John Brookes completely changed the way people thought of garden design, shifting the emphasis from the growing of plants and the craft of gardening to designing and creating spaces for people. His designs catered first and foremost for the essential practicalities of what people needed in the spaces attached to their houses so that his creations were primarily pragmatic yet never without beauty of design nor planting. He overturned traditional notions of garden design in Britain and around the world, balancing creativity with pragmatism and style with reality.
It was also John Brookes who brought garden design to the masses, to the gardens of householders in the suburbs and housing estates for he considered the smaller spaces not only worthy of good design but the very spaces which demanded it. It such areas where indoor space is regularly limited and outdoor space at a premium he developed the concept of the room outside, an outdoor space which combined and functioned along with the house, giving the householder an outdoor extension which functioned in harmony with the interior. It was with these spaces that he developed his grid system of garden design and planning, taking the elevation of the house as a guide to the layout of the garden so the latter is, literally, in line with the former. It was also an easily understood approach which brought garden design within the grasp of the amateur and I am certain that many gardens have been the better developed from a reading of his books. His “Gardens for Small Spaces” and “Small Gardens” were certainly two of his most popular titles.
There were many other titles over the course of his long and very successful career as designer, garden creator, lecturer and author. His last was A Landscape Legacy (Pimpernel Press 2018), written with the assistance of Gwendolyn van Paasschen who had worked with him and is now Chair of the John Brookes Denmans Foundation, which is dedicated to perpetuating his design legacy and preserving Denmans Garden (John Brookes’ private garden), now listed as a Grade II Garden.
This present volume is a collection of John Brookes’ writings, gathered and edited by Gwendolyn van Paasschen. She has brought together entries in his personal notebooks, preparatory notes for lectures, some short published articles, transcripts of talks and entries in his blog – John Brookes Rants and Raves! They are more informal than previous publications, more open and frank and, in a way, more insightful as they were often expressed in a more relaxed manner, less considered or careful and contain some gems such as “gardens are for people not plants” or “our enthusiasm for plants can wreck a design if not controlled” and, of course, his often repeated, “less is more”.
The material is organised almost as series of course lectures bringing the reader through the various steps which should be undertaken along the journey of designing an outdoor space opening with Advice to Homeowners and Advice to Designers and guidelines on Learning to Look… On the Garden in its Setting and On Gardens and the Environment. The Art of Design centres On Art and Garden Design and On How to Design while The Craft of Gardening has sections On Planting and On Plants.
This volume is a reminder of the enduring relevance of John Brookes’ work and design philosophy and of the underlying thinking and issues that formed it. He was a genius and colossus of garden design and this book is perhaps the best synopsis of his work as well as being a very enjoyable and informative read.
[How to Design a Garden, John Brookes, edited by Gwendolyn van Paasschen, Pimpernel Press, 2021, Softback, 223 pages, £20, ISBN: 978-1-901258-91-0]