Preferring To Nurture Talent Over Plants, Author Demystified Design

Because John Brookes was English and in the business of creating gardens, you might have thought that he shared his compatriots' mania for growing plants to some sort of perfection. He didn't.

"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 about two dozen books about design, the first being "Room Outside" in 1969, for readers who wanted to make something of their yards.

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 at 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. You will see pretty pictures of patios, arbors, balconies, and pools and fountains.

To the extent that there are garden shows left on TV, they are about instant effect and the eye appeal of outdoor furnishings, built-in barbecues and brightly colored awnings. 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.

Design, on the other hand, is about the most effective and beautiful way to fix problems, meet needs and fulfill desires. It is successful when all the elements relate to a whole and the garden becomes greater than the sum of its parts. With design, it is understood that the plan will take several years to reach fruition, as trees and shrubs mature. It is not the stuff of TV makeover shows.

It is not realistic, perhaps, to think that everyone with a yard has the imagination or the knowledge to undertake garden design; perhaps Brookes was being too optimistic in producing books for a general audience. But his underlying premise, that every homeowner should think about design and that everyone with a garden should be involved in transforming it, is totally valid.

'Gardens ... are for people not plants'

Before he came along, landscape design was something for wealthy people with grand properties. But Brookes was a product of his time. In Western societies after World War II, a growing, aspirational middle class moved in to modest but comfortable homes and set about improving their environment, whether it was with contemporary furnishings, home cooking or garden design.

When I met Brookes in the 1990s, I naively thought that everybody was interested in garden design and that everyone was willing to put their backs into laying their own brick patios or digging rubble out of plant borders or installing hedges.

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 for the age of the do-it-yourselfer, that seems to have passed, too. In pricey East Coast cities, at least, debt-laden people in their 20s and 30s (and 40s?) find it hard to break into the housing market, and those who do aren't spending their weekends erecting arbors or building raised beds.

Society, it is generally accepted, is more sedentary than ever. Homeowners with means turn to design-build landscapers whose work seems to me to be modular and skewed toward the dreaded gracious living.

Fixing a drainage problem is a question of engineering know-how, but the creative end of garden design is a murkier business. Brookes' talent was in deconstructing the process of design and bringing a clarity to something inherently opaque.

One of his techniques was to overlay a garden plan with a grid whose scale was taken from a feature of the house, for example, the width of a bay, the distance between windows, the size of an entrance. The grid or its multiples became a way of organizing the design on paper. In a rectilinear row house yard, he would turn the grid 45 degrees to create a diamond template. It was a bit of a gimmick, but it worked.

The site should guide how a garden is made, but so too should the personality of the owners. "Are you a formal person, or more casual?" he wrote. "Do you like plants spilling out at random, Or do you prefer a neater, more structured look?"

Brookes was assailed for not being more plant-driven. So it was ironic that, more than anyone else I know, he was able to explain how plants played different roles. He sorted them into five distinct categories, which he labeled "specials," "skeletons," "decoratives," "pretties" and "infill." This was laid out in his 1991 "Book of Garden 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. He was interested in historic traditions in gardens and once wrote a book about Islamic gardens, "Gardens of Paradise." 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."

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