Plant / Life: Michael Cooke

I often wonder what I would do if I had 10 acres to make a garden. After so many years of designing outdoor spaces for other people, I have a feeling I’ll be a bit ‘kid-in-a-lolly-shop’ when it comes to one day creating my own non-rented garden. My dream is for a mad botanical lab, a testing ground for the weirdest and most beautiful plants I can find. Someone who has managed to live my dream and build his own botanical lab is garden designer Michael Cooke.

Michael Cooke and one of his two huge Irish wolfhound dogs.

Michael and his family live at Central Mangrove, in the hills behind the Central Coast of NSW. His garden has been on my hit list for years, primarily because he’s a real plantsman. Sometimes landscaped gardens can be very strong on the ‘design’, but the planting can lack a little oomph. This is certainly not the case with Michael, he really knows his horticulture – as he should – he’s been working in plant nurseries since he was a child.

As an 11-year-old boy Michael used to ride his skateboard down to his local nursery on Sydney’s northern beaches and help out. He bought the business when he was 22, and the rest is history.

Michael and his wife bought their Central Mangrove property 28 years ago. The land was predominately uncleared bush. They are both keen horse riders, so the first structures built were fences to keep their horses in. The garden grew organically from then on, soon filling the space between the existing home and the horse paddocks and stables. ‘There was absolutely no plan for the garden. At that stage I was a nurseryman, with no real idea about design’ Michael says. ‘It was a good way of learning what plants did, and how they behaved in the ground.’

The house entry is framed by lush mixed plantings of Gymea lily (Doryanthes excelsa), grass trees (Xanthorrhoea spp), massed aloes (Aloe spp.) and more.
Michael Cooke’s chooks have the best house ever!

Since those early days Michael has honed his design aesthetic, and his garden is illustrative of this. It’s huge, comprising of many rooms, each with a strong sense of enclosure and personality. Because of its scale, Michael has been able to play with different design styles and planting combinations, while retaining a sense of continuity and cohesion.

There’s the gorgeous vine covered chook house with a watering can collection hanging on the wall, the Roberto Burle Marx vibes of the outdoor entertaining area, the naturalistic pond and so much more. It’s a place for meandering, dreaming, exploring. ‘I like a garden with heart,’ says Michael. ‘I think its important for gardens to evoke feelings. Different plants will give a garden a particular feeling and this is something I’m always considering.’

Gardens are a conversation between humans and nature. They’re meant to evoke emotion, make us feel something, touch us. They’re about people as much as they’re about plants.

Michael gets this, and as well as playing with these ideas in his own garden, it’s clearly something that drives his design practice. ‘People intrigue me, and as a designer it’s important to understand who my clients really are and what their lives are about, to make sure I’m creating a garden for them,’ he says. ‘It’s never about recreating my garden, it’s about creating their garden.’

After dedicating his entire life to plants, I wonder if there’s any more to know, to learn, to excite? ‘If plants stopped surprising me it would all be over,’ Michael says. ‘Plants still excite me, design excites me, and architecture excites me.’ And as always with plants and gardens, the conversation never ends. There’s always something more to learn and understand, and Michael’s design practice and home garden is testament to this. ‘It’s a forever garden,’ he says.

A gorgeous vintage bird house amongst lush foliage plants.
A dragons blood tree (Dracaena draco) forms a striking backdrop to one of many small seating areas scattered through the garden.
A collection of sculptural plants separate the outdoor entertaining area and Michael’s latest construction, his wine cellar. There's firesticks planted at the back (Euphorbia tirucalli), bird of paradise in the centre (Strelitzia reginae), and asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus) at the front.
A corten steel leaf sculpture sits on a sandstone plinth amongst a mass planting of silverbush (Helichrysum petiolaire).
A lovely spot to while away an afternoon...
A clump of multi-coloured bromeliads (Vriesea hieroglyphica).
The outdoor entertaining area, with a huge fireplace and vine draped pergola.
The garden opens to the surrounding paddocks, borrowing rural vistas to create a sense of spaciousness.