John Brookes is one of the great modernist garden designers of the 20th and early 21st centuries.
Behind stone walls dripping with clematis, a crabapple’s toss away from what he called a “muddle” of windblown daisies, beneath the dappled shade of a weeping beech tree, a ruddy-cheeked Englishman, dressed in a gently rumpled olive suit, sat with a sketch pad spread across his lap.
He reached out his calloused gardener’s hand to wrap around a tall cup of Earl Grey, “strong with milk,” as he had requested.
And thus was launched one unforgettable morning’s tutorial late last September, one that might have been titled, “Secrets of a Proper English Garden, With Particular Emphasis on What Grows Up the Walls and Climbs Toward the Sky.”
The instructor: John Brookes, one of the great modernist garden designers of the 20th and early 21st centuries.
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Back in 1988, Brooke first sketched a plan for this living classroom, one where a butterfly now flitted past his shoulder, and one known since its 1991 opening as the English Walled Garden of the Chicago Botanic Garden.
It’s a tucked-away swatch of moss-upholstered walks and rambunctious herb and flower beds, all nestled behind great brick walls and gates painted the color of the Atlantic on a misty day, all gray-green with wash of blue.
It’s part Sissinghurst, part Hidcote, part Great Dixter — the holy trinity of great English gardens — with a dash of cottage simplicity tossed in for good measure.
Every few years, Brookes, who has written no fewer than 24 books on garden design and who gardens around the globe with a school in Argentina and a 4-acre plot at home in West Sussex, England, comes back to north suburban Glencoe to cast his most-discerning eye upon this English garden sampler.
From his perch upon a weathered bench, the master let rip with a vast curriculum of his accumulated garden wisdoms. With singular gusto, he launched in on growing things that assume vertical ascent — you know, the ones you might mistakenly have considered, ahem, “vines.”
“Let’s get the vine thing straight,” he began, sounding every bit the schoolteacher brushing off the simpletons in class. “Vines grow in vineyards and have grapes on them. The rest are climbers.”
Semantics out of the way, Brookes went on to subdivide climbers into threes: ramblers, scramblers and clingers. Ramblers (think clematis) and scramblers (roses) need support; clingers (climbing hydrangea), akin to Spider-Man with those itty-bitty suction cups that stick to wherever they land, need no undergirding, thank you.
That settled, he teased out his signature notion of “putting things on things” or rather, constructing a seasonlong layering of climbers to keep a garden abloom from early June through late September.
He begins with an underpinning of wisteria, a perennial that blooms early, and as that fades, on comes morning glory, an annual that puts out “a huge amount of growth,” he remarks. At last, comes the climbing crescendo, the clematis of late summer and on into autumn.
This notion of entwining, says Brookes, is one of the unflagging principles of great gardening. It’s seamless and seemingly endless.
But, he cautions: “Only do as much as you can manage in terms of maintenance. Remember, a pergola takes a lot of work. And anybody who’s old can’t be up on ladders.”
You would be wise to “get a good skeleton of scrubby material,” he adds, suggesting evergreens would fit this bill. And besides, he says, “you don’t stop looking out the windows in November.” Yew and holly are but two ideas Brookes tossed out, both providing “a good body of containment” for your skyward-seeking climbers.
“Once you’ve got the skeleton, you can start thinking about the fancy stuff — the roses. Most people start at the wrong end,” getting dewy-eyed over roses and ignoring the basics.
After you’ve attended to the vertical climb of your garden, Brookes suggests you go mad for bulbs. In other words, attend to grounding as well as soaring.
And, be it bulbs or any other potted morsel, don’t be timid in your plantings.
“I like to see people — instead of buying one of this and one of that because you’ve never seen something before — buy five of this. Or, take a close look and see if you can divide something once you’re home. Plant boldly. If it’s worth having once, it’s worth having five.”
You’ll not want to forget fragrance in your garden plantings, he said. “Smell is terribly evocative,” he offered. “I can’t tell you how many students I have who say something reminds them of their grandmother’s garden. Smells take you straight back.” Lily of the valley, for instance, carries him directly to the perfume his great-aunt spritzed upon her bosom.
With class time ticking away, the master was asked how one knows when a garden is at its prime, when it has become what it was set out to be?
“A garden works,” said Brookes, “if it slows people down, and they want to sit and see it.”
At 77, he confided, “I sit now. You want to take it a bit easy.”
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Don’t plant climbers too close to a wall; you’ll do well to dig about 3 feet away and train the climber back toward the wall.
Do not let your climbers push up through the evergreens; they’ll push the evergreen apart. The climbers need to be tied together. On the other hand, says Brookes, you needn’t be rigid about it. “If you want to have a go at it, have a go. Nature will soon tell you if you’re getting it wrong, believe me.”
Release your Type-A tendencies. If you’re keen on English gardening, you’ll want what the Brits would call “a bit of softness,” something that an American might misconstrue as “a lack of maintenance,” but isn’t that at all. You want that “nice overgrown quality.” Proclaims Brookes: “I do like things overflowing out of the beds.”
A strong uncomplicated design — simple shapes, both round and square — are at the heart of a modernist garden. Only then should you begin to play with color and plants.
Above all, keep it simple. Begs Brookes: Don’t go for “that word I cannot bear — cute. I cannot bear cuteness.”
WALLED GARDENS 101
An abbreviated history of the walled garden, as told by John Brookes:
“Walled gardens get people all atwitch. It has to do with warmth and protection, and of course was in the beginning a way to keep out rabbits and deer and foxes and wolves and bears. Gardens started out as cloisters, with simple geometric paths and patterns, which comes originally from Islam. The Romans built double-walled gardens and blew in hot air to ripen peaches.
“After the first world war, that effort was killed. No one had the labor to keep them. Walled gardens were dead, in ruins. In the last 10 years, the greening movement has brought back vegetables into the walled garden.”