Saturday, 13 March 2010

A busy 24 hours with John and Dan...

On Thursday I spent the evening at a masterclass given by the doyen of British garden design, John Brookes, for the Oxford College of Garden Design (OCGD) - yesterday I was part of a small group who spent a study day with the American plantsman, nursery owner and reluctant designer Dan Hinkley.
The evening session with John Brookes was great fun.  Laced with anecdotes and enlivened with his own personal charm, the time passed quickly as John discussed images of some of his design projects over the past few years.  These were mostly large commissions, often related to newly-built mansions or those undergoing extensive restoration.  Given Brookes' famously site-appropriate approach the similarity of some of these houses meant that there was a degree of crossover in the features used, but the absence of any plans on the screen made it difficult to envisage or appreciate the ground plans that he was working to.  His use of a strong ground plan based on the scale of the house is renowned, and is a pervasive and much-followed concept in garden design teaching.  My own training at the OCGD was based on just these principles, so it would have been great to have seen them in action in John Brookes' own work. 
Although he has been responsible for a number of iconic gardens, notably the revolutionary garden for Penguin Books in the mid-1960s which derived its ground plan from a painting by Piet Mondrian, these were not offered up for our scrutiny - an in-depth examination of one of these creations would have been an invaluable addition to the evening.  Even so, it was a thoroughly enjoyable session, and I look forward to the next masterclasses in the series, by Luciano Giubbilei on 29th April and Fergus Garrett on 17th June.
The Botanic Garden in Oxford last hosted Dan Hinkley as guest lecturer in 1999, since when he has sold Heronswood, the plantsman's nursery he built into one of the most notable in the US, made, with his architect partner, a new house and garden and achieved something akin to rock-star status in the garden world.  The three sessions across the day were fascinating - an in-depth examination of his influences and journey, of the principles that inform the design of his wonderful 'new' garden, and of the history of its creation. 
Dan Hinkley exudes passion and a profound understanding and knowledge of his subject, and the session on design allowed him to expand on the simple principles he employs to achieve the varied look of his garden.  The site is everything to this garden - a five-acre holding on a bluff overlooking Puget Sound in the far Pacific Northwest it has incredible views (even in photographs) of the sound, the Olympic mountains, Mount Ranier and the skyline of Seattle. 
The level of exposure to the elements is the other factor shaping the garden and planting - it's not called Windcliff for nothing - and Dan's approach has been to shape the site to bring the watery presence of Puget Sound right up to the house through the careful use of pools, to create surprise views through curtains of plant material while making suitable environments for the myriad plants that excite him.  Many of these plants are familiar to him through his extensive collecting trips in unpopulated areas around the globe, especially Asia, and the stories of how these trips to their native habitats have shaped Hinkley's approach to growing them were one of the highlights of the day - the magnificently exotic look of Windcliff rests on his passion for the plants he grows and a deep understanding of how they should be grown.  As such it is a very personal garden, populated with friends from the plant world, sensitively placed sculpture (usually created for specific areas of the garden) and a memorial to loved ones who are remembered in a grouping of prayer flags that send their blessings out in the relentless wind that passes over the garden. 
Such gardens are rarities - as are the individuals who create them - and a garden that manages to be both a collection of seductively beautiful plants and an aesthetically satisfying response to the site deserves to be at the top of any 'gardens to visit' list. I am plotting how best to take up Dan on his kind invitation to call in...

(Today's images are nothing to do with either John Brookes or Dan Hinkley - I just felt like something green...)


  1. Wow to being able to be with such great garden minds ... and to be invited to visit Windcliff! Reading your words here is so inspiring ... as are your wondrous photos!! I love the lavender within the box and your leaves transport! Lucky Lucky YOU!

  2. Thanks for your comment, Carol. To be fair the invitation to visit Windcliff was a general one, and I'm sure it is extended to all of those lucky enough to hear Dan Hinkley discuss his garden! But yes, a great couple of days...

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  5. lad you enjoyed the John Brookes talk Paul

    For those unable to attend, I have posted some video extracts on my blog. click here

  6. Paul:
    My small shaded garden is due largely to Daniel Hinkley and the wonderful selection of rare and unusual plants that he has introduced to gardens. Windcliff sounds wonderful, but seems to be leaning in a new direction as opposed to the original Heronswood Gardens. It would be a thrill to get a chance to listen to and revel in the presence of this garden great. I love your final photo - is it Veratrum nigrum? If only I could keep the slugs away from mine! Thanks for a wonderful post!

  7. Dear Teza -
    Many thanks for your appreciative comment. The image is indeed of Veratrum nigrum. Keep persevering with yours - I have never grown it but believe it takes years to establish. Well worth the effort for an early display like this, though...