Questions for John Brookes
How long have you been designing gardens?
I’ve been designing gardens roughly for 50 years. I recently found that the earliest working drawing, which I’ve kept, is dated 1957!
Tell us a bit about other work, what achievements are you most proud of?
My working life has been divided between travelling, designing outside (not only gardens), writing and teaching. Each rewarding in its own way, but I’m most proud to see people that I’ve taught coming through as celebs, teachers and designers in their own right. Alan Titchmarsh, Cleve West, Rosemary Alexander (Chelsea Physic Garden), Duncan Heather (Oxford), Andrew Duff (Inchbald) – and these are just the English ones!
Who were your early influences? Who first inspired you to get into garden design?
When I did an apprenticeship with Nottingham Parks Dept I worked for the last six months in the design office with a Dutch landscaper called Harry Blom. I think that he was the first professional designer I knew before I moved to London to work in the office of a landscape architect.
Are you a gardener as well as a designer? Do you have your own garden and how would you describe it?
Yes I’m a gardener when I have time, and of course to a degree one is hands on (or was) in planting up a new garden. I have my own 1.8 hectare garden at Denmans in West Sussex, which I share with my business associate. The garden has been described as a glorious, but ordered disarray. A contradiction in terms I know – but I like it. I would add ‘it’s comfortable’.
What five plants could you never do without?
I have favourite plants, but as I work all over the world they’re not necessarily suitable to every situation, with climatic and soil differences.
What materials do you like to use in the garden?
When younger I was called a Modernist, so that concrete needed to feature heavily in my designs and it’s still terrific when used well. Now I seem to be into natural materials of the area as they visually fit in so well. I suppose that one tries to shock and draw attention to one’s work when younger – at my stage it’s very different, though the line and lessons of Modernism are still there.
What’s the most common problem you come across when designing a garden and how do you overcome it?
The most common problem (to be controversial) in designing a garden is the client! But it’s their garden, and they have had the good sense to ask me to design it, so it’s my job to blend what they want with what the site tells me and with the style and feel of their house – albeit my way. A plan or drawings are necessary to be able to talk through problems and overcome them, before making expensive mistakes. And talk maintenance too – who will look after the garden?
What is your biggest design or gardening mistake?
I should think my mistakes are many but it’s by making them that you learn. After all, each client or pair of them, each site and situation provides a unique set of circumstances to manipulate. It is a miracle when you can fulfil your client’s dreams.
What’s your favourite garden to visit and why?
I spend my life visiting gardens to be improved. At the end of the day I’m terribly happy with a drink in my own corner of Denmans.
If you could design a garden for anyone, who would it be and why?
I’ve been terribly lucky with the clients for whom I’ve worked, and there are no great ambitions left. The celebrity on their own home ground is usually just like you and me. Occasionally you get the really grand client who wants to deal with you only through an agent. This doesn’t work for me.
How would you describe your design style?
I hope that my design style is capable of changing from situation to situation. But I like to be bold and simple in my approach to a design, with comfortable spaces, well constructed, then heavily overlaid with plant material. The size and scale – town or country doesn’t matter. I’d like to hear, ‘That’s handsome’, rather than ‘that’s pretty’, and definitely not ‘that’s cute’.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone starting out with a new garden?
Try to live with the space for a season or so, hot and cold, to get ‘the feel’ of the place. Don’t rush. Use local materials where possible. And keep your plantings simple. Oh, and most important, talk to a garden designer before you do anything!