Theme Horticultural and Garden Design

Written by Anne Vale, The University of Melbourne

Men dominated the garden-design and horticultural professions in Australia from settlement in 1788 to the close of the 19th century. Women's roles in these activities were primarily restricted to home gardening, often simply weeding and the growing of flowers for use in the home. Male garden makers-almost exclusively overseas trained-managed botanic gardens, nurseries and private gardens, and they authored books, journal entries and catalogues.

Shifts in perception and values were the hallmark of the 20th century. The newly acquired identity of each state, from Federation in 1901, coincided with population growth and suburban expansion. From this time, women experienced a gradual increase in independence and the opportunity to embark on professional careers. Some gained an education in horticulture from a combination of formal education, private mentoring and practical experience. A number took advantage of the opportunities at the evolving Burnley School of Horticulture in Melbourne. The principal from 1897 to 1908, Charles Bogue Luffman, led the way, inspired by his work experiences in Europe and Australia. His marriage to a woman with strong ideas on women's rights, no doubt influenced his thinking. By the time his replacement, Edward Edgar Pescott, took over the reins (1909-1916), the climate was ripe for the first women to become full-time, fee-paying students. Pescott's alertness to the changing cultural situation significantly advanced the establishment of locally trained professional garden-makers.

The Great War of 1914-1919 caused major social disruptions. With the significant reduction in cheap, available labour (due to the loss of life), the demise of large gardens owned by wealthy citizens was inevitable. The ownership of a garden moved from the exclusive domain of the wealthy, serviced by English trained professionals, to include the broader middle-class population. Gardens were designed to create a comfortable fusion between the house and the outdoors. They were a statement of achievement, respectability and human control over the environment. In many respects, they were miniature reproductions of the complex gardens planned by professional male designers of the previous century, such as William Sangster. They presented a perfect proving ground for the emerging female landscape professionals.

The women who pioneered women's education in horticulture and garden design in Australia were following in the footsteps of their late 19th-century English peers such as gardeners Gertrude Jekyll, Mrs Pym FRHS, a noted nurserywoman, and Mrs Gardener who also established a successful nursery business. Swanley was one of a number of English gardening schools to open at the turn of the century. These also included the Glynd School for Lady Gardeners founded by Frances Worsley in 1902. Another, Studley College, established in 1903, was started by Daisy Warwick, wife of the Earl of Warwick. She purchased Studley Castle and set up a horticultural school that produced many eminent gardeners.

Australian women with personal ambition to gain an education and become professionals in their field became a cohort of educators in this changed social context. Freshly graduated 'instructors' and 'practitioners', they responded to the growing demand for knowledge and assistance from new domestic garden owners. The focus on practical knowledge and self-sufficiency in the early decades of the century was a reflection of this emerging cultural and economic situation. Olive Mellor (1891-1978) and Emily (Millie) Gibson (1887-1974) were responsible for educating large sections of the population in the practical art of creating the home garden through their writing in journals over several decades. Typically, this encompassed the growing of food and the provision of shelter, utilitarian facilities and leisurely pursuits. Mellor was a pioneer woman instructor and educator during and after World War I, in addition to her professional status as a garden designer and author. Millie Gibson was a role model and a mentor, encouraging students to gain landscape architecture qualifications and establish their own practices. Edna Walling (1895-1973) (Watts, ADB; Heywood, AWR) championed garden design on a domestic scale appropriate for Australian climatic conditions when there was very little information and guidance available for the domestic home owner. She was a very early conservationist during the period that the Australian landscape was being decimated to make way for the postwar suburban boom. Jocelyn Brown (Proudfoot, ADB) was a role model for landscape design professionalism and her designs and writing inspired a whole generation of Sydney home owners to adopt garden city concepts. Jean Galbraith (1906-1999) (Morrell, AWR) was responsible for assisting the establishment of many important organisations dedicated to the recording and conservation of Australian flora, and she inspired generations of readers with the spiritual and physical joy of garden making. Very few gardens remain from the work of Mellor, Gibson, Galbraith or Brown but Walling left a legacy of structured, substantially planted, designed landscapes; many have become iconic landmarks or heritage-registered properties. Her own writing endures, alongside the work of others writing about her. Who is to say whether extant gardens or writings-long consigned to the archives-have the more substantial legacy? Women garden-makers throughout the 20th century, including contemporary practitioners, were also enormously influenced by parents or grandparents who were interested in gardening. Many of these women learnt their garden-making craft in the first half of the 20thcentury from such family pioneers unknown to the wider community.

Women who established professional lives in this field in the early decades of the 20th century were at the vanguard of the horticultural and garden-design profession. None of them, however, overtly 'led', though many were influential; rather, they took advantage of newly acquired opportunities to have both an education and, subsequently, a career not available to women in the previous century. Many were either single or widowed, which made it necessary for them to earn an income, and this, combined with a passion for horticulture, garden-making and design, was their motivation. They forged gardening traditions that have continued to have relevance through to modern times. This is evidenced by the proliferation of information in contemporary journals and newspapers on such matters as how to grow your own vegetables, how to propagate your own plants, and how to develop your own backyard garden. Such women were pioneers in their field and motivated succeeding generations to follow their example.

Published Resources

Australian Women's Register Entries


  • Galbraith, Jean, Garden in a Valley, Five Mile Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 1985. Details
  • Gillbank, Linden, From system garden to scientific research: The University of Melbourne School of Botany under its first two professors (1906 - 1973), The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, 2010. Details
  • Proudfoot, Helen, Gardens in Bloom: Jocelyn Brown and Her Sydney Gardens of the '30s and '40s, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 1999. Details

Edited Books

  • Aitken, Richard and Looker, Michael (eds), The Oxford Companion to Australian Gardens, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Victoria, 2002. Details

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, 'Olive Mellor and the Australian Suburban Garden', Masters Thesis, The University of Melbourne: Faculty of Land and Food Resources, 2005. 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

Online Resources