Last night, Radio National recorded a captivating conversation on books and gardens, including two of Australia’s best-known gardeners — Stephen Ryan and Michael McCoy, and Terry Smyth — at the Wheelerbarrow Centre. (To be broadcast on the Book Show, Friday 29 October, or download the podcast, or watch the panel on the Wheeler video page in a week’s time, whence you can cross-check my hastily jotted quotes.)

Actual culture mulching: a brief digression on The Idea of a Garden

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower  / Drives my green age

Dylan Thomas’ ornamented metaphysics pointed to the hand of God, or whichever limb, branch or dept. of His divine offices are in charge of the mysterious force that is entropy’s rival and victim. (I won’t apologise for that last sentence but if you’re still reading, I’m grateful.) The conversation set a whole bunch of bees buzzing in my beanie: what could be more paradoxical than the well-tempered garden? Having fled the wild we are now cultivating nature in our backyards. This storied mesh of culture and nature has arrived at some highly refined aesthetics, like a garden we saw in Suzhou a few years ago. This is inside the compound of the residence — they have created a garden-park that relates very much to Chinese painting — nature as garden filtered through art. And it’s all about how you frame the views:


In his book, Australia’s Quarter Acre: The Story of the Ordinary Suburban Garden, Peter Timms asks why it is ‘we embrace[d] suburbia more wholeheartedly than perhaps any other nation?’ He suggests, among other reasons, it was about coming into the possession of a garden space — ‘odd though it may seem, [it offered] a modicum of spiritual satisfaction … the Australian middle classes inheritred the English belief that it was chiefly by tending plants and observing natural cycles that people would come to love God and to value his work … in Europe, God was … sought in scripture and miracles whereas the English found Him in hedgerows, flowerbeds and the first cuckoo of spring.’ Last night, Michael McCoy stated it more directly, if agnostically: ‘the ultimate thing is I love to see people reconnect with their surrounds … we are nourished manyfold …’

Only reconnect: What we talk about when we talk about gardens

But, if we think on McCoy’s remark, it too admits mysticism into its terms of reference. To say ‘reconnect with their surrounds’ is to beg the question; to be ‘nourished’ begs another. We construct our surrounds — Peter Timms notes: ‘one of the gardening books on my shelves insists that deciding on a style is the prerequisite to planning a new garden, even before soil, aspect, climate and local custom are considered. Cottage, formal, bush and Mediterranean are … suggested. These are at least partially based on plant types, but television makeover programs frequently start with a “theme”: Hawaiian for one … Mexican somewhere else. It’s like ordering a pizza.’

This could be read as polemic but it does often prove true — from my observations, I’m guessing people’s gardens are the result of (i) general inertia — an embellishment or shoring up of what was already there (if not collapse into total apathy); (ii) a deliberate thematic direction: succulents, natives, grasses, rock and gravel, Japanese etc; (iii) or is the result of the uncommon refined and educated instinct where the garden is being written as a neverending autobiographical text — what Michael McCoy calls his ‘favourite criterion — to what extent does a garden express the personality of its creator(?).’ And that may be the ultimate artifice: nature mediated as an expression of a human personality. At this point, perhaps the idea of the garden has receded from resonating with hierarchical religion into the romantic strand of modernity’s project: self-actualisation.

The unconscious garden

I have the pleasant situation, and good fortune, to live with a constant gardener — while, as proof of my unimpeachable city-origins, I am gifted with Brown Thumb. So I watch out of the corner of my eye as Things Move and Shapes Change. Over the course of a few weekends the front slopage is denuded. The plot by the driveway is hacked and cleared. I can’t say I miss the camellia trees with their robust winter clusters of cherry red and milk white blossoms, too butch, really — in any case, they “were in the wrong place.” The driveway is rendered into a lumberyard full of trunks and branches. Then, as the world tilts, the void begins to fill and spring is heralded by tracts of colour, blooms in a subtle palette of lilacky purples, unsalted butter creams, baby talcum pinks, shocks of vivid magenta, flour-siftings of white. (I am reminded of Hurtle Duffield in Patrick White’s The Vivisector, when he looks at a lantana in blossom and thinks it resembles a bush that someone has thrown a pan of scrambled eggs over.)

But I notice our garden in unconscious ways — I am responding to what Michael McCoy has come to conclude is the most profound aspect of the garden: ‘I’m sure our gut reaction is spatial.’ I notice the colours, how could I not? But my main reaction is to the atmospherics (and aromatics) of our little space. It’s a “dry” garden and as I have noted, plants come and go — they lean to the visually exotic, often sourced from specialist nurseries — but the gestalt, the mise en scene, or in McCoy’s term of art the “spatial” is what my gut reacts to. As the writer Fiona MacGregor put it, more than her family it was the topography of North Sydney that affected her childhood most. Ours is a jumbly, jungly patch, a tumbling space that reminds me of my previous life in inner-Sydney rather than the suburbs of Melbourne. The garden plan, such as it is, is to maintain a kind of wild(er)ness — even though I feel sure that the bird-rich chaos, as dense as the floriate brushiness of some Emily Kngwarreye paintings, is as well undergridded as her pictures, which rely on an underlay of linear pattern. Part of the garden recently looked like this:


A saddish coda: ‘our little bit of magic’

How does the “spatial” touch us? What are the “surrounds’ that Michael McCoy most loves us to reconnect with? And once reconnected, what do we then connect the surrounds with? — living and doing, homelife and memories. So, I quote the final paragraph of My Own Life, Hazel Hawke’s autobiography (1992) — it rings with quiet joy, but read in retrospect, a sad coda, the cliffs encoded with memories betrayed. Thus, magic / spirit of place / God in the hedgerow:

‘Our house will hang on a the slope of a hill, a dangle of rooms embracing the northern sun and the view of the sparkling blue water. The sounds are the birdsongs of bush and the clinking of rigging on the masts of boats. The rocky hillside below is spread with old gums and tree-ferns, where grandchildren will play. We two old sexagenarians have gathered just a touch of moss, but not nearly enough to stop us rolling busily, contentedly, on — with each other, our children and theirs — in our little bit of magic.’

+ + +

‘You’re a wonderful panel, so interesting.’

An audience member, prefacing his question: ‘You’re a wonderful panel, so interesting.’ And they were. Knowledgeable, passionately enthusiastic, articulate, charismatic. They looked pleased to be there and talked more keenly than writers ever seem to do about writing. Why is that? And someone had even decked out the bench they sat behind with a line of gerberas. I’ve gone on at regrettable length (at length is almost always regrettable) so I recommend you check them out for yourself. Here, anyway, are a few sketches and quotes. Please note, the quotes here can not convey the conversation’s sheer vim and quality.


Ramona Koval is host of the Book Show; Stephen Ryan, of course, is host of ABC TV’s Gardening Australia.

Koval: What is a plantsman? Ryan: Someone who loves plants first, and the garden comes second. (So, now I know.)

Ryan was given The Boy with the Green Thumb. The 10-year-old Ryan thought, I’m going to be a nurseryman! Koval: So, it was pure ego!

Ryan: There are people telling us what to plant and when to water … if I plant a carrot, I’m going to water as it needs. (Don’t quote this — something roughly like:) it’s a furphy, this water business … the green is what puts the moisture back in the air … the people trying to stop us keeping greenspace, we’re going to end up with deserts.

His garden reading: Sorry, I didn’t note them down.

His favourite non-professional reading: Lord of the Rings, I’ve read it four times. For me, fantasy is utter escape.


Michael McCoy is a garden designer, author, speaker etc with a celebrated “dry” home garden. Terry Smyth is the curator of “the Southern Chinese Plant Collection” at Melbourne’s Royal Bot. Gardens.

Smyth read The Fairy Doll at four, and wanted to be a gardener.

She’s keen on Lynne Strahan’s Gardens of Light: She writes about colour in  a way I find very moving … lilies in a vase, they can look like octopus (I know this sounds odd here, but the way Smyth said it, it was very alluring.) And she likes Robert Fortune on China and Roy Lancaster on Chinese plants, which she takes with her to China on field trips. And: The Botanic Gardens’ library is most comprehensive botanic library in Australia.

Apart from garden books, Smyth has been reading Tim Winton, Alice in Wonderland and Prendergast’s Last Stand.

Smyth quotes Edna Walling: The Australian flora is like pearls before swine.

She says her favourite garden is ‘My own.’ Ryan agrees, except that it’s his own. McCoy, who had nominated Flint Hill in Woodend, chipped in to say, All the greatest gardens were created by the owner.

McCoy was saved by Christopher Lloyd. At one point McCoy had been so disllusioned he was on the verge of giving gardening away. He was to return a book to a friend the next day, Christopher Lloyd’s The Well-Tempered Garden, and decided to flick through it so as not to seem rude. He started reading and didn’t stop; he was turned around. Lloyd was the inheritor of England’s famous Great Dixter, where McCoy was to live and work later with the great man himself.

McCoy: It’s all very well to accept advice but a leavening of scepticism liberates you.

McCoy on garden writing, perhaps a bit disingenuously: A certain suspicion of “expertise” — only interested in the style of a journeyman. (I say disingenuous because he is so highly articulate himself, communicating with clarity, force and effortlessly avoiding cliches.)

He has: revisited and reread Brideshead Revisited, because I don’t know, can’t understand, what it’s about.

+ + +

A garden in Tasmania, next week

Next week, we will hopefully go on an excursion to a superb garden in Tasmania, an hour out of Hobart. It opens on November 1, but the owner kindly let us in earlier this month, even though she was still preparing it: It’s not ready!

It’s a garden of “rooms” and here is one of the “walls”:


Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.