Home and Garden
Australian gardening superstar Michael McCoy speaks to reporter Sonia O'Regan ahead of his appearance at Nelmac Garden Marlborough.
M ichael McCoy fans already know all about the garden designer, botanist, author, broadcaster, blogger, speaker and sometime garden tour guide. They may even have seen him when he was in town in 2000. I wouldn't be surprised if they already have their tickets to the two illustrated lectures he will present this year.
Michael wins followers quickly with his eloquent enthusiasm for gardens, but he is not easily categorised in the world of gardening writers, as one radio host found out years ago.
Michael's radio show was more about concepts and ideas than "how to" instructions and problem solving, although practical aspects of gardening were covered within the context of the ideas explored.
After chatting with Michael, the host introduced him as The Gardenist. It stuck, and is the name of Michael's popular blog and new book.
The moniker acknowledges that Michael is not your garden variety of garden commentator. As far as he is concerned you can solve every problem in your garden and still have a really ordinary garden.
"Our vision needs to be far bigger and broader than that if we're going to have great gardens," he says, from his home at Woodend, inland from Melbourne.
"You don't get to a masterpiece by setting out to solve problems. You set out with a vision in your head."
He takes it further. How a garden makes one feel is just as important as what it looks like.
"Ultimately I'm convinced that our gut reaction to a garden space is how it feels rather than how it looks. Yet how it looks is really the language which we're most comfortable in," he says.
Home gardeners, for example, have a really good grasp of flowers as ornamental but tend not be thinking about how those shapes surround and hold us, he says.
It all sounds rather lofty and philosophical when put on paper, but Michael has a wonderful gift with language and an enthusiasm for his subject that spreads like a grapevine exposed to Marlborough sunshine.
His lectures have a reputation of being entertaining and informative, although don't expect them to be all about his own work.
He feels he has been privileged to visit many of the great
gardens of the world, and to meet many of the great gardeners, and loves to share these experiences. The first of his illustrated lectures in particular will highlight these sights and experiences.
Green revelation Michael can pinpoint when he became interested in plants. He hated everything about gardening until the summer he was 18.
"It was an epihany, a distinct conversion," he recalls..
His father was in intensive care. When not visiting him in hospital his mother spent time propagating plants in the kitchen. Michael says he was fascinated by the process, undoubtedly a magical distraction at a difficult time.
"Imagine if you could break off an arm and grow the rest of the body back," he says, the wonderment of it still fresh.
He ended up propagating so many plants that summer, he didn't know what to do with them.
After graduating from the University of Melbourne with a Bachelor of Science (Botany), Michael became an apprentice gardener to the National Trust (Victoria), then spent nine years as head gardener at Hascombe Mt Macdon.
Another epiphany occurred when a friend loaned him a book by the English gardener, Christopher Lloyd, about his garden at Great Dixter in Sussex, England.
Michael was thrilled to recognise in the writing a line of thinking and approach to gardening that matched his own.
When he tried to quit his job to go on his OE, his boss told him he would continue paying him if he took a shorter break and came back to the job.
This allowed Michael to offer to volunteer at Great Dixter for the summer of 1991.
Lloyd insisted that if he wasn't to pay him he must at least stay at his house. So it was that Michael spent a summer working and living with the man who had inspired him the most.
Lloyd is considered one of the greatest gardeners and garden writers of all time and his garden is something of a pilgrimage site.
While one risks oversimplification by distilling great learnings, Michael says he observed there the power of relaxing and taking risks in the garden. He saw Lloyd's freedom to be provocative, all the while knowing exactly why he was making the choices he made and having a big picture in mind.
The depth of Michael's appreciation for Lloyd and others who inspired him is the subject of one of his recent blog posts.
The post was sparked by a quote he had seen that rang true to him. A guy who had never liked jazz until he watched a jazz musician playing with his eyes closed in bliss wrote: "Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It's as if they are showing you the way."
Michael writes that for him it was more a matter of his passion being fuelled and sustained by watching others love it, mostly by reading about it.
"Their love galvanised, framed, and vastly extended, mine," he says.
On Lloyd he says: "His writing is full of devotion to the subject, to which he gave his virtually undivided attention for 84 years. A single paragraph in the intro to The Adventurous Gardener set the tone of my life. I'm not sure how it managed this, except, perhaps, by validating the passion and curiosity I had for plants and gardens, and by making me feel a little less alone in this - making me feel a little less like a curiosity myself. And it set the bar of inquiry way above what I'd ever known it to be, or ever knew it could be, and higher than I'll ever reach. What a gift - what an incredible gift! - that was."
Michael also writes of the influence of Australian gardening writer Jean Galbraith and the 19th century American writer David Grayson ( real name Ray Stannard Baker).
After returning from the UK to Australia, Michael became a regular contributor to national magazines and papers and has written for other international publications.
In 1997 he began his own design business and has designed gardens in Victoria, New South Wales and Western Australia. He has published two books to critical acclaim and his blog The Gardenist was ranked as one of the top blogs in Australia in 2012.
- The Marlborough Express