Sustainable Canberra Garden   

Creating Gardens that Reflect the Canberra Region - Fact Sheet

Boardwalk with pots of Leucophyta brownii - designed by Landscape Architect, Edwina Richardson. Photo Edwina Richardson.



We must feel part of the land we walk on and love the plants that grow there … if we are to achieve a spirit in the garden.   Gordon Ford (1999) The natural Australian garden. Bloomings Books.



Since white settlement, gardens in Australia have been made that reflect English and European fashions. These styles are more suited to milder climates with fertile soils and adequate rainfall, but have continued to be used as a model in Canberra.  By slavishly incorporating imported styles into our gardens we fail to acknowledge that Canberra is a dry region with impoverished soils and a unique flora.

Until recently a large proportion (80%) of water used outside the home was used to irrigate lawns (based on 1994 data).  The lawn remains a dominant feature in many gardens and requires high levels of resources to maintain its appearance.  Several years of drought and an extended public education campaign by ActewAGL combined with the ACT government’s water strategy, Think Water Act Water have made the community more aware of using water resources wisely. ActewAGL set up a demonstration Xeriscape garden at the Weston campus of Canberra Institute of Technology featuring water saving garden principles and holds regular speakers' sessions and garden tours. 

In general our community has become more prudent in water use.  This is an important first step in making gardens ‘greener'.  As well as conserving water, we can work on improving the sustainability of our gardens by: incorporating local plants, providing habitat, planning for climate change, using landscape materials thoughtfully and reducing reliance on fossil fuel driven machinery.


Designing attractive gardens which reflect the Canberra region

One way we can create gardens which reflect a sense of place is to use plants from our local region. These plants usually have lower water needs, require little supplementary fertiliser, provide habitat for local wildlife and will not become weeds of bushland.

By using groups of mallee eucalypts we could create a garden which reflected the character of local woodlands and forests.  Mallees are evergreen small to medium height eucalypts often exhibiting multiple trunks. A good example of a local mallee Eucalypt suitable for Canberra gardens is Eucalyptus gregsoniana, Wolgan Snow Gum which comes from the Braidwood district. 


>> For more information on Mallee Eucalypts suitable for Canberra gardens


Alternatives to Eucalyptus include Allocasuarina verticillata and Banksia marginataConsider creating an opening within tree groves by including either a native lawn (Microlaena stipoides) or a simple surface of gravel or crushed brick.  Understorey plants could include local occurring natives or a mix of hardy exotics and natives.  When choosing exotic plants select species which are able to cope with clay soils, hot dry summers and heavy frosts.



Gibson garden - designed as a stylised version of Mt Ainslie. Designed by Landscape Architect, Andrew Barwick. Photo Edwina Richardson.

Alternatively, we may choose to use a group of hardy exotic deciduous trees as our dominant planting.  These can be underplanted with either natives or a mix of natives and exotics.


>> More information on choosing trees


Choosing and using native plants

Gardens have been made in a range of styles in the Canberra district.  In the 1960s and 1970s the bush garden reached its zenith.  This style often failed as it used plants which became woody and unruly without regular maintenance.  Unfortunately, many people have reacted to this ‘untidy’ look by rejecting native plants outright. 


plant pic

The President of the Senate Courtyard at New Parliament House features a diverse range of attractive native plants. Landcape Architects Peter Rolland & Associates, USA. Photo Edwina Richardson.


Today there is a much wider range of native plant material available, including plant cultivars (cultivated varieties).  Compact forms have  been developed which are appropriate to the smallest of spaces.  Given regular maintenance (such as tip pruning after flowering) most native plants will reward growers with long lasting interest in the garden.  The flowers of local plants tend to be subtle unlike many of the exotic plants with large showy blooms such as Rhododendron and Camellia.

When choosing plants remember to consider their form, leaf texture and ability to provide habitat rather than relying solely on floral characteristics.  To view commercially available native plants suitable for the Canberra region - visit the Ellis Rowan garden, Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG)  The ANBG’s Horticultural staff have put together a list of plants featured in this garden which would be a useful starting point for a home gardener. 

>> Drought hardy native plants list


Native plants can be used in a formal manner if desired – many of them can create attractive hedges such as Westringia, Philotheca, Dodonea, Correa and Acacia.  Examples of clipped native hedges occur within the courtyards of New Parliament House, Canberra.   Small leaved shrubs may be clipped to create topiary, whilst species like Allocasuarina can be trained to create attractive standards.

>> Native plants suitable for hedges


It’s important in any garden design to create a pleasing balance between the masses (such as rock outcrops, mounds and shrub beds) and the voids or open space.  Voids are composed of open areas like lawn, lawn substitutes, ponds as well as gravel and paved areas.  Gentle mounds may provide screening functions and provide reference to local hills. 


Clipped mounds of native Syzygium 'Tiny Trev' (a native Lily Pily cultivar) provide a pleasing contrast against massed exotic Teucrium fruticans in a courtyard at New Parliament House. .

Dry creek beds of waste rock, reed beds or grassed swales can act as channels to direct water away from the house and onto the garden.  These transport water only during rainfall events and like many local creeklines are dry most of the year.  Above ground water treatment was trialled at Ainslie Village by the Landscape Architect, Glen Wilson. 


Using local landscape materials

As well as incorporating plants from the Canberra region, gardens which reflect a local character also use materials from the region.  In Canberra, we can reuse ‘Old Canberra Reds’ (original terracotta coloured bricks) to create mellow looking paving.  Pavers can be used in a range of patterns and combined successfully with larger format pavers.  Materials like reused corrugated iron refer to the shearing sheds of the local district.  Crushed brick, made from recycled house bricks and roof tiles, can provide permeable surfaces for paths and terraces and is a useful alternative to decomposed granite.  Materials like crushed brick and decomposed granite ‘fit’ the landscape better than materials like scoria, a volcanic product, which does not occur locally.  Waste rock excavated from building sites may be used for feature rocks and mulch.  Avoid purchasing materials like ‘mossy’ rocks which may have been removed from paddocks where they would have provided habitat for reptiles and frogs.  

>>For more information on choosing sustainable landscape materials


The Sculpture Garden, Australian National Gallery

The Sculpture Garden designed by Landscape Architect, Harry Howard is a good example of the Canberra landscape style. Photo Paul Costigan.


Probably Canberra’s best known public garden that reflects a local style is the Sculpture Garden at the Australian National Gallery.  Designed by Landscape Architect Harry Howard, this scheme challenged the predominantly exotic landscape of the parliamentary triangle.  Howard employed a bush character as a setting for international sculptural works. 

The landscape was divided into four main areas based on the seasons to ensure year round interest in plant material.  Eucalyptus and Casuarina cunninghamiana (River She-oak) provide an overhead canopy and strong vertical elements referring to local dry forests and riverbanks. 

The understorey of Correa, Grevillea, Crowea and Lomandra has matured to create a delightful, distinctly Canberra landscape. Permeable gravel surfaces recall the character of dry river beds.  Unfortunately, a lack of regular maintenance detracts from the quality of the space and perpetuates the stereotype that native gardens are messy and woody. 

>> For more information on The Sculpture Garden.


Inspiration from gardens outside our region

By looking at gardens in other places we can see how designers have interpreted the local landscape and embedded these ideas in their gardens.  One such garden is Karkalla, located on the Mornington Peninsula, Victoria, designed by Fiona Brockhoff.  It is distinctive in reflecting its local coastal region and successfully marries the architecture of the house and the surrounding coastal landscape setting.  Karkalla is a memorable ‘eco-chic’ garden which celebrates indigenous sclerophyll vegetation as well as combining exotic hardy plants such as succulents.  Quirky aspects are introduced into the scheme such as clipped Allocasuarina creating the ball on the stick look usually associated with formal exotic gardens.  The ground plane is gravel punctuated with fine massed native grasses.




An aerial view of Karkalla, showing clipped native plant material and gravel terraces. Image from


>> Article on history of Australian garden design & development of an Australian garden style



Adams, Laurence (1990)  Trees and shrubs of Black Mountain, Mt Ainslie and Mt Majura - a key based on vegetative characters.  CSIRO:Canberra.

Eddy, David; Mallinson, Dave; Rehwinkel, Rainer and Sharp, Sarah (1998) Grassland flora - a field guide for the southern tablelands (NSW & ACT).

Seddon, George (2005) The old country: Australian landscapes, plants and people. Cambridge University Press: Victoria.

Society for Growing Australian Plants (2001) Australian plants for Canberra Region Gardens and other cool climate areas.

Thompson, Paul (2002) Australian planting design. Lothian: Victoria.


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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