Lessons from a garden guru

Words Adrian Higgins, The Washington Post

Englishman John Brookes had a career spanning over 60 years, creating beautiful gardens. However, growing plants to some sort of perfection like his compatriots, is one thing he deviated from. ‘I enjoy having plants around the place,’ he told me when I last saw him, in 2003. ‘But I’m not obsessed with how to cultivate them.’

Instead, he commanded a different discipline, one of garden design. Over the years, he wrote some two dozen books about design. He also taught generations of budding garden designers at his school south of London. I met him when he was in Washington to teach a course to students at what was then the Corcoran College of Art and Design. Brookes died March 16, aged 84. Something he represented went with him, I suspect. His most important contribution wasn’t his design instruction – which was exceptionally good – but the mere idea that a garden must be designed.

You might think it obvious that designing a garden is fundamental to its creation. But you’d be wrong. Few, if any, books, television shows and offerings on the manic forum we call the Internet actually tell you much about garden design. We are seeing photogenic vignettes, often staged and groomed, something that Brookes could instantly sniff out as bogus. ‘Gracious living,’ he called it, rolling his eyes.

 

Brookes believed that the style of a garden is what gave it its character. Image: Scott Web – Unsplash

 

Brookes was a prominent guru, but I had believed that he was one of many, just as Julia Child, who embodied the rise of home cooking, was one among a number of other celebrity chefs. I later came to see that Brookes was a one-off. There were many garden experts telling you how to plant things or how to transform portions of the yard, but no one talking holistically about design.

 

As a teacher, Brookes was emphatic, opinionated, articulate and driven by an unshakable belief that garden design mattered – in sum, everything a pupil might look for in a master. The style of a garden gave it its character, he said, but primarily it had to be bold, well made and comfortable for its owners. ‘Gardens, first and foremost,’ he wrote, ‘are for people not plants.’

Featured Image: Annie Spratt – Unsplash