In his new series Dream Gardens, gardening expert Michael McCoy takes us on a journey through Australian backyards, writes Jen Vuk.
Can changing your backyard really change your life?’
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t a fair question to open an interview with, but if there’s one man equipped to handle it, it’s the man on the other end of the phone line.
Michael McCoy has spent half his lifetime knee-deep in gardens—be that as designer, author, columnist, passionate observer and, now, presenter of a new eight-part ABC TV series Dream Gardens.
‘As a landscape gardener I was frequently asked to provide low-maintenance gardens,’ he tells Warcry. ‘And what I have come to understand for myself and for my clients is that, low-maintenance equals low reward, and, in fact, the truth is that, whether we’re talking about our children, our home or our pets, when we nurture something we, in turn, are nurtured ourselves.
‘And so I completely believe that simply engaging with the rhythms of nature can be a life-changing experience.’
A case in point, says Michael, is Queensland couple Michael and Rosi Kenny who feature in the first episode of Dream Gardens. Having bought a magnificent, rambling homestead just south of Toowoomba in Queensland, the Kennys were looking to create a large self-sustaining kitchen garden with the help of their son Clint, a local landscape gardener.
For each of them the garden signified more than something beautiful (although this was important) and certainly not something static.
‘Rosi had experienced some really serious ill health,’ says Michael. ‘So there was a sense of urgency in her need for a kitchen garden—to really immerse herself in the everyday tending and nurturing of the garden. And, after much hard work, they got there. The end results speak
Challenges always make great drama and, according to the promos, Dream
Gardens promises to deliver on that score, but Michael stresses that the series is predominantly about the people, their vision, their journeys, and much of the drama comes out of the vagaries of location and climate.
‘A challenge of hosting a series like this is that we have one of the most diverse and variable climates in the world,’ he says.
When we nurture something we, in turn, are nurtured ourselves.
‘I live in Woodend which is about an hour out of Melbourne and I have frost for seven months of the year, while virtually a few kilometres down the road is frost-free. And that is the nature of Australia. The multitude of micro climates is so bewildering, and so talking to someone in another state is like talking to someone in another country.’
There was also the rather ‘awkward challenge of being considered an expert’, he says.
‘I don’t think it’s helpful or respectful of me to get involved in a process where another designer has been contracted to the job and to realise the dreams of their clients.
‘At the same time when you step on the site, you can’t help thinking how you’d respond to it. What’s delightful and challenging is to watch the designer do something so different to what you’d do and, in every case, realise that the designer has totally fulfilled the brief and expectation of the client.’
While the series doesn’t directly deal with the ongoing challenges posed by climate change, it’s undeniably a topic at the forefront of the mind of most landscape gardeners working currently in Australia, says Michael.
‘But running concurrently with climate change is this disconnect where we are less and less in contact with the variables of our climate and therefore in so much greater danger of feeling out of touch.
‘The people who are most in tune with climate change are those who engage and interact with their gardens daily. Those who garden. There’s nothing like being out there and planting and sowing and harvesting to put you very closely in contact with the changing seasons, and to make you realise just how phenomenally dependent we are on the inter-changeability of our climate, particularly how carefully we need to be stewards of the environment.’
It’s no coincidence that Michael uses such a loaded word as ‘stewards’. Coming from a fourth-generation Salvation Army family, Michael’s connection with nature has always been spiritual.
‘My working life is underpinned by an ongoing sense of awe and wonder. And in my mind nature is a revelation.’
While Michael and his wife Karen are committed churchgoers, Michael says he’s never seen church ‘as a primary input into this journey’.
‘I’ve always hungered for more than my church could ever provide, and so have always have done so much reading and chasing on my own, and this continues to this day.’
In his mind, nature remains a part of the great unknown and he takes great comfort in that.
‘For me there’s no sense in which I’ll solve the mysteries of nature,’ he says. ‘Rather it’s about me dancing around those mysteries. With nature you’re constantly learning, but the questions are always bigger than the answers and every answer only leads to bigger questions—like my relationship with God, really.’
So does Michael see any of his kids following in his footsteps?
‘Not in my gardening footsteps,’ he says, laughing. ‘I grew up in a very musical family and I moved away from that. It was necessary for me to do that to get some sense of my own identity and, as a consequence, I think I was almost too careful not to drum my own passions into my kids.
‘What you really want as a parent is for your kids to inherit the quality of enquiry and just the curiosity about things, and hopefully get used to the idea that life is best lived with a degree of passion—wherever that passion lies.’