Gardening ideas: tips from guru Sophie Thomson for creating the dream Australian contemporary garden


With striking foliage, architectural forms and large-scale artwork setting the tone, the Contemporary Australian Garden is the latest look.

When it comes to gardens, it’s their own thing. Especially in a contemporary garden dominated by striking plants, random patterns and architectural foliage.

This style of garden is very different from the others we have discussed in recent weeks. While the French gardens have hedges, lots of green foliage, and neat symmetrical lines, and the cottage gardens have a relaxed feel with an abundance of flowers, the only word to describe the contemporary style is ‘bold’.

There is a bold use of color.

Rather than having white or pale-colored flowers in peaceful harmonious combinations, these gardens use strong colors, both in the flowers and in the foliage.

Unique eye-catching colors like red are popular, as are striking color combinations like purple and orange.

Bold foliage contrasts, including variegated plants with brightly colored leaves and architectural form, are popular. These aren’t plants that blend into the background – they stand out and say ‘look at me’.


These are unique gardens, but they will often have a minimal planting palette and use repetition to make a statement.

No two gardens are alike.

There can be rows of hedges, and while some have straight, crisp lines, they may not always reflect the way they do in formal gardens and look haphazard. The hedges in these gardens can tend to have irregular shapes, vary in height to have a wavy nature, and wrap or frame objects such as trees or large-scale garden artwork.

Some plantings can be neatly cut and cut into shapes such as balls, which are often repeated to contrast with the line and shape of the hedges. The art and furnishings of a contemporary garden are also bold, in form, scale and color.

For example, a garden bench or outdoor chair will not blend into the background and be hidden out of sight. It can be painted in bright orange, purple or blue, sit on white or pale gravel and stand out.

Garden spaces are often demarcated with hedges, low walls and a contrast of materials, such as lawns or hard surfaces like gravel, paving or terraces. The outdoor living spaces adjoin the indoor living spaces, creating a flow from the inside to the outside.


Some people like to go for a very minimalist garden with only a few species of plants repeated throughout. I’ve even had clients who have asked me to create a garden that doesn’t have flowers, just foliage. While it may appeal to one level as a gardener, it is also important to add another level to these gardens. Plantations can be chosen specifically to suit the location, with hyperlocal native species, or to take into account current lifestyle trends.

Repeated low-maintenance plantings in smaller flower beds can help gardeners who are strapped for time.

Or contemporary gardens can be planned for sustainability or to encourage biodiversity.

Native approach

Pick the right natives and you can have the best of both worlds: striking colors and shapes that suit your climate as well as a biodiversity hotspot and refuge for wildlife. From gum trees and banksias to bottle brushes, kangaroo paws and waratahs, these natives add the bold color that works so well in these gardens. And, they also provide a feeding station for your local birds, bees, even the odd koala.

After reviewing several styles of garden over the past few weeks, it must be said that there are many styles such as Mediterranean, Balinese, and Japanese that blend in well with our backyards.

It is also possible to have a different style in different areas of your garden, so for example your front garden can be formal and your backyard contemporary or cottage. So mix up your garden style, but most importantly, personalize it and work for you.


Bird of paradise (Strelitzia retinae)

These striking plants have bright orange and rich purple flowers and form attractive clumps of long, spade-shaped leaves.


Succulents come in an incredible array of colors and shapes, and they range from ground covers to large trees. I am a huge aloe fan and there are some great new hybrids selected for superior flowering. The fan aloe (Kumara plicatilis formerly Aloe plicatilis) has beautiful architectural foliage that unfurls in flattened sprays, with erect spikes of orange blossoms. As a bonus, honey-eating birds love their nectar-rich flowers.

Cycads (including the sago palm, Cycas revoluta)

Forms an attractive crown and rosette of dark green fern fronds that have a very stiff leather feel. They are remarkably resilient and look great all year round.

Striped or thorny foliage

Plants like yuccas, cordylines, and dianella add an interesting architectural effect, and varieties with colorful, variegated foliage can add a vibrant splash of color. Dracaena draco, the dragon’s blood tree is a striking, but very slow-growing tree with bold strappy foliage and a strong architectural form.

PLANT OF THE WEEK: – Lavender – lavender

There are many forms of lavender and they all work wonders in any sunny, well-drained garden. Their flowers are well picked and are popular with bees.

English lavender has thin spikes of very fragrant flowers which are used for making oil or for drying. They bloom in spring and summer, and require very well-drained sandy or loamy soils.

French Lavender (pictured is Miss Donnington) has soft, velvety silvery-gray foliage and spikes of soft mauve flowers produced almost continuously from fall through spring. I have found it to be more tolerant of heavier soils as long as they are well drained.

Italian and Spanish hybrids have soft foliage and winged tops on their flowers. There are many different varieties, including ‘Avonview’, and they are more tolerant of humidity.

Q. Hello Sophie, can you please identify this strange plant (photo)? No one seems to know what it is. It has a small crop of tiny purple flowers at the top. I didn’t plant this, it just grew. Hoping you can advise. Thanks, Loren Clayton

A. It is the silver nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium) also known as white nettle or tomato grass. It is a weed in warm temperate regions of mainland Australia and is said to have been spread by bird droppings, after a bird ate the yellow or orange fruits that develop after the purple flower. The fruits are poisonous, so remove them before they develop, pulling the plant by hand, however, be sure to remove any roots as they can grow from root fragments as small as 1 cm.

Q. When and how should I prune my salvias? Any advice will be welcome. Thanks RJ.

A. There are so many different varieties of sage or flowering sage available and their treatment differs depending on how they grow. Some sage, such as S. muirii, are soft wood shrubs that bloom most of the year. It is best to give them a haircut to round the bush and keep them tidy, although they can be cut hard in early spring if you want to limit their size.

Others like Salvia ‘Anthony Parker’ and Salvia leucantha which have recently been in full bloom have a growing habit where they grow from the base. As their flowers finish, you will notice new shoots appearing at the base of the plant. This is the time to prune them very hard, just above ground level and all of those new shoots will sprout and form a pretty bunch of flowers next fall. Other salvias (which have S. microphylla and S. greggii in their offspring) bloom from spring to fall and tend to have small flowers and foliage.

These are best pruned in the spring when you see new growth appearing. If you have an old, woody sage that hasn’t been pruned for a while, it may be worth pruning it in two or three small steps to try and stimulate new growth before pruning it vigorously.

Send your gardening questions to Sophie Thomson via [email protected]

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