Robin McLay: The Gentle Gardener

Robin McLay is a woman of the earth. There’s a steadiness in her manner and a quiet strength too, revealing itself gently as our conversation evolves. One thing, however, is obvious. It bubbles right at the surface, unconcealed. It’s gardening. Robin is obsessed. It’s obvious in her face as she talks about her favourite rose (Rosa ‘Paul Bocuse’), her plans for overhauling her vegetable garden, and her business, Brookfield Garden Centre.

Robin McLay in her Brookfield garden with Bungee the dog.

Robin and I are sitting on the verandah of her two-and-a-half acre garden in Brisbane’s outer suburbs. It’s a steamy summer afternoon and the garden is looking it’s lush best after the generous rainfalls of the previous few weeks. As Daniel madly tries to capture the beauty of the garden in the fading light, Robin and I meander verbally and physically around it.

As is often the case, Robin was born into a gardening family. She grew up on a farm near the western Queensland town of Roma and both her parents were keen gardeners. She tells me of rescuing plants whist she was at boarding school and growing them in water in the dormitory. “Often my friends would steal my plants and put them in strange places, like the toilet,” she says with a laugh.

When Robin and her husband Scott got married they moved to a sheep property at Tambo, further west. They lived in a tiny cottage in the middle of a paddock. Robin soon had it fenced off, and on returning from hospital after giving birth to her first daughter, she propagated cuttings of the chrysanthemum flowers she’d been given in the hospital and planted them all around the cottage. “There’s a photo of me the next year looking like a baby (which I was!), nursing the baby, and being surrounded by chrysanthemums,” she tells me. “Then you know you really are an addicted gardener!”

Fast forward to around 10 years ago and Robin and Scott had recently moved to the Brisbane suburb of Brookfield. Robin went down the road to the local nursery on the hunt for some plumbago. “Whilst I was there I asked them if they knew of any nurseries for sale.  They said, ‘You’re in luck – this one is actually’.

I had a chat to the owner and came home and said, ‘We’re going to buy a nursery’. Well, that’s what Scott says I said, but I think I really said ‘Would you like to buy a nursery?” The rest is history.”

When Robin and Scott bought the business it was extremely rundown. “It was a real mess,” she says. “So we chipped away, working seven days a week to transform it. It’s been a very interesting journey.” The nursery is now a highly successful retail space complete with gift shop, a delicious restaurant (Wild Canary Bistro) supplied by a large on-site kitchen garden, a wide range of indoor and outdoor plants and more.

In tandem with growing the nursery, Robin began developing her patch of earth just up the hill.  But of course, it’s no small suburban space, but a humongous two-and-a-half-acre garden complete with sweeping lawns, a pool and a series of different garden rooms featuring different plant types. These include rainforest, succulent and cacti, native garden, roses, vegetables, hanging hoyas and epiphytes and more. Robin McLay is one busy woman.

Whilst Robin does spend a lot of time in the garden, she did have help designing it from landscape architect Sidonie Carpenter. Robin’s initial desire was to create a garden that felt a little bit country, but also cohesive. “The different garden rooms and areas keep me under control, and stop the garden from feeling random. Now, after having grown in for a few years, it’s time to wild it up a bit and make each area more interesting. It keeps changing, as gardens do,” she tells me.

As well as the garden being Robin’s testing ground for new plant releases at the nursery, it’s also a hospital. “I’m always on the lookout for new plant releases to take home from the nursery and test, and also plants that aren’t up to scratch. If I think one looks a bit sad I’ll bring it home,” Robin tells me. “I guess I’ve always done that, long before I had a garden centre”.

I’ve always taken sick plants home from supermarkets and other places. It’s sort of addictive.”

Gardening and growing really is addictive. Ask any gardener, young or old, they’ll tell you the same thing. There’s something incredibly satisfying about cultivating beauty. It nourishes the human soul on a level often hard to articulate and understand. All gardeners know this inherently. Perhaps this is also why we’re all a little bit evangelical.

Robin and I speak a lot about beauty, and also about education and ways of encouraging people to garden. I ask Robin what advice she’d give to a gardener just starting out. “Don’t be afraid,” she says. “Be open to guidance and get good advice, but mostly, just don’t be afraid.  If the plant doesn’t do well in one position, change it. I think people are frightened because they actually don’t know what to do and they’re scared of killing their plants. But the only way to learn to garden is by listening, playing and making mistakes.”

Robin and I move on from iced water to white wine. It’s golden hour in the garden. The light is just right, the heat has softened, and the day takes a deep breath as it moves quietly into night. We stroll the garden in the dusk and I leave with the sun, with a handful of cuttings and a heart full of garden joy.