How to grow Great Ideas Michael McCoys garden design workshop

Great Ideas Michael McCoys garden design workshop

When Michael McCoy, designer, writer, tv host, Ross Garden Tours leader - and friend! - launched a program of design and planting workshops Linda acted fast and signed us up immediately.

The first course - on design - was held in February in Michael’s hometown of Woodend in the Macedon Ranges just west of Melbourne.

Images by Robin Powell

Sissinghurst is justifiably renowned not just for its planting, but for the way the spaces shape your experience of the garden.

About 25 keen garden-makers joined Michael for an inspiring and thought-provoking day. There were young women setting up their first garden; people who had retired and finally had the time to create the garden they’d always wanted; some new homeowners who didn’t know much about gardening and wanted an idea of what was possible; and lots of us still tinkering with our gardens after years, trying to make them as emotionally and sensually satisfying as possible.

While I was scribbling notes, Linda was drawing, turning Michael’s points into visual triggers and plans. At the end of an energising day of thinking and talking gardens we found a seat in the late afternoon sun in the local pub, poured a glass of bubbles, pored over our very different-looking notes and reflected on what had hit home - and garden! - for us.


Marylyn Abbott's West Green House, above, uses a flat plane of lawn to balance the riotous colour of the borders in the walled garden.


Flowing spaces

Michael made a point about garden spaces that are static, and invite you to stop, sit, relax, take it all in, and those that are dynamic - that you walk through, that lead you on. I want to make sure that the spaces in my garden are clearly one or the other and that they flow together around curves and entice you either to explore or stop. So for example, I was thinking that my outdoor setting could be further enclosed into a separate room rather than be on the edge of an open space.

Narrow entry

Michael explained how a narrow ‘pinch point’ between two spaces in a garden makes it feel as if you are entering a much larger space. The sense of coming into the open after being somewhere narrow exaggerates the size of the open space. So I thought I could use planting to create a narrow ‘pinch point’ as an entrance to my eating area, so that when you enter that space you are completely surrounded by garden and feel inside something.

Simplify the planting

Michael's pictures from some of the gardens he has visited around the world as a Ross Tour leader, and the garden that we saw on the day that he had designed and that I was totally wowed by - he literally had to drag me away! - reminded me that simplifying the planting and having more of a few things, rather than more of more things is the powerful way to go. I know this already, but I love plants so much that I end up falling again and again into that cottagey thing of plants growing through other plants and it all looking a bit of a mess. To look good, you need a critical mass of a single plant, so I am going to focus on a handful of things I really like and which do really well in the garden. They’ll be the plants that are at their peak when we’re all around most to enjoy them - the summer school holidays!


At Hidcote narrow pathways and narrow openings increase the sense of space beyond


We were wowed by the space and gorgeous plantingat this local garden that Michael designed. For details on his upcoming workshops on design and planting go to



Save the lawn

Summers at my place are getting hotter, so I have been toying with the idea of another tree. Something mature and deciduous that would come into leaf early for spring protection and drop leaves early for autumn and winter sun. I’d been preparing a short list and thinking about exactly where in the lawn I’d have to make a new garden bed that could incorporate a tree.

Then I listened to Michael about the value of a lawn in a design. I’ve always thought of my lawn as a stage. It’s a level oval and there’s ‘set dressing’ all the way around it and seating on the terrace just a step below it. The performers used to be my daughters, who ran, danced and cartwheeled across it - the more family and friends sitting in the audience, the better. Now the stage is more often used for games of Finska, or for laying out a picnic blanket to laze in the winter sun.

Michael reminded me that a lawn, as level as a pond, is not just the stage for play, but the void that balances the mass of planting around it. If I decide I really need another tree, I’m going to have to be very careful about where I put it and how it is incorporated into the garden to maintain the breathing space of my lake-like lawn.


Gravetye Manor features like-lawn lawn with mountains of planting towering around it.


Carve a space

One of the most interesting exercises we did on the day was to look closely at the beautiful watercolour garden plans of Edna Walling, and trace on a whiteboard the spaces she created in the gardens and the way they were linked. It has me thinking of carving out a winter sun trap in a very deep garden bed up the back, where the last of the westerly sun strikes on winter afternoons. The space could effectively be hidden from the rest of the garden in summer when plant growth is at its height, and only become apparent when the dahlias have finished. Those Walling plans were a reminder that gardens are most interesting when they retain some mystery and aren’t entirely visible from any single point.

Want more?

Keep an eye on Michael’s website, for upcoming workshops, or be quick and call 1300 133 100 to find out if there’s a spot left in Linda’s Garden Design Workshop on June 8. This is one of our free annual garden classes for Garden Clinic members, and the only one specifically focused on design. If you missed this one, out your name down for our next one.

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Author: Robin Powell