This week I made something of a pilgrimage, to the garden of John Brookes OBE at Denmans in Sussex.
I have a personal debt of gratitude to pay to John Brookes as it was the 1970s edition of his classic book, The Small Garden, that formed my first ideas about garden design. In fact I shamelessly nicked (slightly adapted) one of the designs in that book for my first-ever garden in London, at a time when I was still feverishly taking notes while watching Gardeners’ World (I know, I know).
He has broken new ground in so many areas of garden design we now take for granted that his legacy can’t really be overstated. He was the first to come up with the idea of the ‘inside outside’, making garden rooms – as advocated by Lawrence Johnstone et al – an extension of the living room in the house they surround.
He was – astonishingly – the first British designer to take his inspiration from modern art, specifically Mondrian via his revolutionary geometric garden of interlocking squares for Penguin Books at Heathrow. And he was the first to create a design-focussed garden at the Chelsea Flower Show, at a time when everyone else was just creating showcases for plant nurseries.
Denmans is still his home, and where he runs his garden school. It’s looking a little tired these days, mainly I suspect because there’s just one heroic gardener looking after four acres of intensively-garden landscape and do lone battle with an encroaching army of ground elder. A garden of this stature deserves a few more staff.
But the mark of good design is that it holds up even a slightly woolly garden and gives it bones and structure. And so it is with Denman’s: it’s a softer garden than John Brookes’s usual designs in any case, and the fluid, sinuous curves and gentle naturalism are deceptive as underneath it all lies the solid, well thought out geometry and subtle design touches which are a John Brookes hallmark. Here are a few tips from my notebook I’ll be trying out once I get home.
1: Don’t ignore the buildings. Reflect the materials used in the buildings in hard landscaping; and echo architectural features in the planting. Here a tall fastigiate yew emphasises the strong verticals in the Clock Tower.
2. Don’t get too hung up about giving beds clear edges. At Denmans plants flow over the edges of curving gravel paths, sometimes spilling over into the hard landscaping and self-seeding into the edges, giving a soft, organic, very natural look that also, incidentally, evokes the Sussex coastline of the wider environment.
3. Always be aware of the picture you are creating, and use sculpture to complete the scene. This sitting boy was delightful and added a focal point and a little vignette to an otherwise nice-but-ordinary wildlife pond.
4. Create a sense of mystery and intrigue by cutting curving (not straight) paths through the planting, giving a glimpse of another part of the garden beyond but not revealing it all at once. It makes it all but impossible to resist following the path to explore further.
5. Lawns are intrinsically boring. So make them more interesting (and save yourself some hours behind the mower) by only cutting the middle bits once a month. The outer paths you mow once a week – creating a contrast in texture and keeping the sensuous curves of the design at the fore.
6. Remember your backgrounds – in every direction. This Achillea ‘Moonshine’ shone out in contrast with the dark purple smokebush (Cotinus coggygria) against the wall behind it: what a combination. But turn around, put the smoke bush behind you, and the brooding effect is completely gone to be replaced by airy woodland:
Same plant, completely different effect. So as you compose your perfect combination looking one way, don’t forget to turn around and look at it the other way, too – and seize the chance to create a wholly new scene.