Woman Mellor, Olive

Author, Educator, Garden designer, Horticulturist and Radio broadcaster

Written by Anne Vale, The University of Melbourne

Olive Mellor, nee Holttum (1891-1978), was a pioneer and advocate of women's horticultural and garden design education and professional status. She became one of the first Australian trained professional horticulturist and garden designers, designing over 500 gardens throughout her career. She was a published author, radio broadcaster and wrote prolifically for magazines and newspapers.

Mellor was raised in Linton near Cambridge, England. Her mother, Mary Ellen, died soon after Olive's birth and her father Richard Holttum married Florence Bradley in 1894. Olive developed a love of horticulture, inspired by Florence who was a keen amateur botanist. She migrated to Australia in 1909. Enrolling at the newly established Burnley School of Horticulture in Melbourne in October 1911, she completed her Certificate of Competency in Horticulture in December 1913. Her acceptance into the Diploma of Horticulture course,- previously only open to males - was considered significant enough to be noted in the 1914 Handbook to Victoria she completed her final examinations in 1915.

In 1916, she was appointed to the school's staff as 'Instructress in Horticulture', making her the first women instructor at the School. After much campaigning by Holttum, the school opened to women for full-time training on 16 June 1916. Among her first students were Edna Walling and Millie Grassick, who replaced her as instructress in 1918. Olive Holttum married Alan Robert Mellor in 1919. When he died suddenly of a heart attack just over a year later, Mellor returned to the workforce developing a garden design and maintenance business.

Mellor's readers and cliental were primarily new homeowners. The average domestic or suburban garden contained minimal hard landscaping, perhaps a driveway and a small patio area most likely created by the owner. Her designs followed mainstream fashion of the day, she used a broad palette of perennials, shrubs and small trees in her suburban plans . She was an advocate of Australian plants, at a time when they were not commonly used, including them in her garden designs and writing articles in books and journals.

Mellor exerted significant influence through her writing. She wrote for the lifestyle magazine Australian Home Beautiful - continuously from 1934-1970 - and was particularly prolific in the 1950s. She wrote periodically for the magazine Woman's Day - using the title of 'Landscape Architect' and contributed a chapter entitled 'Planning the Indigenous Garden' to Gardening of Today Illustrated in 1939. In 1940, Mellor published a diary, The Garden Lovers Log to raise funds for the Red Cross. She wrote a section for L.H. Brunning's Australian Home Gardener c1940 entitled 'Layout for an Average Suburban Allotment in a Temperate Region'. Her most substantial independent publication was Complete Australian Gardener Illustrated (1952) - used as a student text well into the 1970s. In addition to her writing, Mellor developed a highly regarded Zone Map. She was one of the first women radio broadcasters, answering gardening queries on the Melbourne-based radio station 3DB in the 1950s and 1960s. She become an early member and supporter of the 'Society for Growing Australian Plants' and the Field Naturalist Club of Victoria.

Mellor's exposure through her writing and design work influenced two generations of garden makers. She dedicated her entire life to establishing educational opportunities for students, particularly women, and educating the broad population on horticulture, sustainability and garden design.

Archival Resources

State Library of Victoria

  • Papers of Olive Mellor, 1942 - 1991, MS 14586; State Library of Victoria. Details

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Pullman, Sandra, 'Olive Mellor: The contribution of Olive Mellor to the developing role of women in horticulture in the first half of the twentieth century.', Australian Garden History, vol. 12, no. 1, 2000, pp. 7-10. Details


  • Vale, Anne, 'Exceptional Australian Garden Makers of the 20th Century', PhD thesis, The University of Melbourne: Department of Resource Management and Geography, 2009. Details

See also