Miranda Brooks has redefined garden design with her rambling, romantic style. See her unique vision come to life in Anna Wintour’s garden and find out how you can achieve this look at home.
Get to know world-renowned landscape designer Miranda Brooks
It seems a bit strange to pay a lot of money to have a garden designed so that it looks as if it’s a work of nature rather than the human hand, but English-born landscape designer Miranda Brooks has captivated wealthy clients the world over by doing just that.
Based in New York for the past 25 years, Brooks manages a deft interplay between structural design and “wild” plantings that defies categorisation and weaves a spell of magic and mystery. Her distinctive style has made her a celebrated landscape designer among A-list clients who trust her to create naturalistic tableaus which envelope areas so that they become sanctuaries to be discovered.
Brooks grew up in rural Hertfordshire and fell in love with the English countryside while out riding her horses – she got her first pony at four. Her love of gardens and landscaping was a chance encounter as a result of paying penance for crashing the family car as a teenager. Her punishment was an extended stint of weeding and instead of feeling stroppy about having to do the task she fell in love with the whole notion of gardening.
She followed up a degree in art history with a postgraduate degree in landscape architecture and then went on to refine her trade under the steely guidance of award-winning horticulturalist Arabella Lennox-Boyd. The Italian-born doyenne of landscape design was famous for meshing the formal elements of her heritage with the plants of the English countryside and her clients included everyone from Terence Conran to Sting. Brooks credits Lennox-Boyd for training her to be first and foremost a “plantsman”.
New York and Anna Wintour
Brooks really hit her stride professionally when she followed her first husband to New York. Initially she despaired of ever getting anything other than tiny commissions, but she struck gold when American Vogue editor and fellow Brit Anna Wintour asked her to design the garden at her weekend retreat in the Hamptons 20 years ago.
Wintour is renowned for her stern demeanour so the seemingly unstructured and romantic nature of the garden that Brooks delivered seems somewhat at odds with general perceptions of what the fashion authority would find desirable.
The unassuming entry to the 16 ha estate down a rough drive bounded by meadows and trees is a taste of things to come. The drive ends at a tiny door surrounded by rambling roses. Once inside the garden is a maze of discovery with curving paths leading visitors to hidden spaces, rolling meadows planted with cottage garden flowers, arbours and hedges disguising vistas, rustic gates leading to mown paths, fruit trees and herbs jostling with more formal hedging and pleached trees.
There is a sense of mystery and the feeling that nature alone has created such a magical environment, although it has all been planned meticulously. It is this style of nature running in a barely contained riot that is the signature style for which Brooks has become famous.
She has tended Wintour’s garden constantly for the past 20 years so the maturity of the plantings also give the garden the feeling of authenticity.
She has given me and my familya very special world
Testimony to Brooks’ skill is that Wintour – whose style of editorial management verges on control freak – has given the designer free reign to do what she likes in the garden. “My friendship with Miranda is one of the great joys of my life,” Wintour commented in a recent interview with The New York Times. “She has given me and my family a very special world.”
And Brooks doesn’t need sprawling spaces to create a feeling of being one with nature. The garden of her New York Brownstone is proof that she can work her magic on the smallest of spaces. “It’s all emotional,” she says of her projects. “It’s all there to be spoken to.”
Secrets to Miranda Brooks’ look:
Many of the gardens that Miranda Brooks designs are expansive but her key ingredients will work in a space of any size:
A large part of the charm of Brooke’s gardens is that they seem as if they have naturally occurred. If you live on a lifestyle block that design principle could see you ditching the ride-on mower in favour of meadow-like pasture with long grass only mowed to create wide, winding pathways.
Key to this is sowing a selection of attractive grasses and wildflower mixes – kikuyu grass will not make the grade. A In smaller gardens this feel can be achieved by sowing hardy annuals such as Californian poppies and daisies so they grow haphazardly in gaps in the paving and in gravel or pebble surfaces.
Drifts of lavender, a mass-planted selection of some of our high-performing natives such as astelia, Chionachloa flavicans (miniature toi-toi), colourful hybrid flaxes and ornamental grasses will all help to create a natural feeling in confined areas. Allow plants to self seed and don’t make garden structures too rigid. Weathered wooden or tree fern trunk garden edging, natural paving stones, a relaxed hand when it comes to planting and curved garden borders and paths will all help capture a natural charm.
Create a sense of mystery
Brooks likes a garden to unfold at its own leisure. She loves the feeling of suddenly chancing on a hidden doorway or a secret garden. In smaller gardens this is easy to achieve by placing plantings so the eye cannot perceive the whole structure of a garden at a glance.
Even small areas can be divided into rooms with the judicious use of hedging and screening plants, pergolas and arbors covered in sprawling roses or vines, the inclusion of a little detail like a rustic gate to make an entranceway to a different area. For example, a patio area could lead through a densely planted arbor to an unexpected, hidden flower garden. The central idea is to make a garden unpredictable to visitors, slowly opening up to reveal its attractions.
Include the landscape
Brooks is a great one for taking her cues from the landscape of the garden around her. If the area is flat, then her gardens will embrace this typography and have a hidden, enclosed feel rather than offering panoramic vistas that come from raised sites.
By not imposing your own view and structure but instead embracing the form of what is around your site you will more readily blur the distinction between tended garden and the wider landscape making an area feel more natural.
Welcome the seasons
Forget about the current crush on plants that deliver a constant look all year round. It’s important to also include specimens that celebrate seasonal changes. Flowering trees such as cherries, tulip magnolias and jacarandas may have a short period in bloom but they can be relied on to create romantic impact as seasons change.
Likewise deciduous trees offer a variety of looks year round, from hot-coloured autumn foliage, to the delicate tracery of branches in winter, through to a burst of chartreuse spring growth and on to their blowsy best summer greenery. Vines such as wisteria and jasmine sing of the promise of summer and annuals sown so they casually carpet garden borders with colour will all give gardens the wow factor that evergreens will never deliver.
Go on a journey
Think of how to entice people into your garden and plan how you will move around a space. A garden should not be a static tableau.
It is important to include pathways between areas so that there is a sense of connection even if you can’t see what is around the next corner.
Brooks is big on planting fruit trees and herbs in among ornamental garden beds. These offer plenty of interest with the addition of offering that most delicious of pleasures – picking some of your own produce and enjoying the zing of fresh herbs in salads and for garnishing dishes.
If space is an issue, pleaching is always and option. Pears, apples, lemons and many other fruit trees respond well to this treatment, offering a bounty of fruit and highlighting the ornamental qualities of many edibles. Don’t feel you have to corral edibles into a specific section of your garden. Plant them randomly throughout and enjoy their distinctive qualities in different garden areas.
Words by: Sarah Beresford Images via: Nytimes.com, Vogue.com & Pinterest