“I believe we should look and listen to our site to hear its stories… Covering our piece of earth with synthetic decking, building a fibreglass waterfall or importing a tree fern from the other side of the world seems, to me, nothing short of tragic.”

Renowned designer John Brookes has strong views on working with what we have; understanding the importance of vernacular and natural context for our gardens.

There is an inherent ‘rightness’ to a garden which sits sensitively in its surroundings, and that can only happen when we consult what the Romans described as the ‘genius loci’ or genius of the place.

‘Styling’ a garden without an eye on the surroundings is a bit like turning up to a wedding in an black shift dress. We might try being edgily stylish, but probably best to avoid going for all out different, just to be bloody-minded. Perhaps the exception to this rule is a dense urban plot, where any garden design is a little piece of artifice. In this setting bold jungle can work as well as productive patch although, again, naturalised species will always thrive better.

So if paying attention to context will definitely deliver a better garden, what should we consider?

1. Climate and aspect dramatically affect the sort of gardens we have. Higher temperatures or sun-traps mean more eating, swimming and movie-star lounging, which in turn suggest;

  • more generous ‘living’ spaces
  • man-made shade
  • sharper, more colourful verticals
  • increased entry and exit points to the house.

Shady, cooler contexts tends to lend themselves to;

  • smaller, more intimate spaces
  • more introverted or mysterious atmosphere where greens can shine out from muted or natural backdrops
  • damp or slip-resistant materials

2. Surrounding elements, such as ploughed hills, or estuary views suggest appropriate style solutions. I also use Google earth to understand the nature and patterns of geography from a birds-eye view. Similar patterns or rhythm can be introduced to your layout.

Tom Stuart Smith open border

3. The materials unique to each area – the flint of Sussex, the granites of Cornwall – can point to a palette that will feel immediately ‘right’.

4. Methods of building, and local craftsman‘s styles can also give inspiration. Look at the way the bricks are laid in local old walls. Take pictures of gates and ironwork. However also consider treating your traditional materials in a modern way to add tension and make people re-examine their inherent properties.

5. The native or naturalised plants that thrive in our area, on whatever our local soil is, provide big clues as to what will settle happily in our own garden.

6. Our gardens are small green pockets of nature, used by thousands of visitors smaller than us. How does it link to other green spaces nearby? Landscape architects and urban planners are increasingly seeing our patchwork of gardens as ‘green corridors’ to allow small animals, insects and seeds to travel through and thrive in our environments. Careful choice and use of materials, water and plants will support them.

charleston visit pond view

Perhaps a good test of whether we’re succeeding is to look back through the garden as ask does the house feel ‘grounded’ within its plot? A good garden makes a house look settled in its surroundings. It provides the crucial link between the natural and the man-made.