The period from 1890 to 1960 in Australia, as elsewhere, is widely acknowledged as pivotal in the development of modernity, involving increasing urbanisation, commodification, nationalism, state power, bureaucratisation, occupational specialisation, technocratic thinking and faith in science. This era ushered in a vastly expanded state infrastructure for environmental management, and saw the rise and fall of progressive conservation activism, as well as precursors to the popular environmentalism emerging in the 1960s. Little, however, is known of how typical middle- and working-class residents of Australian cities and towns understood nature in this period, and how their understandings may have changed in the face of such far-reaching developments. A focus on relationships between people, plants and invertebrates in home garden settings provides one window onto this issue, providing evidence of how those who gardened negotiated a more or less self-conscious engagement with ‘nature’ in a domestic setting. Close examination of texts produced by and for gardeners suggests that while the dominant social construction of the relationship between nature and humans increasingly emphasized human autonomy and control, the embodied experience of home gardening gave rise to diverse understandings. The sense of control and independence that many gardeners had come to expect by the 1950s was challenged by the enduring autonomy of nature, and many gardeners accepted the limitations of their control. Home gardening thus both reflected and challenged prevailing modernist ideas about emancipation from nature.