Michael McCoy: The Dreamy Gardener

“It freaks me out, the idea of having my life over again,” says Michael McCoy. “This time around it’s happened so phenomenally well, I don’t think I could ever repeat it,” he tells me over the phone, from his home in Woodend, Victoria.

Landscape designer, writer, and now TV presenter Michael McCoy. Image supplied by ABC TV

Michael has spent much of his life with his hands in the dirt and his head amongst the foliage. He studied botany at university, and when he told the head of the botany department he was going to be a gardener, he said ‘Michael, I see where you’re coming from but you are never, ever going to make any money out of gardening.’ “I was 20 and I just said to him, ‘Who needs money, it’s about doing what you love.’”

He followed his heart, undertaking a gardening apprenticeship with the National Trust at Ripponlea, before working in large private gardens for a decade. During this time he had the opportunity to live and work with writer and gardener Christopher Lloyd at Great Dixter, a Medieval manor house in East Sussex, England. What a gig!

Since then Michael has been designing, writing, thinking and speaking about gardens. He lives and breathes chlorophyll. His design work is gorgeous – the result of a (somewhat rare) combination of a strong design sensibility and extensive practical and theoretical botanical knowledge. His gardens are about plants and people, about questions rather than statements. They’re about real, ephemeral, rich beauty.

Michael McCoy is the real deal – not only is he a great designer, he’s a brilliant communicator. It’s no surprise then that he’s hosting a new ABC TV series about garden design called Dream Gardens. He’s excited, in his very eloquent way. So am I, primarily because he’s hosting it.

A dreamy garden, designed by Michael McCoy

In each episode of Dream Gardens Michael follows the design and construction process of a residential property from blank canvas to finished garden. It’s a bit like Grand Designs, but with the added complexities only a garden can provoke.

I must say, when I initially heard about the concept, I was a little sceptical. In the past, garden makeover shows in Australia have tended to revolve around a bunch of blokes building stuff. You know the vibe. There’s a blonde woman in the wings to do the pretty planty things, or perhaps some styling, but that’s about it. There’s very little in the way of intelligent design concepts let alone conversations, and the outcomes are built for screen, rather than real life. From what I’ve seen of the first two preview episodes, Dream Gardens is genuine departure from this. Thank heavens.

My second concern was time. Gardens are not finish-able. How could a television show capture this, whilst still making good looking TV? “I told the ABC when they offered me the role of presenting that I was only interested in doing it if we were absolutely honest about the differences between a show about gardens and a show about buildings,” Michael tells me. “The difference between Dream Gardens and a show like Grand Designs, for example, is that when an architect or a builder hands over a building they’re handing over a fully formed young adult and saying, ‘Okay, now dress this young adult as you wish.’

What happens at the handover of a garden is very different. You’re being given a completely dependent designer-baby and being told to discipline it, nurture it, feed it, grow it. There’s any number of things that can go wrong.”

The focus of the show, then, is not necessarily on the final outcome but the process and relationships involved in the creation of each garden. “There is a real value in seeing the process up to the end of construction and planting. But the end point in the show is really just the start for the garden, it’s only a tiny reflection of what the garden may one day be,” Michael says.

Michael is a phenomenal planting designer

Dream Gardens follows eight garden design projects across Australia and captures the process of designing and creating gardens like no previous Australian TV show. I’m curious about the mix of projects, budgets, designers, and built outcomes, and I hope it’s a success. Design should be valued as an incredibly powerful tool for creating change, and for encouraging people to connect with the world around them. The best garden design isn’t about fashion, big budgets or hands-off gardening but about translating the needs and desires of a client from words and ideas into the physical realm. It’s about relationships, expression, creativity, and connecting with nature. I hope Dream Gardens nails it, and with Michael McCoy at the helm I reckon they’ve got a damn good chance.

I ask Michael if he’ll continue designing gardens, now that he’s hit the big time. He reckons he will, and I think he’d be hard pressed to stop himself. It seems he’s happiest in the garden, whether his clients or his own. “Coming home from being away yesterday, I just couldn’t wait to get out to the garden and see what’s going on. It’s nowhere near as good as I want it to be but golly, the pleasure it gives me, I just love it so much,” he tells me.

How amazing is it to have been given the privilege of a passion that means you can love being home and love the boundaries of your personal space so much, and get so much pleasure out of it?” he says.

“I don’t know how I got this stupidly lucky,” he tells me.

I think I know. Michael’s doing what he loves. Following a passion, whilst not always the easiest or most financially viable path, breeds luck. Michael McCoy is a case in point.

Dream Gardens launches on ABC1 on Thursday 9 February at 8pm. Check out the trailer here.

Movement, mass, and seasonality are captured in this design project by Michael McCoy