Getting to Australia, and around when you’re there
Australia has seven international airports with many flights each day to Eastern Asia, South East Asia, the UAE (with connections to all European destinations), South Africa, New Zealand, Oceania and also to the west coasts of the USA and South America. International airports include Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Cairns, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin.
Travelling to Australia is a major undertaking for Europeans and Americans as, with 22 hours flying time from London to Sydney and 20 hours from New York to Sydney, it takes nearly a full day each way!
Australia is also a very big country, so to see different areas you really have to fly between locations unless you can stay for a month or more. However there are also some cross-country trains (east-west and north-south), and an interstate bus network. Driving long distances in Australia is possible and enjoyable on the national road network of good quality roads and highways that are toll-free (except for some city toll roads).
Australia has climates that cover a full range, from semi-arid desert in the interior to high alpine in the south east, and wet tropics across the north. Nearly half of Australia’s land mass is north of the Tropic of Capricorn and within the tropical zone.
In general, the west coast and southern coast has a dry, Mediterranean climate with hot dry summers and mild, wetter winters. Australia’s southern areas have four distinct seasons based on temperature change but northern Australia, which is warm to hot all year round, is described as having only Wet or Dry seasons. During the Wet, northern areas will also suffer through the occasional Tropical Cyclone between December to April.
The east coast of Australia changes from temperate to cool subtropical, to subtropical to wet tropics as you head northwards from Victoria up through Sydney, then to Brisbane and on to Cairns. Coastal areas have 800-1400mm of annual rainfall, rising to 2,200mm in tropical Cairns. January to April is humid and wet, while the drier months are from August to November. The alpine region in south-eastern Australia has snow from June-October
The ‘Red Centre’, home of the famous massive red sandstone rock called Uluru, has semi-arid deserts with less than 250mm (10″) rain each year.
Australian topography and natural vegetation
Australia was once part of the ancient land mass of Gondwana, which also included Africa, New Zealand, India and South America, and in southern temperate zones it still has many plants in the same families or genera that are also found in those countries. However as it became the driest inhabited continent on earth and, as it also has old and low nutrient soils, most of Australia’s flora is sclerophyll vegetation that is adapted to low rainfall, poor soils and bushfires. Eucalypts dominate the wetter parts of Australia, acacias the drier inland areas and much of the semi-arid interior is dominated by hummock and tussock grasslands and saltbush. Grevilleas and melaleucas are also widespread.
Australia has very few native deciduous trees and, of those, most lose their leaves in response to the subtropical dry spring rather than winter low-temperature dormancy.
As Australia was once covered by a vast inland sea, dryland salinity caused by rising water tables in irrigated farming areas threatens areas of indigenous vegetation. Continued loss of topsoil through land clearing and erosion is one of Australia’s greatest threats.
Many exotic plant introductions have invaded vast areas of Australia’s indigenous vegetation with Weeds of National Significance including asparagus fern, bridal creeper, bitou bush, broom, water hyacinth, needle grass, blackberry, lantana and willow. However because of its island isolation from the rest of the world and stringent biosecurity, Australia is one of the last places on earth you can see many plants that have been devastated by disease in their native countries, such as healthy, mature specimens of English elm.
Acacia pycnantha (golden wattle) is Australia’s national flower and also gives it the national sporting colours of green and gold.
Australia has several native ‘bushtucker’ plants now widely recognised as good edibles, including macadamia nut, finger lime, wattle seed, Davidsons plum, quandong, lemon myrtle, bush tomato, mountain pepper and warrigal greens.
Australian Garden Styles
Australia has a predominantly British and European gardening tradition brought by settlers over the past 200 years. Early colonial gardeners struggled in the harsh, unfamiliar climate and topsy turvy seasons. They found the local flora too unfamiliar and difficult to grow in traditional gardens and so brought with them and planted many exotic plants including large deciduous trees, roses, bulbs, perennials and annuals, and edible plants like olive trees, grape vines, fruit trees and vegetables.
During the 20th century most Australians lived in sprawling coastal cities in separate bungalow-style houses on 600-1000²m blocks but high migration and urban consolidation means that an increasing number now live in high-rise apartments in the city and along major transport corridors. For those still in separate houses, the fashion for bigger and bigger homes (in 2010 Australia was building the largest homes in the world), nicknamed ‘McMansions’, has seen gardens shrink to often only a few metres between the house and each boundary.
Australians gardeners face several challenges including shallow, poor soils but it is the low and/or sporadic rainfall that has forced many to learn to garden in extreme drought without the support of town water irrigation, for example during the country’s Millennium Drought from 2000-2009. For an Australian gardener, ‘hardy’ is more likely to mean drought hardy than frost hardy. Drought-hardy plants such as perennials from the drier regions of South Africa and Europe thrive in the Mediterranean climate of southern areas of Australia and, in the east and north, plants from South America and subtropical Africa cope with the heat and high humidity but also long periods between rainfall events. Purple flowering jacaranda from South American is a common sight along Australia’s east coast.
Australian gardeners have a peculiar relationship with their native plants, unlike anywhere else in the world. They either love them, and will choose to grow an exclusively native garden, or they hate them and won’t have any native plants in their gardens. This ‘plant apartheid’ is perpetuated in plant nurseries where native and exotic plants are still segregated into separate sections. Fortunately new gardens planted with indigenous plants such as the multi award-winning Australian Garden at Cranbourne in Victoria are teaching Australian gardeners about new ways to use their native plants.
Many dedicated city gardeners still dream of one day moving to an elevated cooler climate zone in the country where they can establish an English-style garden of deciduous trees, sweeping lawns and and herbaceous borders. However in east-coast subtropical and tropical zones, gardeners are learning to embrace their climate by developing new garden styles based on colourful foliage plants, smaller or no lawns, and flowering trees, shrubs and perennials from both Australia and other dry subtropical areas around the world.
Garden or landscape designers work in all the major cities and towns, many of them members of the Australian Institute of Landscape Designers and Managers. Australian garden designers have won many show garden gold medals in international shows around the world, including Jack Merlo, Jim Fogarty, Dean Herald, Scott Wynd, Jamie Durie, and Phillip Johnson, who won both gold and the prestigious Best in Show at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2013.
Garden tours to, and in, Australia
Although there are not many international garden tours travelling to Australia, you will find lots of Australian-run short 3-7 day garden tours, often leaving from Sydney, to great garden destinations like southern Victoria, South East Queensland, inland NSW, Far North Queensland, Canberra, Western Australia and Tasmania.
Tour companies providing garden tours within Australia include Botanica World Discoveries Tours, Ross Tours, Travelrite and Renaissance Tours.
However if you can’t find a guided garden tour of Australia, there are many publicly-open gardens in all its cities to visit that you will love, as well as frequent open garden festivals, especially in spring in the southern and western states, late summer in Sydney and autumn/fall through to winter in Brisbane and northern areas.
Best time to visit Australia’s gardens
Large public gardens, most of which are free entry, are open all year round. Large private gardens will often close over the Christmas-New Year period or, in cooler climates, also during June-July in the winter. Gardens in Western Australia, Adelaide and southern Australia, including Melbourne, are at their peak from September to March as they feature spring wildflowers, spring and summer-flowering perennials and shrubs. Gardens on the more humid east can be either spring gardens (at their peak in September-October), or summer gardens of lush and colourful foliage which look their best in February-April. In the subtropical to tropical north, April-August is the ideal time to visit as it’s the dry season and many tropical plants and succulents are in flower.
The nation-wide Australian Open Garden Scheme, later called Open Gardens Australia folded in June 2015 but, since then, many individual states have developed their own local open gardens organisations. These are not-for-profit organisations run by volunteers who help garden owners to open their gardens over one weekend to raise money for various charities.
Open Gardens Victoria Inc – runs an open garden program in both Melbourne city and also country towns and rural locations. Typically around 12 gardens are open through the spring period of September to November, and then others during the autumn season.
Open Gardens South East Queensland – Open Gardens SEQ assists garden owners in south-east Queensland, including Brisbane, the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast.
Open Gardens SA Inc – Open Gardens South Australia has a year-long program opening over 50 gardens each year throughout South Australia.
Open Gardens West Coast – Western Australia’s new open gardens scheme launches in spring 2016 with three gardens open in Perth to be followed by more open gardens across Western Australia in 2017.
There are also many town and district open garden festivals, particularly in country Victoria and NSW.
Hot spots in Australia to see great gardens:
Western Australia: Perth and the South West
South Australia: Adelaide and the Adelaide Hills
Victoria: Melbourne, Dandenong Ranges, Mt Macedon, Blackwood
New South Wales: Sydney, Southern Highlands, Blue Mountains and Bathurst
Queensland: Brisbane, South East Queensland, Toowoomba, Cairns, Port Douglas
Northern Territory: Darwin, Broome.
[For more information about visiting gardens around Australia, including gardens to see and garden festivals and events, see links above to local Garden Guides for states, cities and districts around Australia]
Best open gardens to see (both free and paid entry) in Australia, plus garden festivals and shows in Australia
Go to one of Garden Travel Hub’s many local and district guides to see
- Gardens to see and visit in Sydney and environs plus NSW Central Coast
- Gardens to see and visit in the NSW Blue Mountains and Central West NSW, including Katoomba, Bathurst, Orange, Dubbo and Cowra
- Gardens to see and visit in Melbourne and environs, including the Yarra Valley, Dandenong Ranges, Macedon Ranges and Mornington Peninsula
- Gardens to see and visit in Brisbane and Southeast Queensland, including the Sunshine Coast and Gold Coast
- Gardens to see and visit in Adelaide and environs, including the Adelaide Hills
- Gardens to see and visit in Perth and environs, including Southwest Western Australia
- Gardens to see and visit in Canberra and the Southern Monaro, including the Australian Capital Territory
- Gardens to see and visit in Darwin and the Top End, including the Northern Territory
- Gardens to see and visit in Tasmania, including Hobart, Launceston and north-west Tasmania
Fun facts about Australia
Australia is home to two of the world’s most unusual animals – the platypus and the echidna, both monotreme mammals that lay eggs and use electroreception to find their prey. The platypus is also one of the world’s few venomous mammals.
Although Australia became a country in 1901, it still has the British monarch as its Head of State.
‘Waltzing Matilda’, Australia’s national song, with its mostly incomprehensible 19th century slang, is about a man who steals a sheep and then drowns himself rather than be captured by the police.
Until the late 20th century many Australians were ashamed if they were descended from convict stock but many now celebrate it.
While ‘ANZAC’ is a term of great respect in Australia as it commemorates the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps dating from WW1, it is also a popular biscuit (cookie).
Kangaroo meat is high in protein but very low in fat so it must be eaten rare. Kangaroos are not farmed but are culled in the wild.
‘Bloody’ was dubbed the ‘Great Australian Adjective’ back in 1894.
Eden Unearthed lives up to the best of contemporary art in the garden. The works, often beautiful, sometimes whimsical, and always enchanting and stimulating, engage with Eden Gardens’ rich resources of spaces, nooks, cliffs and ‘rooms’.
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.
One part of Australia that has some stunning walking and floral displays and that’s relatively safe in summer is known locally as the High Country, in the Alpine and Kosciuszko National Parks. Garden lovers are nature lovers and one of my favourite pastimes is packing my rucksack and saying goodbye to reality before taking off into the Australian bush on my own for a few days of walking.
Scarecrows, chooks, chocolate cake and jam – they’re all part of the fun and festivities of the Leura Harvest Festival held on 1 May 2016 in the Blue Mountains, NSW, Australia. The festival ads said there would be outstanding produce, fine fare and innovative sustainability initiatives. It all boded well for an interesting and feast-filled time.
I recently had the pleasure of attending the third Koonya Garlic Festival, in Tasmania on a picturesque inlet of Norfolk Bay on the beautiful Tasman Peninsula.
Mayfield, a huge, private, cool-climate garden near Oberon in the NSW Central Tablelands has been described as “marvellous” and its public Water Garden a “masterpiece” and “magical“. I first saw greater Mayfield in 2010 and wasn’t that keen but thought it just needed maturation time.
The 2015 Australian Landscape Conference was memorable, with over 600 attendees following the input of landscape designers from overseas and Australia – all expert, energetic, upstanding deep thinkers.
On an already chilly day I made my way into the still colder environment of the Subantarctic Plant House in the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens (RTBG) for a glimpse of the native vegetation of Macquarie Island.