Project Cultivate – Melbourne cemetery’s groundbreaking grasslands approach ‘priceless’


Costa Georgiadis, host of ABC’s Gardening Australia calls it “groundbreaking” and “priceless”. Southern Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (SMCT) call it Project Cultivate, and the principle is simple – to re-imagine the possibilities for historical cemetery sites by enhancing their natural landscape.
Project Cultivate began as an exploratory pilot at Melbourne General Cemetery (MGC) in May 2023 and has been designed to offer cemetery managers and visitors sustainable alternatives to traditional cemetery management practices and landscapes with demonstrable and visible benefits.
The impetus behind this project was obvious. How do we, as custodians, look to make our grounds maintenance operations more sustainable – financially, resource-wise, and environmentally – while continuing to meet the expectations of families, external stakeholders, and visitors, particularly at older, end-of-life sites like MGC.
The place, the project and the principles
Opened in 1853, the iconic MGC is regarded as one of Australia’s most significant cemeteries. Located just minutes from the Melbourne CBD, MGC is a 43-hectare site, with almost half being un-gardened, un-turfed monumental areas featuring large numbers of unmarked graves, redundant dirt pathways and dirt-topped monuments. These areas, like many cemeteries of similar age and layout, have been largely managed through regular broadscale application of herbicide.
Valid concerns both within SMCT and externally around the short- and long-term impacts of herbicide application at this scale called for a radical, sustainable, meaningful solution, that can be managed and maintained into perpetuity. Enter Project Cultivate.
After small scale trials onsite, it was determined that the shallow application of organic mulch to the bare soil was sufficient to suppress most weed growth, but also had an immediate impact on the health of the soil below. Mulching suitable locations across the site saw water retained onsite and drawn into the soil profile, and the compacted clay soils burst back to life. Within just months, with no additional soil amendments, treatments or irrigation, the soil in mulched areas was suitable for planting.
In terms of plant selection, SMCT engaged several external stakeholders and industry experts, including Traditional Owners, to develop a planting suite that would, once established, become a self-sustaining, low-maintenance landscape. Using pre-contact plant lists and the appropriate Ecological Vegetation Class, a list of 19 indigenous perennial grasses, wildflowers and groundcovers was developed, selected because of their suitability to the unirrigated, heavily disturbed site, their ability to seed and spread, and their minimal maintenance requirements once established.
Successes, sustainability and the future
Since the installation of almost 1500m3 of mulch and 127,000 grassland plants (densely planted at a rate of seven plants per m2) commenced in August 2023, SMCT have already noted the following across the Project Cultivate pilot area:
• 30% reduction in herbicide use across the site through pilot phase, proposed reduction of almost 100% of herbicide upon completion and establishment of subsequent areas.
• Reduction in the urban heat island effect, with a recorded 3°C reduction in ambient air temperature around mulched areas, expected to increase after establishment of plants.
• Improved soil quality and reduction in erosion, runoff, and water pooling, increasing visitor safety and reducing maintenance burden.
• Visible increases in biodiversity, including increased activity from beneficial native insects, worms, fungi, and birds.
• Creation of a significant, publicly accessible green space for passive recreation, educational and engagement opportunities.
• Increased opportunity for community and stakeholder engagement through activations, planting events, citizen science opportunities and co-ordinated education sessions.
• Partnership opportunities with external stakeholders, including University of Melbourne, City of Melbourne, Zoos Victoria and Traditional Owners.
• Increased sustainability and resilience to the effects of climate change, alongside a reduction in ongoing perpetual maintenance requirements.

Given the initial success of the pilot program, SMCT has now committed to converting an additional 16 hectares of unmarked graves to grassland at MGC. Upon completion in 2025, SMCT will have installed 5,334m3 of tree loppers mulch and over 500,000 indigenous plants to previously barren areas of the site.

With less than 2% of Victoria’s grasslands remaining, the ability to re-introduce 23 hectares of a critically endangered ecosystem and create a biodiverse, publicly accessible flourishing native grassland to the heart of Melbourne’s CBD, into perpetuity, is significant. Project Cultivate is biodiversity and sustainability in action. It’s meaningful, tangible, and genuinely groundbreaking; not just for MGC and SMCT, but it sets a blueprint of possibility for all cemeteries across Australia.

As Costa Georgiadis explained at the Project Cultivate community celebration event in February 2024, “the pressure on land in our cities is higher than it’s ever been before. The opportunity for us to turn this space into a horticultural asset and take real action is priceless.”

Discover more about Project Cultivate at