Peek into Michael McCoy's Summer Garden

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16 Feb 2017

Michael has delighted audiences at previous Collectors' Plant Fair. He is a garden designer, writer, TV presenter and garden tour leader, and gardens in the Macedon ranges of Victoria. Today we explore what happens in his garden in summer.

Peek into Michael McCoy's Summer Garden?

First published in Garden Clinic summer issue #44, December 2017 by Michael McCoy

Michael has delighted audiences at previous Collectors' Plant Fair. He is a garden designer, writer, TV presenter and garden tour leader, and gardens in the Macedon ranges of Victoria. Today we explore what happens in his garden in summer.?

Words and pictures: Michael McCoy

My garden reaches its climax over summer. This makes good sense in my cool climate, as summer is the only season in which we’re likely to get the balmy evenings that would have us sitting around outside over a glass of wine, or dinner. By some stroke of luck, this is also the season when the largest number of herbaceous perennials bloom, and these are the plants that really make my heart skip a beat. I love their dramatic seasonality, which isn’t just emphasized by their blooming time. Spring shakes them out of winter slumber and into rapid, voluminous growth. Every time you look at them, they’ve grown.

Of course their seasonal response demands some contrasting stability, and in my garden this comes in the form of a strong, geometric layout, a solid (if slow to establish) matrix of evergreen shrubs, and an increasing number of structures made from sticks and boughs that I’ve cut from pine seedlings that are invading nearby native forest. In doing so I’m unashamedly copying those I’ve seen when I’ve visited (twice now!) the incredible garden of the Priory at Orsan, on the edge of the Loire Valley, while leading tours for Ross Garden Tours.

I’m clipping….box

The exact right moment to clip box is difficult to determine. If you clip it too early in the growing season you may have to do it several times in the year, and if you clip it during or immediately before hot weather, the lower foliage exposed in the clipping can burn. In my climate the best time to clip it seems to be once the new growth has toughened up a bit and lost its lime green colouring, which is in early December, during a bout of cool weather. In some areas of the garden I’m aiming for spheres of box, and in others I’m chasing a lumpy, amoeboid form, like a giant bumpy caterpillar. Around the raised vegetable beds I’m after strictly geometric forms to cover for the natural untidiness of vegetables, and to provide a base-level of green when the vegetable beds are seasonally empty.

Box aren’t the only plants I’ll clip over. Shrubs in general tend to be amorphous, with a diffuse or shaggy outline, and I find that I’m frequently craving a crisp, clipped edge to best set off bold leaves nearby, or as a contrast to shrubs of soft, arching, cane-like growth like old roses, spiraeas or buddleias, which aren’t shape-able no matter how hard you might try.

I’m harvesting….early veg

Most years I don’t have the water to grow vegetables over summer. Between the end of winter and Christmas stuff grows like the clappers but doesn’t need much supplementary watering as the soil is yet to really dry out so my plan is to have everything picked by Christmas Day and to leave the beds fallow until autumn. It’s a radical step away from the normal summer growth/autumn harvest pattern, but one that tank-water supplies have forced on me.

If I really seize the day in late winter (and it doesn’t always happen, as I’m often lulled into a kind of hibernation stupor), I’ll achieve a sense of huge vegetable wealth in early summer, and we’ll be picking lettuces, beetroot and carrots faster than we can eat them.

I’m leaving….annual seedheads

I love the spontaneity of self-sown annuals. They’re kind of annoying, in that they never quite place themselves where you want them, and there’s always too few one year and too many the next, but their contribution far outweighs their inconvenience. As my garden gets very dry over summer, I’m largely dependent on species that germinate in late autumn, bulk up over winter and then flower in spring and early summer, such as Queen Anne’s lace (Ammi majus), shown here, or poppies. I’ve got to be careful not to mulch too heavily where I want them, or else I’ll bury the seeds too deep (which is exactly what you want a mulch to do with weed seeds), and clearly I need to keep an eye out while I’m weeding, to make sure I retain all the good species. Not only do these self-sowers provide ‘free’ plants, they give me the heart-warming sense (however illusory) that nature is on my side.

It’s time to

Pull out the dying plants of sweet-pea as they wind up their flowering time. I always collect a few hundred seeds, just in case they don’t self-sow in sufficient numbers.

sow the seeds (in pots) of bulbs that have flowered earlier. I cover the soil surface with coarse sand or fine gravel to keep it moist and minimise the growth of mosses and liverworts.

Cut back English lavender once the flowers have faded, to keep the shrubs themselves tight and dense.

Deadhead shrubs that are capable of ongoing flowering, such as buddlejas and roses. Not only can this help encourage re-flowering, it prevents the old flowers spoiling the look of the new.

Plug up holes in perennial plantings with fast-growers such as Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’ or Salvia ‘Limelight’. These have the growth-rate of annuals, but the form and poise of perennials.

 I’m feeding….summer pots

When water gets scarce around here, flowers become scarcer still. I’ve found the best way to overcome drought’s depressing effect is to invest what little water I have into some large display pots filled to the brim with flowers and good foliage. I’m often carrying shower-water out to them, or the water otherwise wasted while waiting for the hot water to come through the taps. What I’m after is a huge performance, and the only way to achieve that is to feed and feed like mad. At best there’ll be as much as four or five times the amount of top growth as there is volume of roots. I’ve got to think about it as if I’m feeding the Olympic swimming team out of a tiny kitchen.

My standard approach is to feed with a liquid feed at least once a week. Sometimes I forget, and other times I feel like feeding them more. It’s not rocket science. The only thing I really must avoid is having them underperform due to starvation, or even mild hunger pangs!

Michael on TV: Dream Gardens premieres tonight, Thursday February 9 at 8pm on ABC and iview

Michael’s new show Dream Gardens launches on ABC tonight. Think Grand Designs, but with the focus on gardens. Expect Michael’s trademark enthusiasm and deep knowledge - and don’t think Dream is just a way to describe some amazing gardens; Michael wants us to do it too, to catch the bug and dream gardens!


6 great plants for summer

Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’

A fabulous grass for cool climates, frothy and purple early on, but quickly ripening to golden, bolt-upright seed heads.


The giant forms, such as Nepeta ‘Six Hill’s Giant’ or ‘Walker’s Blue’ are spectacularly generous in flower and can cover a large space from a small root area.


There’s a new range of liliums emerging that copes with full sun and quite dry conditions. They’re dead easy, but look wonderfully exotic.

Agastache ‘Candy Pink Fiesta’

This is a relatively new introduction, which after the flowers fall is left with deep pink cat’s-tails of bracts. I think it’s got a great future.

Daphne ‘Eternal Fragrance’

Its fragrance isn’t as good as the old Daphne odora, but, it’s phenomenally drought and sun-tolerant, very clip-able, and flowers two to three times a year.


They’re bog-standard, but fabulously generous. And their flowers are richly perfumed in the evening – particularly the dark blue/purple types.

Paris polyphylla

A very rare ‘bulb’ of early summer that made a mystery re-appearance in my garden long after I though I’d lost it.