HE HAS worked on some of the finest gardens in Australia and the UK, so it's hard to believe Michael McCoy once found plants boring.
For a green thumb, Michael McCoy certainly has a golden touch.
The garden designer has a client list that has included the likes of former Prime Minister Paul Keating, tycoon Lindsay Fox and critic Leo Schofield.
He has worked in some of the great gardens, from Rippon Lea and Como in Melbourne, to England’s renowned plant garden Great Dixter, while learning from the best in the business.
These days, based out of his Woodend home in central Victoria, the 48-year-old has just released his second guide,
The Gardenist, which comes on the heels of a three-decade career that can only be described as charmed. “I feel outrageously blessed – beyond all merit or deserving,’’ says Michael, a father of three.
So what is the McCoy magic that attracts top clients and has given him the Midas touch?
What is The Gardenist’s design secret for ornamental gardens? Oddly enough, given his popularity, his philosophy is not an easy one to capture.
In many ways Michael approaches a garden as a painter would a canvas. "It’s almost the reverse of sculpture. Where a sculptor starts with a block and chips away, a gardener starts with an empty space and adds stolidity. You create a living breathing sculpture," Michael says.
"Plants perform two major roles – decorative and spatial and it’s the spatial that makes a garden feel good. It’s what captures and holds us."
Michael is critical of the modern gardener who sees their backyard purely as a problem requiring a solution and that the only path to successful landscaping is through a set of "black and white rules and regulations".
Instead, he says, gardening should be non-prescriptive and the best way to be successful and confident is to learn the fundamentals.
"I understand that a carrot is a biennial, which lives for two seasons and flowers in its second year," he says.
"If you understand the fundamentals of biennials you can then apply it to all biennials, rather than having a long list of rules to apply to carrots." Michael’s ideas are lofty concepts for a guy who admits his career emerged from very humble beginnings.
Until he was in his late teens, he found plants boring. But when his father became sick, and later died, the 17-year-old Michael turned his focus to the therapy of propagation, spending hours slicing and planting.
"I was intensely curious about the idea that you could break a piece off and then it would become self-sustaining."
He studied science at Melbourne University, majoring in biology, and ever since graduation his career has been on the ascent.
Michael completed his gardening apprenticeship at Melbourne’s historic Rippon Lea and Como, followed immediately by eight years in a live-in position for Lindsay Fox at his Toorak and Mt Macedon properties.
The Fox family were so enamoured of their young gardener, they even paid Michael a wage for three months in 1991 while he lived and worked at Great Dixter.
He finished working for the Foxs in 1996, at which time he started his own design business – Michael McCoy Fine Gardens – and moved with his wife, Karen, and children to a Woodend home.
Since then he has been an author, radio presenter on ABC, columnist and designed ornamental gardens for Paul Keating (whom he describes as "one of the most cripplingly shy men" he’s met) and Leo Schofield.
Ornamental gardens make up about 90 per cent of his work, despite having fallen out of favour in the wake of slow food and edible gardens.
"“Ornamental gardens are now seen as an irresponsible indulgence. The skills I have worked hard to attain are currently not valued as much, but it won’t continue. People are re-engaging with gardens and vegetable gardens are just the first step."
After 30 years in the business, he estimates his knowledge of the plant kingdom at his own death to be roughly 10 per cent. Heaven help the rest of us then.
"You can have a garden that has no pests and follows all the rules, but is boring, or you can have the most fantastically exciting garden full of problems. I prefer the latter."