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Meet Michael McCoy and his Australian Garden (2023 Winter Program Speaker)

Meet Michael McCoy, Australian garden designer, author, and TV host. In this profile, Michael shares his experiences adapting a traditional English gardening mindset to accommodate climate-adapted plants in his garden design.

Where do I garden?

I garden just north of Melbourne, Australia. My elevation is approximately 600m (1900 ft) above sea level, average annual rainfall is about 700mm (28 inches). The temperature can drop to -5C (approx. 25F) on a winter’s night and rise 45C (approx. 110F) on a summer’s day, but these are rare extremes.

How did I become interested in gardening?

I had no interest in gardening as an early teen, but when I was 17, I spent my summer holidays driving my mother in and out of the hospital as my father lay dying. This prevented me doing much else, and, in the strangeness and isolation of those days, I was captivated by some plant cuttings that were sitting in a glass of water on our kitchen window, and had started to grow roots. I was of a scientific bent, and was intrigued that an aerial part of a plant contained within itself the potential to become a self-supporting organism. That led to me experimenting with all sorts of propagation, which in turn led to me having a whole lot of plants sitting around that I had to find homes for in my parents very uninspiring garden. It occurred to me that there must be a good and bad way to go about planting, and that led me to a steep learning curve which has kept me engaged ever since.

Photo credit Michael McCoy

The garden that most influenced me

Great Dixter, East Sussex, England, is by far the most influential garden in my life. At a point of low morale during my training as a gardener, a colleague lent me a copy of Christopher Lloyd’s The Adventurous Gardener, in the hope that it might boost by flagging enthusiasm. I had no intention of reading it, but the night before I was due to return it to her, I flipped it open, and found there a window through to everything that I was looking for from gardening, but had begun to despair of ever finding. That led to me reading everything I could get my hands on written by Christopher Lloyd, and eventually meeting him at a conference in Melbourne in 1989, during which he invited me to stay, next time I was in the UK. That then led to me working and living with him at Great Dixter over much of the spring and summer of 1991. To this day, I find it the most thrilling garden to visit, and to follow via social media, zoom lectures etc.

Photo credit Michael McCoy

If there was one piece of advice I could share about garden design, what would it be?

That for all of our obsessive love of flowers, gardens largely succeed or fail on how well they capture and manipulate space – that my deepest gut reaction to a garden is to how it surrounds me, not how it looks.

Photo credit Michael McCoy

A movement/new direction in gardening/garden design that I am excited about

I’ve been excited about naturalistic perennial planting for over thirty years, since first hearing a lecture by James Van Sweden. There are many aspects of this kind of planting that I find thrilling, but one unsung side-benefit of this kind of planting is how it is able to make use of plants that would previously have been considered too ‘modest’ for inclusion in a garden. Simple, unimproved flowers and seed heads can find a legitimate place, as the success of such planting is about the overall effect, rather than the glamour-factor of any individual plant within it.

Photo credit Michael McCoy

Three pieces of advice for someone thinking about a career in horticulture/gardening/garden design

1. Accept that you’ll never be rich. When I was finishing a science degree in botany, and told the Chairman of the Botany department at Melbourne University that I was thinking of ditching academia and training as a gardener, he warned me that I’d never make any money. Forty years later, I can pretty much confirm his statement.

2. To prioritize learning how to run a business equally with your horticultural or design training. I wish someone had told me that at the start (though I probably would have ignored them)

3. To make any sacrifice necessary to work alongside really good people, from whom you can learn

Thank you, Michael, for sharing your inspiring story!

Michael has written 3 books including, Michael McCoy’s Garden (Florilegium Press 2000), The Gardenist (Plum 2012), and Dream Gardens (Hardie Grant 2022). He writes at his website www.thegardenist.com.au and offers international tours through his site travellingmasterclasses.com.au. You can find him on YouTube, Instagram and Facebook.

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