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Gardens and Garden Design

If Victoria is Australia's 'Garden State', then Melbourne is its spiritual capital. No single factor accounts for this, but an equable climate, immigrant population, and the wealth from gold all provided critical stimuli. Perhaps momentum was given by the generous provision of public parks and gardens ringing the city grid; the industry of botanist Ferdinand von Mueller in establishing Melbourne as Australia's botanical capital after an initial focus on Sydney; landscape designer William Guilfoyle's genius in shaping the Royal Botanic Gardens as the country's most admired; or Melbourne's centrality to professional horticultural education through the Burnley School of Horticulture, the first (1891), and for many years, only such institution in Australia.

Like most colonial capitals, the confluence of fresh water needed to sustain life and a seaport to facilitate transport saw Melbourne's siting on the Yarra River provide major prerequisites for gardening - water, plants, and expertise. Environmental management by local Aboriginal people had harnessed the landscape in vital and often subtle ways, but this was soon overwhelmed by far more intensive management regimes transplanted from European agriculture and horticulture.

Melbourne's earliest gardens addressed basic food needs and other fundamentals of survival, manifest in the creation of vegetable gardens, orchards and vineyards. They were clustered along watercourses, with riverbanks often utilised for market gardens or exploited for picturesque effect as ornamental aspirations rapidly complemented utilitarian needs. Verandahs were a necessity in the new colony and their floral decoration was a high priority for both aesthetic and functional reasons.

As Melbourne grew, pastoral settlement by squatters in the hinterland and especially in the Western District provided wealth to shape new landscapes. Certainty of tenure soon saw early primitive huts replaced by more substantial homesteads and extensive gardens. A common pattern saw the pastoral property complemented by a mansion and garden in Melbourne (with Toorak the favoured locale), and perhaps a coastal summer retreat.

The founding of Melbourne's Botanic Gardens (1845-46), the allocation of a generous government Kings Domain, and the provision of urban squares assisted in laying the foundation for landscape design in the colony. Educational, scientific and recreational objectives underpinned these early public landscapes that were complemented by increasingly sophisticated private gardens. Horticultural expertise in this early period was imported from neighbouring colonies and from overseas.

The earliest published horticultural advice was contained in local almanacs and books brought from Britain. Horticultural journals ensured that news and ideas from 'home' were quickly disseminated, but from the 1850s locally published books became more prevalent. Melbourne became a major horticultural publishing centre, boasting Australia's longest published book of advice, Brunning's Australian Gardener; the country's earliest garden magazine, the Rural Magazine (1855); as well as many later influential titles such as the Murdoch-published Australian Home Beautiful (1925).

Immigration to Melbourne fuelled by the gold rushes - which brought an influx of gardeners and nurserymen from Britain (notably Scotland)-created the wealth requisite for garden-making and profoundly stimulated town planning and suburban development. Plant and seed nurseries proliferated, horticultural societies were inaugurated, and the basis of Victoria's modern horticultural industry was established. Chinese market gardeners arrived with the gold rushes. There was also a significant German influence in local botany and horticulture, exemplified by Mueller. The plant distribution networks that he and his colleagues established endowed many gardens and reserves across the colonies.

The acclimatisation movement prompted debate over the extent to which the local climate possessed Mediterranean characteristics. Would the orange grow in Melbourne, for instance? What were suitable trees for plantings in local gardens and along dusty streets? Conifers achieved an early popularity and they defined many boundaries, playing a major part in the creation of distinctive designed landscapes in a way that was emulated by palms from the turn of the century. The Picturesque provided a backdrop to much local landscape design, although the 'gardenesque', which overlaid this picture-making with a degree of horticultural formality, became a popular style highlighting the art of the gardener. Design formality was not confined to the cognoscenti, but suited the miniature plots of inner-suburban terrace houses, springing up in suburban Melbourne from the 1850s.

The weekly Australasian and Leader newspapers (stable-mates of the Argus and Age respectively) gave prominence to horticulture from the 1860s, and were especially influential in the absence of long-running local gardening magazines. The economic value of horticulture was an oft-repeated theme and promoted the establishment in Melbourne of a Department of Agriculture (1872). Fruit-growing was encouraged and viticulture spread from its early stronghold in the Yarra Valley to newly irrigated areas.

Urbanisation saw the rise of small domestic gardens. The land boom of the 1880s fuelled extravagant development, and villa gardens now marched across the eastern suburbs. Increasing land values forced nurseries to move from inner suburbs to the periphery of suburban development. As blocks became available for selection in the Dandenong Ranges during the 1890s shrewd nursery proprietors established large holdings on newly cleared land. As productive gardens were no longer feasible on expensive suburban real estate, market gardens became centred on the sand belt south of Brighton, and orchards to serve the metropolis were clustered in the outer east and on Mornington Peninsula.

The period of austerity that followed the end of the land boom placed the focus on creation of smaller suburban gardens. Floriculture dominated and cult followings attended the chrysanthemum, dahlia, carnation and sweet pea. Roses had never lost popularity.

At the turn of the century many designers with architectural training worked in the Arts and Crafts idiom, with its emphasis on craftsmanship, formality and restrained planting, while others were still promoting Guilfoylean naturalism. Town planning became especially influential in local government circles, with enlightened voices linking town planning and landscape design, and also in promoting use of indigenous flora. While Australian plants had been used in landscaping from the earliest days of colonisation, the fervour surrounding the wattle fostered a climate in which nationalism and nature conservation became allied to horticulture. Openings for women in horticulture were provided by the absence and tragic loss of many men in World War I, an opportunity seized by Edna Walling, the most influential garden-planning voice of her generation.

The popularity of garden festivals, heavily promoted by the nursery industry, had a focus in Garden Week (1925), forerunner of the Melbourne International Flower and Garden Show (1996). Melbourne's Garden Week also prompted formation of the Victorian Tree Planters' Association (1926) which ultimately became the peak national body for the parks and leisure industry. The interwar popularity of garden competitions and visiting was later formalised by the establishment in Melbourne of the Open Garden Scheme (1987).

Modernism in the 1930s and 1940s profoundly challenged and altered local tastes. Modernist landscapes received a boost with postwar reconstruction, when architects and town planners led the charge. At the suburban garden level, ideas filtered slowly; there was an increasing acceptance of courtyards, pergolas, paving, sculptural use of trees, and bold-foliaged plants. The war focused interest on vegetable gardens but in the 1950s, outdoor living was in the ascendant. Americanisms such as the barbecue and swimming pool made their way into the landscape designer's palette as homemaking began to embrace landscaping as an integral component of an affluent lifestyle. Department stores expanded their garden departments while specialist nurseries catered for enthusiasts of Australian plants and their bush gardens. Radio and television programs increasingly fostered the cult of the celebrity gardener.

With the formation of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects (1968) and the introduction of tertiary courses, the landscape profession at last found a unified voice, after a long period of close alliance with the nursery and horticultural trades. The building boom of the 1960s brought new opportunities for landscaping of high-rise offices, apartments, freeways and other accoutrements of an expansive economy.

The premiership of Rupert Hamer (1972-81) was strongly identified with promotion of Victoria as 'The Garden State'. Hamer's revival of the slogan - coined in 1905 by the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission to promote closer settlement - was applied to a wide range of sites, and in Melbourne saw the creation of a new wave of public parks to cater for the rapidly expanding city. It would be wrong, however, to think that Melbourne's expansive eastern suburbs had a monopoly on garden-making. Williamstown retains a fine and early botanic garden (1856); Footscray and Essendon were undisputed forces in municipal public garden-making in the first half of the 20th century; while the Merri Creek valley made Northcote, Coburg and Preston the sites of important early plant nurseries and significant interwar public gardens such as Reservoir's Edwardes Lake Park and more recently CERES, an environmental park in Brunswick.

As the 21st century dawned, the catchcry of 'think globally, act locally' has brought issues such as the environment, ecology and plant conservation to the attention of gardeners, with consequent interest in revegetation, plant species indigenous to local areas, water and soil conservation, and responsible use of chemicals.

Richard Aitken