A gardener for the ages
What is the essence of a garden? An escape to restore the soul? A magical place that lets the imagination soar? Or a feast for the senses that transports you with its lush beauty and fragrance? To garden designer James Brewer of James Brewer Garden Design in Rollinsford, New Hampshire, a garden is all these and much more.
While Brewer, a native of Northampton, England, designs many types of gardens, among his specialties is the quintessential Victorian English country garden with rose borders, mature trees, flowering shrubs, and fragrant perennials. Because many English estates have been around for hundreds of years, it is important that their gardens complement the age of the home and existing plantings. Hence, Brewer designs gardens to look like they have been around for ages and will endure for centuries to come. “When I create my ideal type of garden or grounds, it never looks new,” he says. “Anyone can make something new and shiny, but I enjoy designing this time capsule from the past that makes it seem like generations have relaxed, laughed, and played within its comforting boundaries. To achieve that, to me, is the true measure of success.”
Brewer emphasizes the use of timeless materials, such as natural stone and oak, and installs them the way traditional craftsmen once did. He makes sure that the materials merge harmoniously with their surroundings and avoids hard, sharp lines. Thoughtful planning and the right plantings combine to fulfill the vision.
“It is not essential that every tree or shrub be of the same age as all elements in a garden are rarely planted at the same time,” he explains. “If you bring in one or two semi-mature trees, they can form focal points. I then layer in plantings of flowering shrubs, fruit trees, roses, and perennials. By making the garden lush, thanks to different types of plantings, you can create the feeling that the garden has been there for years. Stone walls, benches, and meandering pathways add to the effect and bring in wonderful texture. I even put moss within the fissures of natural stones so they look like they have been there for a long time.”
Brewer’s expertise attracted the British media’s attention. An initial interview with BBC Radio Leicester about an extensive renovation led to his becoming a regular for the network with many of his gardening projects featured on the program. Later, Brewer was on an expert panel for a show called Down to Earth, and worked on Springwatch, a nature program following the lives of wildlife species such as badgers, rabbits, and bats. Brewer created naturalistic plantings that supported the program’s wildlife habitat needs. Before leaving England, he was tapped to work on Grand Gardens, a show highlighting extravagant living spaces, such as those under cliffs or up in trees, and the gardens that accompanied them, but as the economy dipped, the show was postponed.
That is when Brewer decided to move to the States. He had met and married an American woman and felt it was easier for him to move. He took a year off to recharge, then began the process of rebuilding his career in America. “At first it was slow and I was discouraged,” he admits. “It seemed like none of my British experience mattered. But then I connected with Bryan Wentworth of Wentworth Greenhouses in Rollinsford and things took off. He provided me with space for my design studio. I do consultations there, and when jobs are booked, I use their extensive plant expertise to source and buy my plants. Since I am independent, I also bring in my own clients as well. It’s the perfect symbiotic relationship.”
Finding a knowledgeable partner was critical, as one challenge Brewer faced was creating a new database of plants tolerant of northern New England’s cold and changeable climate. “In England, I worked primarily just north of London, where temps range from 30 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit and you are guaranteed at least one inch of rain per week. If we get two inches of snow, everything comes to a halt. Here, you get two feet of snow in one night and the weather is anything but predictable. Thankfully, Wentworth has connections all over the country, so once I identify what I want, I’m able to find what I need.”
When Brewer designs, he tries to find blocks of uninterrupted time; thus he works a lot at night, in the wee hours of the morning, and in late fall and winter for spring installation. With every design, he thinks about what is the unique connection between the house, the garden, the surrounding land, and the owners and their personalities. With that approach, he ensures that no two gardens ever look alike. “It’s almost a meditative process,” he says. “I close my eyes and picture myself in that space. After a time, I start to see my vision of the garden.”
Brewer’s preliminary sketches are small and detailed. He lays out the entire project this way until he has resolved any challenges. Once he feels that all is balanced, he enlarges
the various sections and works to scale. “Nothing should be too dominant,” he says. “Everything should flow together seamlessly as you move from space to space. You want to consider scent and texture and appeal to all the senses. Hear birds and bees as they come for the flowers and fruit, listen to the sound of water, brush against hanging plantings so scent is released. You want some spaces where foliage is denser so you have shade and privacy, and other spaces that are more open. Lighting is also very important and will transform the garden at night. I always consider the shape of plantings and the wonderful shadows they will create when lit at night. Every garden should have feature lighting, dimmers, and mood lighting so you can enjoy it into the evening.”
Brewer is currently creating a moon garden at an 1820s home. Not only will the garden blend with the age of the house, but in the evening, it will be an oasis of white plantings and intoxicating perfumes. “There will be lots of chamomile with its glorious scent, white roses, and a variety of perennials and cut flowers. These will attract night pollinators as well as fill the garden with wonderful fragrance. The white flowers will glow like stars. It will be a magical place, as gardens should be.”
He is also designing an outdoor Argentinian-style kitchen and grilling area. “There will be a pergola covered with hops and raised beds around the grilling area filled chock-a-block with herbs,” he says. “Imagine cooking on the grill and being able to grab fistfuls of herbs, mix them with a little olive oil, and create these glorious rubs and seasonings right there. We are also going to have peach trees around the area, which will be up-lit at night, and we’ll fill in the lower sections with masses of hydrangeas, so the whole area will be colorful, fragrant, and fun.”
For Brewer, every garden needs a touch of fantasy, whether it is an old tree that might be a home for fairies, a rock wall with a secret compartment, or just the story of a romance that once bloomed there. “A garden should have special places, paths that lead to unexpected views, or maybe a secret bower where you can curl up and nap, read, or dream. Time doesn’t matter in a garden—you are fully in the moment. Escape to a well-designed garden and I guarantee you’ll feel restored, renewed, and perhaps a bit touched by magic.”