Nine Questions – Duncan Brine

June 4, 2010

in Articles, From the USA, General Interest

An interview led and reported by Susan Cohan

In America, we have separate words for what most Brits call ‘a garden’.  It can be a yard, a garden, or a landscape depending on who you talk to.  Landscape designer, Duncan Brine, who is based in New York’s Hudson Valley, calls his own space a garden.  Duncan’s ideas of what constitutes a ‘garden’ challenge almost all of the traditional ideas of what a garden is.

Naturalistic in style with a strong focus on native plants, Duncan Brine’s aesthetic is not for the fainthearted.  His Garden Large website chronicles the garden and those who write about it.  There are also posts of many articles related to the broad topic of naturalistic design.  Last fall, when I visited Duncan and the Brine Garden, (also the studio for his design business Horticultural Design, Inc.) and now in its 20th year, I immediately understood that this was a thinking person’s garden.  Here are his answers to my nine questions.

Nine Questions - Duncan Brine - Image 1What makes a garden design successful?

A successful design doesn’t call attention to itself. It tells a story about the landscape, not the designer.

A successful garden is beautiful. It gets under your skin and into your imagination. Wherever you are, it stays with you.

From a design perspective, what is the most successful landscape or garden you’ve created…why?

That would be my own six acre garden in Pawling, New York. This is its twentieth anniversary.

Incrementally, I’ve been shaping areas and planting an epic, involving the whole property.

The garden is my subject and my stimulating tutor. New challenges and concepts continue to present themselves.

The garden is designed to play different roles for our family, friends, clients, garden clubs and organizations. We’ve enjoyed receiving notable garden writers, photographers, and bloggers. It’s a magic trick when my thoughts, embedded in landscape, re-emerge. It’s as if the landscape can speak.

Nine Questions - Duncan Brine - Image 2If you could distill excellence in landscape/garden design to five elements, what would they be?

1. Client Relationship

Establish a communicative relationship with your client. Both parties need to listen to the other.

2. Site Analysis and response

Design in response to natural conditions, architecture, and extant plants. Plan pathways to explore a property’s best features. Direct attention away from awkward or undesirable parts of the landscape.

3. Plants as Structure

A repetition of individual plants forms a mass, and a repetition of masses structures an entire landscape. Involve as many native plants as possible. Connect with existing plants. Use large plants to frame space for small ones. Color choice follows from plant choice, not the other way around.

4. Tell a landscape story

A designer focuses on certain parts of a landscape, such as conditions, plant characteristics, architecture, and on and off property views. The juxtaposition of the parts provides bits of narrative, which together form a story.

5. Avoid the arbitrary

Any design choice must integrate with the landscape. Avoid arbitrary choices that don’t. When landscape recreates elements of nature it allows for the special experience of natural discovery .

Nine Questions - Duncan Brine - Image 3Who are your design icons?

When I put down Russell Page’s book, I resolved to leave the film world in pursuit of landscape design. Our first son’s middle name is Russell.

Many years ago, I had the opportunity to speak briefly with Beth Chatto in her garden. It was winter, and she was pruning roses, on a ladder, at the top of a high wall.  I was beneath her, and remarked that I was a designer, but that after seeing her garden I was going to have to give up.  She seemed a little concerned, but said cheerfully, “Oh dear, oh well, but, I’m sure you’ll take it up again.” She was right. (for slightly different take on Beth Chatto’s garden, ed)

Nine Questions - Duncan Brine - Image 4Where do you, as a designer, look for inspiration?

I don’t look for inspiration, it’s part of the fabric of life.

People who define and accomplish their goals inspire me. What they do is less important than how they do it.

Creative types can also be destructive; I’m impressed with those who are creative, but also kind.

Nine Questions - Duncan Brine - Image 5Is the creation of a successful landscape/garden design dependent on the process of gardening?  Does the practice of gardening factor in to your design process?  If so how?

I’m hands-on. I consider my design and gardening together. On-site decisions about plant placement and orientation, fine grading, and so on, make important differences. Most often, our own gardeners plant and care for our gardens, with my supervision.

It’s easy for an unsympathetic or ignorant gardener to maul a designer’s intentions. The worst example is a powertooled, meticulous meatballing of shrubs or trees meant to be irregular and naturalistic. This can happen when communication with a lawn service isn’t good.

Nine Questions - Duncan Brine - Image 6Do you believe that landscape/garden design is respected as a design discipline?

Those familiar with landscape/garden design respect it well enough.

People clued into stimulating gardens often are amazed by all that’s involved, and more amazed as they learn more.

What ideas do you want to explore next?

I’d like to pursue more of what I’m already doing, while increasing the diversity of the native plants that I use.

So far, I’ve worked on private landscape exclusively, but I’m interested in commercial and public opportunities as well. Naturalistic landscape lends itself to large projects.

Susan Cohan, APLD

Susan Cohan’s website – follow Susan on Twitter : @susancohan

With thanks to Duncan Brine

Duncan Brine’s website

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