Plants First, Plants Last: The Role of Plants in Garden Design

Photo of garden, lake, and hillside

Note: The original draft of this post was written on July 6, 2018.

Photo of red, purple, and yellow flowers

At a lecture earlier this year hosted by Montgomery County’s Brookside Gardens, David Culp, author of The Layered Garden, explained the garden design process at Brandywine Cottage, his home in southeastern Pennsylvania. Plants spoke first, Culp listened and responded, and a garden evolved, built on plants selected for sustainability and designed (or layered, as Culp describes it) for visual appeal in every season.

The gorgeous, plant-rich slides that accompanied Culp’s talk showed color and texture and placement that drew gasps from the audience. Healthy, glowing perennials appeared in impressive masses, arranged with an expert, artful hand. Culp described the purpose of gardening as the creation of take-your-breath-away moments, and Brandywine appears to present these moments at every turn. It is a kind of theater, as plants, in countless combinations and arrangements, emerge and retreat throughout the year, and it is a tribute to the affinity Culp expressed for being overwhelmed by nature.

It is a garden of plants first.

A few weeks earlier I had been reading about John Brookes, the recently deceased English landscape designer and educator known for promoting garden design as a process accessible to the average homeowner. For Brookes, plants did not drive design but were one practical component, and often, if not always, the last. In his blog, Brookes made a distinction between gardeners and garden designers:

A gardener’s primary concern is for the well being of his plants, the soil in which they grow, their orientation, and their general husbandry.

A garden designer’s primary concern is for the well being of his clients. It might eventually encompass plant material, but that is often way down the line.1

How, I wondered, would the audience listening to Culp respond to a garden that “might eventually encompass plant material,” a garden of plants last?

Photo of garden, lake, and hillsideIn The Book of Garden Design, published in 1991, Brookes described how easy it is to get caught up in plant selection, with the result being “a restless garden with little unity of thought between concept, plan, and planting.” He encouraged a more structured approach, with design principles that include proportion and shape, patterns and styles, and with the areas to be planted viewed initially as “bulky, three-dimensional shapes” to be combined and recombined to create a satisfactory plan. Brookes then provided a framework for selecting plants: the five categories of specials (focal points), skeletons (year-round structure), decoratives (flowering shrubs), pretties (herbaceous perennials), and infill (bulbs, annuals, biennials). It is the problem-solving approach of an engineer.2

And yet, the results Brookes achieved, to my eye, certainly take one’s breath away.

Compare photos of Brandywine Cottage and Denmans, the garden Brookes designed at his West Sussex home in England.3 From a visual perspective, both designers have transformed their land into memorable gardens. But what distinguishes them? Why is it that they feel different? The number of plant varieties, for one, but also the use of space – one embeds the viewer, the other creates spaces for viewing.

Brookes said, “I think of the garden masses (the planting or the structural features) as the “positives” and the spaces between them (the grass or paving) as the “negatives,” and the balance between the two is an important factor in my garden designs.” The relationship between open and planted spaces, he wrote, creates the feeling of being enfolded.4

Part of the magic of garden design is that the purpose of a garden is as individualized as each gardener and client. In today’s era of the wild garden and growing respect for the value of native and sustainable plants, Culp’s recommendation to “consider a garden as living sculpture” has a lot of appeal.5 But Brookes continues to provide a practical structure for solving the problems of garden design, for bringing harmony through the balance of positives and negatives. Some people may not want this structure – they want to be embedded with the plants, as many as possible. But for others, the garden design of Brookes is a way to stand back and create spaces from which to appreciate plants, even when considered last in the design process.


1. Brookes, John. “Gardener or Garden Designer?” John Brookes Raves & Rants, July 23, 2016. Accessed July 14, 2018.

2. Brookes, John. The Book of Garden Design. Macmillan, 1991. p. 114; 120-133.

3. See the David Culp website ( for photos of Brandywine Cottage and Denmans Garden ( or John Brookes Landscape Design ( for photos of projects by John Brookes.

4. Brookes, John. The Book of Garden Design. Macmillan, 1991. p. 40, 42.

5. Culp, David L. The Layered Garden: Design Lessons for Year-Round Beauty from Brandywine Cottage. Timber Press, 2012. p. 33.

Photo Attributions
Photo 1: Downloaded from Pexels – Source: Pixabay
Photo 2: Downloaded from Pexels – Source: Mikes Photos

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: