Designer Louis Benech Explains His Garden Designs
The famed landscape designer puts a Gallic spin on gardens around the world.
NYC&G: Your projects at home and abroad show a remarkable love of plants. Where did that come from?
Louis Benech, garden designer and author of the brand-new book Twelve Gardens Around the World (Éditions Gourcuff Gradenigo):
I love the beauty of plants and the knowledge that they impart. Usually, their beauty is obvious, but I am always curious to know where they come from, too. You can learn so much about a place from its plants, whether they are warm-weather or acid-loving or what have you. And whenever I travel for a job, I like to experiment with local flora before playing with more exotic things. I always start with native plants as my base.
How do you make a garden design look casual?
Sometimes, I aim for merely a feeling of calm. The first time I worked in America, I planted dogwoods and was asked why I was planting something so common. I responded, “Simply because they are lovely.” For a project in Greece, just for the pleasure of it, we gather seeds from the spring annuals along the driveway and plant them every other year, and now it is always riddled with flowers. And in what was once a wheat field, I planted rows of cypress that appear to be windbreaks, but they are actually there to hide buildings. I like to be gentle with the land, and I rarely change a place’s original landscape.
But for Diane von Furstenberg’s roof garden in Manhattan, you created a meadow.
I wanted it to read as more than just a green roof. We mounded it up to give it a little movement, with tiny hills and valleys. The Stipa tenuissima [Mexican feathergrass] and a mix of perennials like ornamental oregano, alliums, and dwarf phlox give further interest. The architects kept asking me what I was doing, but there really is no design to it! There’s meadow, decking for Diane to do yoga on, and that’s it.
What do you think about hardscaping in general?
I’m rarely into it, and usually don’t go beyond maybe a small outdoor dining area. Even for driveways, I prefer a soft and gentle jeep track. And if I can convince my client, I suggest a pool without stonework.
What’s the most exotic garden you’ve created?
A small garden I designed in the early 1990s at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro [which tragically burned down in 2018], planted with all the tropicals I love. The space itself wasn’t that interesting, but the garden had the most rarefied things in it, even broken 19th-century crockery decorating the surfaces, all covered in moss.
So you don’t mind nature taking over?
Not at all. For a garden in Comporta, Portugal, I tried to mimic the local understory, with a lot of sand between the plants, just like you find in the countryside. The goal was to make it look very natural, so that you wouldn’t feel as though you were in a garden—the ultimate artifice!
The print version of this article appears with the headline: The French Connection.
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