Catherine StewartReview: ‘Dream Gardens’ on ABC TV

When I first heard that someone was going to make a new Australian TV show about gardening, I was amazed. Then excited. Then cynicism started to creep in. Would it be another quickie makeover show? A dumbed-down ‘reality’ show filled with manufactured drama? Then I heard Michael McCoy was the presenter and I breathed a great sigh of relief because I knew he wouldn’t have anything to do with either of those.


I’ve seen previews of the first two episodes of Dream Gardens. You’ll get to see the first 27 minute episode on ABC TV at 8pm next Thursday, 9 February 2017. And I recommend that you watch it, because it’s pretty good, it’s a new show about gardens (a rarity on Australian TV) and because it’s about garden design and construction rather than gardening.

Following how garden makers create their ‘dream gardens’ (and, in this show, that means garden designers working with their home owner clients) is a show premise filled with huge challenges.

First, unlike say Grand Designs, when the newly finished building looks at its pristine best (and from there it’s all downhill of course), gardens rarely look like anything much when they’re first built and planted. The built elements totally dominate the plants until they’ve had a few years to grow. How do you show a ‘da DA!’ TV reveal that doesn’t look ridiculous?

Secondly, I wondered who would be the ‘star’ of each segment – the designers or their clients? Or the presenter? The best gardens inevitably come from a strong and trusting partnership between the designer and client but too many ‘reality’ shows seem to end up being more about the presenter, building up the drama.

Thirdly I wondered whether the ABC could make a garden show that was significantly different to Gardening Australia. Could they be edgy? Deal with controversy or conflict?

So does Dream Gardens succeed on all counts? Here is my analysis…

1. Show structure

Like Grand Designs, we see what garden there is (or isn’t) before anything starts and then revisit it over the next 6-8 months as construction progresses, leading up to the reveal at the end. During this time we see various problems solved by designers and contractors, innovative construction techniques and design ideas, as well as the continued involvement of the home owner, as the dramas and delights unfold.

In each episode there’s also a small segment with another designer who has made a garden that has similarities to that week’s garden, such as on a steeply sloping block or a large productive garden. I’m really pleased that we get to see even more of Australia’s garden design talent on show.

And the show has a good balance between time with the home owners, the garden designer, Michael’s questions and then his voice-over segments.

Dream Gardens is very much about the trust that a home owner must have in the expertise and ability of a garden designer and, to a certain extent, also the contractor/builder. This reveals itself in a subtle way throughout but I’d like it more forthrightly discussed. While all garden designers are obviously not of the calibre of those we see on Dream Gardens, when people without innate design skills choose not to use a garden designer, especially for a difficult site, the awful results are everywhere. Not many people take on designing a house themselves but they will feel totally competent to design the landscape around it. A few are, but most are not.


2. Presenter Michael McCoy

First a disclaimer – Michael is a friend and that makes it very tricky to make criticisms. Fortunately I don’t have to as Michael is a natural in front of the camera, cheerful but not cheesy, and articulate and engaging. Why he hasn’t been on our TV screens in the past decade is a mystery. The only thing I found annoying was how he is able to wear a cream linen shirt walking about in dusty country and keep it clean and completely uncrumpled. Reality? I think not.

Michael’s offerings throughout the show fall into two categories. He interviews the garden owners about what they want – their ‘dream’ –  and also the designers about how they plan to make that dream come true. This works very well although there was one occasion when I would have liked a bit more probing. In Episode 2 when we see the colossal garden disaster that needs to be fixed (and you absolutely have to watch that as it’s mind-blowing), we don’t really find out why that happened and who was responsible. I didn’t want names named, but I was frustrated at not knowing whether it was a classic case of a builder who knew nothing about gardens attempting to make one, or the home owners not understanding a landscape plan, or both. Fortunately, landscape designer Georgia Harper is called in for the rescue and the result is miraculous.

Michael often talks about design concepts during the show to the garden owners, such as “the space”, meaning the defined three-dimensional limits of any part of the garden, and how the design is creating the right sort of space, how it’s covering up faults and flaws, and also enhancing good points to make a dream garden that transforms a home and even lives. Although I did wonder a couple of times if the garden owners understood what he was talking about, I say a loud Halelujah! that, finally, this stuff is not being dumbed down on our screens into “isn’t this garden lovely“. Those likely to watch this show are, I’m sure, quite capable of learning this design talk and I loved hearing it.


3. Production style

This is the first time I’ve seen drone camera work used so extensively in a TV show. Michael had told me about it and I was a bit sceptical but it works brilliantly. The bird’s-eye views of the gardens both before and after make it so much easier for someone unfamiliar with reading garden plans to relate what’s on the ground to what’s in the designer’s head and we really do get to understand the “space”, on the ground plane and also in elevation.

And the animated graphics showing an elevation drawing of the design being superimposed on the actual site are incredible, showing where this design is heading over time, especially when we know we’re not going to see fully-grown plants by the end. So the garden’s big reveal at the end, even without its fully-grown plants, is still satisfying and well managed.

But…I was disappointed with a couple of things about the look and feel of this show. I’d hoped for something that felt completely different to that other ABC garden show offering, the long-running Gardening Australia. Does gardening always have to be presented so nicely and prettily, with gentle plinky-plonk music and close-ups of bees buzzing around flowers? I must be a hopeless unromantic but I find these shots boring and time-wasting. Come on, we’ve only got 27 minutes to explain this design and find out what happened so why are we looking at a flower gently waving in the breeze? What does that tell us about anything? It would be much more informative to see the pool tiling detail, or the step ratios, or how well those timber corners are mitred. And the show’s title animation also looks alarmingly like we’ve stumbled into a GA spin-off.

My other directorial gripe is the style of camera work I call ‘face-the-camera-and-walk-towards-me-talking-loudly-and-gesturing-meaningfully-as-you-do‘. I was hoping for something much more David Attenborough or Monty Don, with that quietly spoken, conspiratorial over-the-shoulder close-quarters style of delivery to the camera. As a viewer, it makes you feel like you’re in the story, following the presenter and experiencing everything with him. So much more engaging, and I know that Michael would do it brilliantly. Britain’s superb garden shows use this all the time but Australian shows stick resolutely to the ‘talk loudly at me’ rather than ‘speak softly with me’ presenter style. The ‘face the camera’ filming also means that the presenter’s face must be front lit with reflectors to get rid of the harsh daylight shadows. Michael’s a good-looking guy but this does look a little weird at times.

My score

If those criticisms sound too negative, I must ‘fess up that I’ve allowed myself to have a rant about Australian gardening TV that I’ve been wanting to do for about 10 years. And that’s an unfair impression to give you of Dream Gardens, as it is a good show and well worth watching. I’d give the two episodes I saw a comfortable 4 stars out of 5.

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Catherine Stewart

About Catherine Stewart

Award-winning garden journalist, blogger and photographer; writer for garden magazines and co-author of 'Waterwise Gardening'; landscape designer turned landscape design judge and critic; compulsive networker and lover of generally putting fingers in lots of pies. Particularly mud pies. Creator, curator and editor of GardenDrum. Sydney, NSW.

14 thoughts on “Review: ‘Dream Gardens’ on ABC TV

  1. Very interesting review and critique Catherine. I agree with you entirely about gardening shows needing an extra ‘edge’ to them. When I was doing Talking Plants on RN I kept trying to get garden folk to argue, debate and be provocative, but with limited success. We do need to get comfortable with (constructive) criticism and differing perceptions of beauty – not always judging a garden lovely or charming. It’s tricky to get this balance right but we probably need to take a few more risks in our media approach.
    Looking forward to seeing the show!

  2. That’s a pretty fair review, not ranty at all!

    I’ve been looking forward to this series for a good year now. There’s been a lot of love and care put into it by the production team, as much is obvious from the promo. It looks sumptuously shot and will no doubt be a hit with the gardening-inclined.

    As for the drone footage, I agree with you up to a point. A lot of the gardens that make it to air on GA are very difficult to imagine spatially. A drone shot or two in this regard does wonders. That being said, it’s the newest thing and in that sense there’s a tendency to overuse it – too much leaves your head reeling and gives one armchair vertigo. There’s a lot of it in the promo, I just hope it’s used more moderately in the episodes.

    And, yes, very much looking forward to seeing Michael McCoy on the telly! He’s warm and engaging, wonderfully articulate and always has an insightful observation or two in hand. I’m also perplexed as to why it’s taken this long for him to be given such a gig.

    I’ll be watching!

  3. I’m looking forward to seeing Dream Gardens next and am hopeful that Australia’s female garden designers are well represented during this series.

  4. I am sure this will be nice to watch… However I do wonder what this kind of show has to has to do with the way most people live and garden. Those of us who struggle along alone or with a partner and can’t afford a “landscape designer” or whatever the term is would like a bit of help as well. Will they take on small city lots full of old Maple tree roots, or places where the soil can’t actually be called that. I don’t know… what makes this different? And truth be told, I am kind of sick of looking at men talking to other men or women with clean fingernails about gardening. Strong, etc. and able to call in help with muscle power and all kinds of other help. Actually I think I will skip it.

    • There’s a mix of projects in these stories. While some are extraordinarily high budget, in others the labour is all by the owners, and most of the materials salvaged and reused. I think too that there’s an argument made that finding the money to pay a landscape designer can often save you much more in the end.
      And I can assure you that there are not too many clean fingernails in this show. In fact, Michael is one of the few presenters who you’ll see talking to the camera with his hands covered with dirt. as he’s a real gardener himself.

  5. JenniP on said:

    After reading Catherine’s honest review, I’m more excited than ever to watch what looks like will be a beautifully-presented program. As a follower of Michael’s jottings & fortunate to participate in one of his Garden Conference Workshops, I feel there are going to be a lot of deeply passionate gardeners of all degrees of competence who will draw inspiration and learning from this program and yay, it’s going to be on iView so we can watch it if we have to work late.

    Interested in the comments re drone footage; it’s certainly a wonderful videography element if not taken to extremes. When garden-surfing, I find myself staring over and over at the footage on this French garden designer’s website, particularly the drone footage:

  6. Thanks for this review Catherine – I can’t wait to watch it. I enjoy Michael’s writing on gardening, so I am looking forward to his enlightened hosting. More people are now interested in design concepts, not just quick make-overs, so we are ready for this language on television. I laughed a lot about your “rant” about the buzzing bees and flowers wafting in the breeze – spot on! – and I too am more interested in the construction details. (Give me a conversation about nicely mitred finishes any day.) But maybe that’s just us?

  7. Stephen Read on said:

    I reserved my opinion until I watched the first episode. You are spot on with the review. Mostly what I was hoping for in a high brow garden design show. However there seems to be a little hokey ABC flavour I could do without, the background music and opening sequence could be brought into this century.

    Very happy generally with the show. Looking forward to next weeks episode with the lovely Georgia Harper saving the day.

  8. Trevor Nottle on said:

    I watched the first one and found it better than past programmes of the garden make-over variety but one thing bothered me – and it may be addressed in furture episodes; Michael (if I may be so familiar) didn’t attempt to discuss with the makers and designer why the potager style of vegie patch was appropriate to the landscape setting. I’m sure Michael would have the tact and sensibility not to attack but to probe gently for the reasons and thinking behind what was done. That is the edge that needs confronting in everything we do as garden makers in Australia. Why is copying a European style design developed in response to landscape, cultural and climatic conditions in, say, Normandy, a good basis for a garden made on the Darling Downs. Until we can begin to understand the relationship we have with our own landscape, culture and climate we’ll be stuck with aping whatever is ‘new’ and fashionable in far away places that are not HERE in. Australia

  9. Gil Teague on said:

    Great program. Covers a lot of territory in 27 minutes, much more than has been attempted in any other Australian gardening show, EVER.

    • Gil Teague on said:

      and an excellent review, Catherine.

  10. found it very ho-hum. Idiotic when they said ‘to see what it will look like in 5 years’ and then switch Toowoomba to NSW Southern Tablelands…. They created a garden at considerable expense that is so water intensive with no discussion on viability or sensible use of ground water. I found it very – very irritating.

  11. anita poddar on said:

    Watched the program with great anticipation and must admit to feeling pretty let down, perhaps becase I so like Michael’s writing and approach to design. Like Trevor I couldn’t wrap my brain around a potager plonked in the middle of the Darling Downs. And I sat there going where’s the water coming from about twenty times so I sympathise with Andrew’s query too.
    I wondered too about shelter from wind. Pioneer gardeners always, always tackled some kind of windbreak with good reason, and there was no sign nor apparently an intent to plant one. I strongly suspect that without a windbreak the garden will struggle.
    I’ll watch again next week and hope that there is a little more about context and practicalities rather than the things that have me abandoning the later series of Grand Designs, mad projects with little context but lots of cash splashed to deliver impractical and ugly projects.

  12. Julie Kearney on said:

    Great show. Very refreshing to the drawn out 1 hour Reno shows normally on TV.

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