I often wonder what I would do if I had 10 acres to make a garden. After so many years of designing outdoor spaces for other people, I have a feeling I’ll be a bit ‘kid-in-a-lolly-shop’ when it comes to one day creating my own non-rented garden. My dream is for a mad botanical lab, a testing ground for the weirdest and most beautiful plants I can find. Someone who has managed to live my dream and build his own botanical lab is garden designer Michael Cooke.
Michael and his family live at Central Mangrove, in the hills behind the Central Coast of NSW. His garden has been on my hit list for years, primarily because he’s a real plantsman. Sometimes landscaped gardens can be very strong on the ‘design’, but the planting can lack a little oomph. This is certainly not the case with Michael, he really knows his horticulture – as he should – he’s been working in plant nurseries since he was a child. As an 11-year-old boy he used to ride his skateboard down to the local nursery on Sydney’s northern beaches, and help out. He bought the business when he was 22, and the rest is history.
Michael and his wife bought their Central Mangrove property 28 years ago. The land was predominately uncleared bush. They are both keen horse riders, so the first structures built were fences to keep their horses in. The garden grew organically from then on, soon filling the space between the existing home and the horse paddocks and stables. ‘There was absolutely no plan for the garden. At that stage I was a nurseryman, with no real idea about design’ Michael says. ‘It was a good way of learning what plants did, and how they behaved in the ground.’
Since those early days Michael has honed his design aesthetic, and his garden is illustrative of this. It’s huge, comprising of many rooms, each with a strong sense of enclosure and personality. Because of its scale, Michael has been able to play with different design styles and planting combinations, while retaining a sense of continuity and cohesion.
There’s the gorgeous vine covered chook house with a watering can collection hanging on the wall, the Roberto Burle Marx vibes of the outdoor entertaining area, the naturalistic pond and so much more. It’s a place for meandering, dreaming, exploring. ‘I like a garden with heart,’ says Michael. ‘I think its important for gardens to evoke feelings. Different plants will give a garden a particular feeling and this is something I’m always considering.’
Gardens are meant to evoke emotion, make us feel something, touch us. They’re about people as much as they’re about plants. Michael gets this, and as well as playing with these ideas in his own garden, it’s clearly something that drives his design practice. ‘People intrigue me, and as a designer it’s important to understand who my clients really are and what their lives are about, to make sure I’m creating a garden for them,’ he says. ‘It’s never about recreating my garden, it’s about creating their garden.’
After dedicating his entire life to plants, I wonder if there’s any more to know, to learn, to excite? ‘If plants stopped surprising me it would all be over,’ Michael says. ‘Plants still excite me, design excites me, and architecture excites me.’ And as always with plants and gardens, the conversation never ends. There’s always something more to learn and understand, and Michael’s design practice and home garden is testament to this. ‘It’s a forever garden,’ he says.
Outdoor entertaining area complete with a huge fireplace and vine covered chunky pergola. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.
The driveway is flanked by a vast array of perennial planting, sculptures and more. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.
A dragons blood tree (Dracaena draco) forms a striking backdrop to one of many small seating areas scattered through the garden. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.
What a spot for an early evening aperitivo! Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.
A collection of sculptural plants separate the outdoor entertaining area and Michael’s latest construction, his wine cellar. Firesticks at the back (Euphorbia tirucalli), bird of paradise in the centre (Strelitzia reginae), and asparagus fern (Asparagus densiflorus) at the front. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.
Michael Cooke‘s garden dam, flanked with she oaks (Casuarina spp.) and complete with a rustic pontoon and hanging chair. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.
A mix of different forms and textures including a clipped box sphere (Buxus spp.), a tree aloe (Aloe barberae) and some horse poo mulch! Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.
A gorgeous vintage bird house amongst lush foliage plants. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.
The garden opens to the surrounding paddocks, borrowing rural vistas to create a sense of spaciousness. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.
Michael Cooke’s chooks have the best house ever! Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.
Michael Cooke and one of his two huge Irish wolfhound dogs. Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.
A clump of multi-coloured bromeliads (Vriesea hieroglyphica). Photo – Daniel Shipp for The Design Files.