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May 16, 2014 6:14 pm

Chelsea Flower Show: John Brookes on gardening in South America

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The man who reinvented the European urban garden looks at the scene in Chile and Argentina
Fazenda Marambaia in Brazil©GAP/Jerry Harpur

Fazenda Marambaia in Brazil, by Roberto Burle Marx

Having recently passed my 80th birthday I have decided reluctantly to give up my sometimes biennial but always annual visits to South America – to Chile and Argentina in particular. The 14-hour flight each way for a week’s sojourn left my sleep pattern disturbed for weeks after my return.

I was first asked to teach in Santiago, Chile, about 15 years ago when my style of European garden was popular in parts of South America. A new middle class was emerging and it wanted the latest designs from Europe.

My students in Chile and eventually Argentina, had backgrounds from Spain, Italy, Ireland and, of course, England. They carried little or no backpack of European garden culture for they were evolving a new one of their own. I found this exciting since I was always adamant that I didn’t merely peddle the English garden.

I have always been interested in modernism – in architecture, painting and landscape – seeking to synthesise these disciplines in garden design. And here was a new set of circumstances in which to work. My influences came from Brazil’s Roberto Burle Marx, Mexico’s Luis Barragán and Chile’s Juan Grimm and Teresa (Terry) Moller.

Working in another country, I visited students’ homes and accepted commissions which were challenging for the variety of climate, let alone culture. Today the traditional lifestyle is changing and many estancias (farms) are diversifying into being places to stay, with a reduced head of cattle, since the once-European meat market has diminished.

Chile’s long, thin outline encompasses desert in the north and an almost arctic south, with a lovely volcano-strewn central lake area, all within sight of the Andes. The Chileans’ love their landscape and their gardens, but 15 years ago a regular turnover of students in garden design was not enough to be viable. Instead, I asked two of my ex-Kew students from Argentina to start a school in Buenos Aires.

In 2004, Martina Barzi and Josefina Casares opened Pampa Infinita (a branch of the John Brookes School of Garden Design) at Pilar, about 10 miles north of Buenos Aires, in horse country. Huge gated communities were interspersed with polo fields, as polo was the local interest.

Students were mainly from these communities, but others were from estancias in the pampas, and quite a few from across the river Plata in Uruguay. The scale of their gardens varied enormously; some were already involved in planting vineyards and olive groves and building high-specification polo fields.

The places where my students worked varied enormously, but the essential principles of pattern, shape, form, construction, soil and plant material apply to almost every garden design, as the great Thomas D Church advocated in his seminal book Gardens Are For People, first published in 1955. (This principle always amazes students who want to be specific to their own situation.)

Roberto Burle Marx©Thomas D McAvoy/Getty

Roberto Burle Marx

The flat grasslands of the Argentine Pampas stretch as far as the eye can see – rich cattle-grazing land south of Buenos Aires becomes sheep-grazed moorland further south towards Patagonia. Traditionally, these grasslands and their stock were managed by gauchos from enormous estancias, living strange lonely lives with their horses and family (in that order), eating only steak and drinking mate tea. Stories of their solitary lives were haunting and their music is most evocative.

This culture is far removed from the emergent, wealthy, young students eager to learn about garden design in a very modern world.

The new architecture in Chile and Argentina was certainly inspiring, but Europe’s reputation and example, in garden design in particular, was still very strong. I tried to encourage the students to appreciate South America as richly as possible, but it was often European horticultural literature which they seemed to follow. At least the European-inspired lavender and white roses have been replaced at last by more perennials and grasses, and, because the climate of the Buenos Aires region is Mediterranean, they flourish here.

For now, the nursery trade still seems to lag behind Europe and garden centres can be hard to find, but that is changing, just as Brazil and its neighbours are changing rapidly, bringing new excitement to the garden world.

The new garden interest tends to be centred on individual countries – Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Brazil. The more formal Spanish influence remains, but new designers are emerging through schools such as Pampa Infinita.

Nevertheless, climatic and economic fluctuations make development slow, for it depends on an emergent middle class which still often segregates itself within gated communities. For all that, such development – where it is taking place – is fresh, new and exciting.

John Brookes has won four gold medals at Chelsea, three of them for the FT

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