Denmans – Why does it “work” – or rather why do visitors like it?

August 10, 2010

in Articles, My Favourite Garden

by John Brookes

By using my own garden as example I am reminded of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf who only played her own recordings on Desert Island Discs.  Nonetheless I know my own garden better than anyone else’s and am all too aware of visitor’s comments on it.

The garden was started in the mid 1940’s by great plantswoman Joyce Robinson.  Her husband was a farmer and they were very aware of their setting – both physically and (dare I say) socially.  What attracts me to this garden was that it was not trying to be something it was not.  So many gardens in my youth (and still no doubt) try to be grand – playing an 18th century game, but on the cheap.  Nor yet was it too cottagey either.

Being just 5 miles from the South coast, off the chalk of the Downs but on a gravelly, neutral open soil – things grow well here but dry out.  So Mediterranean plants do well, though a few had a knock back in the exceptional cold weather of last winter.

I have lived here 30 years now, and used to be constantly asked what were Mrs Robinson’s bits and which are ours.  Well it doesn’t work like that!  I came here because I liked the feel of the place – it had interest and intimacy and I liked the person from whom I took it over – that’s an interesting one, which I hadn’t considered before.  If I hadn’t liked Mrs J.R as she was known, would I have wanted to alter the garden more?

What I did strive to achieve was to give the garden a continuity as one walked round, and a sense of moving through from area to area.  The public get this one very much and say that although it is a 4 acre garden it doesn’t feel like it.

My ‘continuity’ had to take in Mrs J.R’s plantings, so that I reshaped round them using bold sweeping curves.  I was – and still am in awe of much of Burle Marx’ shapes and those of Thomas Church as well, and I worked with them in mind.  These curves make for easy mowing and by leaving areas of rougher grass I can play shape against shape.

Denmans by John Brookes - Image 1These gentle curves also suited Mrs J.R who for the last years of her life went round the garden in an electric golf cart, in which she couldn’t make a right angles turn.  (Because I lived and ran my school in the stable block in what had been her farm – for 10 years or so, we overlapped – so that I was reorganising the garden around her.  And all credit to her she allowed me to do it.  Though not without…)

Of course I have added to Mrs J.R’s plantings, and some I have taken out – plants like humans have life spans and are subject to storm and/or disease – but the overall feel I hope that I have kept.  A dominant feature in summer that contributes is that tall grey Verbascum bombyciferum pop up all over – they are biennial, as do Euphorbia wulfenii in the spring.

Because in my work as a garden designer I like to give my clients ‘bones’ to their design I plant a lot of evergreen – very little coniferous, though I love yew.  The result is that in winter I have a green garden, against which early flowering shrubs such as winter sweet, winter jasmine, Cornus mass and all the hellebores really show up.

Denmans by John Brookes - Image 2

There seem to be three kinds of visitors – those that walk round the edge of every bed looking at plants (and complaining that there are no labels), then there are those that just look for weeds (I always think they must be accountants) and then there are those that take in the whole picture, and those are the most satisfactory.  There’s a fourth lot who just want colour and trail round after lunch.

I hope that people get the shape thing in both the design and then the planting overlay to it.  Just as shapely!

Now for the flip side.

We currently employ one gardener/handyman full time and a lady who weeds three mornings per week, – oh, and myself from time to time.  But we are cursed with ground elder and it is a never ending job trying to keep on top of it.  To the point that one just has to take up chunks of planting to clear their roots and the ground before replanting.

Denmans by John Brookes - Image 3

Being on a gravelly soil we use the local gravel as paths in certain parts of the garden.  And while I like to let some things self seed into the gravel – to create the casual effect I so admired initially in this garden – the gravel does need ‘editing’.  Frequent raking helps and it smartens up the place.

Mrs J.R also put in a dry gravel stream which runs through one part of the garden, and which has become quite a feature.  I added a pond at the lowest part of the garden, cumulating the gravel stream – but that now needs some hard work upon it.

We completely rebuilt a Victorian conservatory about 10 years ago, which includes a large aviary (I often thinks this gives more fun than the whole garden!)  After last winter’s snow a sunken Victorian stove house roof has caved in and this must be restored next.  I think that it is important that these buildings should be seen and kept.

Just recently I have had contactors in the help me restore the walled garden to its previous flower garden status (a legacy from a dear friend has allowed me to do this in her memory).  Many of the shrubs within the walled garden had become too big, and while they created an exciting jungle effect, it wasn’t what I wanted.  So suddenly with shrubs largely removed I seem to have a huge space to recreate.

Denmans by John Brookes - Image 4Gardening is to do with continual regeneration, it is never ending but in a nice way.  I think the visitors enjoy seeing these processes.  And many say how seeing the weeds comforts them in their own efforts!

I run this garden with Michael Neve, my business partner and joint owner of Denmans.  His expertise is managing our plant sales area, our garden restaurant and our staff.  Without his knowledge and hard work 7 days a week it would be impossible to make such a venture survive.  And it is these added facilities that make a garden visit hopefully, both enjoyable and for many a learning experience as well.

An add on:

One of the qualities which I try to create in a garden is that of tranquillity.  So often I find visitors just sitting quietly and reflecting.  And increasingly such places are difficult to find, certainly in town.  The importance of a garden – particularly for older people cannot be overestimated.

With this in mind one has to question the over importance of novelty out there, and many of those tele catching gardens we are about to see at Chelsea again.

I want to visit the Gardens of the Future site at St Albans again – if they have been maintained – because some of them I though contained the germ of a way ahead.  Generally built in natural materials – not rustic at all, but beautifully designed in quite a new and exciting way.  Elements of the experience of land art were evident which was really interesting.

Did you see the Richard Long exhibit in London last autumn, ignored of course by the journals, but truly inspirational I thought for students of garden and landscape design?

John Brookes

John Brookes’ website

Denmans is situated between Arundel & Chichester in West Sussex

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