The Art of Natural Design

British gardner John Brookes uses native species for an informal look. Recent books reflect this theme.

JOHN BROOKES, British garden designer, is apt to launch unexpectedly into gusts of laughter so extreme that they could endanger exotic plants.

But he might not mind. He prefers native plants that are suited to their locality and better able than pampered "alien plants" to withstand rough climate and hard weather. His blustery laughter is, perhaps, the sound symbol of the often humorously presented fresh breeze he brings to garden design thinking.

Mr. Brookes likes to goad the conventional establishment of the horticultural world and its ranks of "plantsmen" and "plant-collectors." He says he believes the 20th century has by now "come round to considering other aspects of plants than the number you have" and a different concept of the garden than "as a series of spaces containing an embarrassing richness of plants." He even lumps plants under such disrespectful, garden-designer headings as "infill," "pretties," "skeletons," and the like.

Although the Royal Horticultural Society has awarded him several medals for garden designs, he is critical of the encouragement this influential Surrey-based institution gives all gardeners everywhere to grow and collect exotics, to "cram" gardens full of "alien plants."

Brookes wants to challenge preconceptions about gardens. He is somewhat caustic about the British fondness for Victorian and Edwardian concepts of how a garden should look: "The English are still doing an 'Arts and Crafts' sub-Jekyll bit!"

The Arts and Crafts movement at the end of the 19th century was a reaction against industrialization. In garden design, he says, it meant "an extremely upper middle-class concept of the cottage garden ... done by people affluent enough to do cottage gardening without the cottage."

Gertrude Jekyll, with architect Edwin Lutyens, put an Edwardian stamp on British gardens that even in the 1990s remains the ideal to many people. Brookes is organizing a seminar on garden design at Kew Gardens in London this fall called "Is There Life after Gertrude?" He is not anti-Jekyll, he insists, but says what he praises as her "true sense of location" is now "interpreted through a deadening veil of nostalgia."

Practicing internationally since the 1960s, Brookes is still one of the younger garden designers to have achieved a worldwide reputation. He is as much a teacher as a designer, holding seminars in garden design across the United States, in France, at Kew, and at his own headquarters, Denmans Garden, in Sussex, England (which is also open for the public to visit). He's written a dozen books. The latest is "The Book of Garden Design" (Macmillan, 1991, $40).

You might think from a cursory glance at this volume that Brookes is a chameleon, a skillful eclectic, happy to adapt styles to suit any taste. He leaps from the Oriental to the Colonial Style, from the Modern to the Mediterranean. Architectural Style is on one page, Watery on another and Cottage on a third. His appreciation of so many different styles becomes clearer in conversation.

In essence, Brookes says it is high time gardeners got back to some form of "regionalism." "It's to do with having a feeling for where you are," he says. They should look at local plant-life, he argues, at local building styles, climate, soil, the form of the landscape, and the kinds of materials locally available. Traveling a lot, he has become very conscious of the differences between one place and another.

His philosophy might be summed up as: "Don't fight the site." If your garden is wet, why drain it? Why not grow plants that love water? Why not design a pond, a stream, a bog-garden? If you live in a desert, don't try to have an English garden of roses and honeysuckle! Instead exploit the "architectural form" of tamarisk, yucca, and ocotillo.

He feels strongly that the American affection for the English look has had its day. For a start, the conditions are entirely different - as different as Vermont and Arizona. In Britain, gardeners are always looking for more sun. American gardens are often in need of shade. Scale alone is against English herbaceous borders in American gardens.

He feels that American garden design is already in many ways ahead of British practice - "much ahead of us in terms of welding garden concepts into that of conservation and the vernacular."

But while he greatly admires such adventurous modernism in the United States, Brookes still finds things to criticize.

"Much [American] garden design," he says, "is done by the maintenance man. And he's much more concerned about having the plants three feet apart in order to get his mulch in between, as if the whole garden is designed for his welfare - for his weekly visits - rather than for the owner's."

Brookes also speaks amusingly about the "decks everywhere" in American gardens. "They are almost on top of the garden, looking down, so you don't have to touch anything!" A storm of laughter.

"Sometimes," he goes on, "gardening seems like the icing on a huge gingerbread. And the sooner people get into what the gingerbread's about and stop fiddling about with the icing, the happier they'll be and the more likely they will be to get it right." One thing he advocates is "going out in the garden and digging with your own spade."

"The whole point of gardening is that you do get mucky fingers. A very basic thing from which an awful lot of people get a huge amount of satisfaction."

As a garden designer himself, he has plenty of advice about how to approach this. He quotes the title of a Californian book "Gardens are for People."

"It's absolutely right," he says. A garden is "not so much a matter of decoration, but of how you move about." It's a carefully considered, basic plan - "a whole pile of practical stuff, nothing to do with horticulture at that stage."

A ground plan works out "how much terrace you want to sunbathe on," how much space for eating outside, how the path comes up to the front door. And it's also vital to think about "how it relates back to your sitting room or your kitchen sink" - to wherever, for 12 months of the year, you are going to be looking out at your garden.

Brookes's strength, according to American designer James van Sweden, is "what we call the 'hardscape' or the bones of the garden." He "beautifully resolves this in his office."

Simplicity is a word Brookes continually emphasizes. His own garden is relaxingly "wild," particularly showing how gravel can be used imaginatively over large edgeless areas as well as pathways, allowing plants to seed naturally.

A French gardener told him recently she found his garden "shocking." Presumably it is just too free. But he feels that this freedom, "looking outwards towards nature again," points to the future, to an easier relationship with native species, and gardening which is also less exacting to maintain. "An ecological, environmental approach," he calls it in his book. More "wildflower meadow and the informal plantings of gravel paths."

But he also cautions: "The wilder - or the softer - one is planting now, the more the strength of the design, I think, should hold it together." Whatever way you look at it, a designed garden still needs bones. That's why designer Brookes likes his own garden so much in winter. "You see the bones," he says.

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