My Pre-Lecture Q&A With Master Gardener Louis Benech
This week, Brian Cruey of the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge prepares us for the BBG’s popular Winter Lecture by going to Paris (well, by phone, anyway) to interview the renowned guest speaker, Louis Benech.
When it comes to rock stars of the gardening world, they don’t come much more celebrated than Louis Benech. Known for his bold, yet seemingly effortless, designs, Benech has become an icon of style and innovation over his 30-year career as a landscape architect. In France, his home country, Benech has been commissioned to do some of the most famous public landscaping projects in recent memory, including the gardens of the Elysée Palace, the Tuileries gardens and most recently the Bosquet du Théâtre d’Eau at the Palace of Versaille. He has designed more than 300 gardens all over the world, both public and private, that range from historic restoration to virgin landscapes. On February 8, Mr. Benech will bring that collective experience to Monument Mountain High School where he will be presenting “Freedom and Responsibility In My Approach to Gardens” as part of Berkshire Botanical Garden’s annual Winter Lecture. All proceeds from the 2014 Winter Lecture go to support Berkshire Botanical Garden education programs.
I was lucky enough to speak with Louis last week about his upcoming trip and his lecture. Via phone as he drove into Paris, he answered my questions about how he approaches garden design and what he considers when taking on new clients.
Brian Cruey: How would you describe your design style?
Louis Benech: I feel like a chameleon in that I really have no style – I try to do things with style, but no special style. I try to understand what a person is looking for and what will fit the place, more than anything else. My feeling is that I am trying to make something that looks like it has always been there – to connect the site, type of house, period of house and of course the location geographically. These things direct my work and the type of style I approach from the very beginning.
Chateau d’O, Normandy
BC: What are the first few things you look for at a site before you start considering design options?
LB: First I consider geographically where I am. For example when I came to the United States for the first time, it was to Boston and my very first stop was the Arnold Arboretum to learn about the plants of an area beyond what I know from books, and to get a feel of what plants I can use and how to use them in the proper way. I always approach a space with the same target: to make a place better. After that I approach a space in terms of my client’s way of life, because a garden should be connected to how you live. For example, the first garden I ever did on my own when I was first getting my wings was for a woman who was blind. I didn’t give a lot of consideration to color and shape. Rather it was where she would walk, what were the different touches she would experience and how were the scents. This woman wouldn’t have the same type of garden I would design, say, for someone who has five children who are at an age of playing soccer. If you are a cook, a good kitchen garden is important and I love to incorporate that. If you dislike vegetables and cooking, what use do you have for it? Everyone has needs that are totally different and this is the first thing that I consider.
BC: Do you prefer designing private gardens or public spaces?
LB: That depends on where. In France, I’m not mad about public commissions because there you have a team of people making decisions and the common choice is not always the wisest. I prefer when I am working for one person and one direction rather than too many. Sometimes, in public situations, you do have just one person giving you direction, and that is better. Of course, the best situation is when you have no one making those decisions and you are free. Regardless, a garden is a place of happiness, I hope, and I’m always thinking of the people who will be enjoying that place, whether that is for hundreds of people in a public place or only for one family in a private garden.
Faubourg Saint-Germain, Paris
BC: Are there certain “rules” you follow when starting a garden design from scratch?
LB: I try to get the best results for the lowest maintenance possible. A garden is always work and just because you have the money to build something doesn’t mean you have the money to have three gardeners year round to maintain it. I’ve been lucky to work on projects where a lot of maintenance is possible and for gardeners who know what is happening. But so many clients simply don’t even have a clue what a weed is or know what pruning is. You have to think of the gardening capacity of a place before you begin. What I don’t want is to push people into being slaves to their gardens. Otherwise people are disappointed or just lost when they try to maintain their gardens. I love the idea that a garden can survive itself.
The Winter Lecture: Master Gardener Louis Benech on “Freedom and Responsibility in My Approach to Gardens”
Saturday, February 8 at 2 p.m.
Monument Mountain High School, Great Barrington, MA