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Our living legacy. Touring Sydney’s Vaucluse House and Elizabeth Farm

The gardens today
Thanks to a fortuitous pathway of preservation the gardens we see now at Vaucluse House would
be quite recognisable, albeit well matured, as her 19th-century pleasure gardens if Sarah Wentworth was to visit today. The ongoing work of Sydney Living Museums ensures that the gardens are not just true-to-period but that whenever the opportunity arises they are made increasingly ‘authentic’. A great example of this is the use of formal iron fencing which is modelled on and replicates the original boundary fences installed by the Wentworths to define areas of pleasure garden from driveway and paddock.

The challenges of stewardship
Talking with Sydney Living Museums’ head gardener Dave Gray as we walked through the gardens of Elizabeth Farm and Vaucluse House allowed for an interesting insight into the care and planning involved. Dave and his team find themselves juggling the modern demands of visitor expectations and commercial uses for weddings and other functions with the heritage needs of the gardens. Visitors today expect lush, leafy beds overflowing with colour year-round, however, as Dave points out, colonial gardens may have been quite diverse species-wise but they had to be very self-sufficient or sustainable as the number-one garden resource, water, was often in short supply. The outcome of this was that the gardens rarely contained ‘soft’ plants or ones that needed any great degree of mollycoddling and often would have appeared water stressed. Year-round floral displays were quite a luxury. The growth of original plantings can pose a raft of problems and create conundrums too. At Elizabeth Farm a river gum (Eucalyptus tereticornis), thought to have been planted during the time of the Macarthurs, had to be removed due to the damage it was doing to the house itself. After the river gum was removed the performance of the whole garden improved as it had been sucking the ground dry and taking many of the nutrients from the soil. The issue its removal created, however, was that it was a significant part of the heritage landscape. A new river gum has now been planted, although this will probably be removed and replaced every 10 or so years to prevent a repetition of the damage.

The animals of Vaucluse House

At Vaucluse House many original trees and post 19th-century plantings have now grown to enclose what was once one of the estates most significant assets — its view to, and from, the harbour. When you arrived in Sydney Harbour in the 19th century the first ‘marine villa’, as they were described, that you saw was Vaucluse House. It sat as a fine gothic revival-style property in park-like grounds surrounded by wild bush and made a stunning impression on new arrivals. Today this vista is all but lost. There is consideration being given to returning to this original view through selective canopy thinning of trees, and possibly even removal of some inappropriately planted species that were positioned haphazardly during the estate’s conversion to public parkland in the early 20th century. For more, visit

✻ A photojournalist and horticulturist by trade, Adam Woodhams has a passion for sustainable gardens and history. He believes home gardens can be beautiful, practical and environmentally sound. Visit All photography is by Adam Woodhams.

Vaucluse House lawns. Click on the image to read more about the house.
Vaucluse House lawns. Click on the image to read more about the house.

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