Timber in the modernist landscape

Once again my research for a project (and also a family weekend away) has provided inspiration.  If you ever happen upon the town of Fairhaven on the Victorian Great Ocean Road, you will get to see some stunning coastal and rustic gardens.


This garden in particular (designer / landscaper unknown) stood out to me for its rustic elements and used of natural materials.

Therefore, following our investigation into the use of garden rocks, we look at another natural material that provides excellent visual and structural benefits to your Australian modernist landscape.


While not quite as old as rock, timber has been around for a very long time!  It is an essential material in construction and is highlighted particularly in mid-century design, where exposed beams and posts are celebrated rather than covered or painted.

In the words of my LA hero, Ellis Stones ‘I use it for its beauty as well as its utility’ and as a landscape material, timber has many uses.

Beneath your feet
The image of the quintessential Australian backyard so often begins with a sun soaked deck expanding from wide open living room doors.  A good sized deck is a great way to increase your living area and provides endless (weather permitting of course) outdoor entertaining opportunities.


A timber deck works wonderfully in complementing the materials of the house, such as under the eaves in this amazing home above (*biased view – its my home).  While a rectangular deck is often the way to go, there is no holding back if you prefer a curving or circular shape to your elevated outdoor room!

1967 McGlashan Everist – Newtown VIC (www.realestate.com.au)

Many timbers are great for decking and it is all down to your taste and budget.  Merbau has been the popular and budget choice over the last 20 years or so, but has recently gone up in price.  Other great timbers include Yellow Stringybark, Spotted Gum or even Treated Pine.

The most important detail here is to make sure your timber is PLANTATION GROWN and fortunately that is what most timber yards only stock.

For more information of decking timbers have a look here at Domain.

The pool surrounds at Harry Seidler’s Ghillanyi House (1957) – David Sievers Photography

Decking boards can also be used around swimming pools (as above) or as a ground level surface.  Again you are bound by creativity and budget, however it is important to understand that space is required for the structure of the deck (ie. joists and beams) and this may be restrictive or costly.

Now you have your amazing decking area and you want to use it all year.  This calls for a bit of protection overhead from rain or the baking Australian sun.


Timber pergolas or arbours are another beautiful way to extend the structural elements of your home out into the garden.  Beams extend from the fascia of the house or under the eaves and provide a solid frame to support a weatherproof roofing material, shade battens or even just a sprawling climbing plant.


Something to sit on (or lean on)
Whether you go with a traditional manufactured timber setting or custom made furniture, timber is a timeless material to use.

A little sleeper overload maybe? (via Pinterest)

Recycled timber sleepers are perfect for bench seats and timber pieces can also be mixed with metal, as in the image below from Heronswood Gardens, Dromana.


Smaller timber seats can be located at secluded spots in your garden for interest or places to sit and hide!



More about levels
As with rocks and boulders, timber is a great material for holding soil and allowing changes in site levels.  If anything, timber sleepers are a better material, as they allow taller and steeper retaining walls to be built.

A low garden retaining wall (with rocks) next to a gravel driveway (Ellis Stones – Australian Garden Design)

Timber does rot and can warp over time, however, so it is important to keep this in mind for extensive retaining walls or extreme site excavation.  But for low level works, sleepers are a perfect solution.


Vertical sleepers are a great look and allow more variation in the appearance of the wall.  They also allow the top of the wall to follow site contours for a less rigid appearance.

Something to step on
Recycled timber sleepers can be used as solid steppers through a rough gravel or pebble bed.  They blend with natural river rock or granitic sand and can be spaced to allow native groundcovers or shrubs grow in and amoungst them.


(Terra Bella Landscapes)

In this rustic coastal garden (also spotted on my Fairhaven wanderings) timber sleepers lead through the mulched garden to a stunning rusted metal gate.


Changing levels
Then where your paths and walls intersect, a set of timber sleeper steps are called for.

Timber sleeper steps (Ellis Stones – Australian Garden Design)

Again, I advise against large runs of sleeper steps and keep the rustic timbers for small transitions.

Timber steppers through a natural garden (ww.naturesvision.com.au)

Screen time
Timber is the go-to material for fencing.  It is structural, affordable and your options are restricted only by your imagination.  So there is really no excuse for avoiding a stock standard paling fence.

Slim vertical battens are a great look for a mid-century garden and will often complement minimal vertical elements in the home.

(Via ‘Safety and privacy | A mid-century fence for your home’)

Of course the timber cladding of a fence can run in any direction and horizontal battens are popular as a screen fence alternative.


Varied timber widths and lengths can combine to make a fence that is a feature in itself.


For a truly rustic fence in an Australian bush garden, recycled sleepers or solid timber posts can be set upright in a stockade fence.


Something to look at
The examples above already create aesthetic appeal for your garden, however sometimes timber can be used as ornamentation.

Recyled sleepers of all sizes provide interest within garden beds, set vertically and arranged between plants.

Sleepers as ornaments (while also stopping the dog running through the garden)

Sleepers laid flat act as a bridge across a dry pebble bed.


Clearly for rustic appeal, the recycled timber sleeper is the material of choice.  As with all things modernist, however, be sure not to overdo it!

What are the keys to using timber in your landscape?

  1. Timber is versatile, structural and attractive
  2. Use timber for its beauty as well as its utility
  3. Complement the timber elements of the house with decking, pergolas or fencing
  4. Be sure to source PLANTATION GROWN or RECYCLED timber products
  5. Use your imagination and break away from paling or uniform timber slat fences

Stones, Ellis, 1971, Australian Garden Design, South Melbourne