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Landscape Architect Joan Brooking Takes the Road Less Traveled

Author: Nancy Erdmann
Issue: March, 2011, Page 96
Photos by Luca Trovato

From a young age, Joan Brooking says she has had an affinity for plants. Here, surrounded by “glowing” chollas on the outskirts of a Scottsdale property, she takes in the tranquil desert setting. “I love the quietness of the garden,” she admits. “It’s where I am most at peace.”


Renaissance Woman: Landscape architect Joan Brooking CHAMPIONS NATURE AND EDIBLE PLANTS

Looking back, it’s easy to see how Joan Brooking was destined for a career in horticulture. Brought up in Nyack, New York, she often visited her grandparents’ estate, where they had a conservatory and tended to various edible and horticultural plants. Her mother was the chairwoman of the local garden club, and both parents cultivated prize-winning flowers.

When Brooking was 5, her mother entered the youngster in her first gardening contest. And while in boarding school—during World War II, when fresh produce was in short supply—the teen designed and planted a garden for her family so that they could raise their own vegetables. To this day, the octogenarian encourages clients to grow edibles in their landscapes.

Brooking’s path from that of a young girl who “knew she was born to be a plant person” to that of a registered landscape architect was, however, anything but ordinary. While always dabbling in gardening and design, she lived her life with adventure in mind.

After graduating with honors from a New York junior college, Brooking earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in arts and humanities from Stanford University. Soon after, she married, had six children, then returned to Stanford to work on a graduate degree.

The homeowners of this north Scottsdale property were looking to unify their indoor and outdoor spaces. When they were introduced to Joan Brooking, the couple says they were immediately impressed by her plant knowledge. “After she walked our site, she told us we could live off the plants already on our land,” the woman of the house recalls. One such plant is the ocotillo. “The flowers are high in vitamins A and C, and they make the most delicious tea,” Brooking remarks. The landscape architect revegetated the yard with an array of desert flora so that it looks as though someone “just dropped the house into the undisturbed landscape.”
In the late ’50s—and now a single mother—she moved her brood to Scottsdale and built a house of her own design near Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. Although she met Wright when she was a young girl, she never saw him again, as he died shortly after she arrived in Arizona. Her connection to the famous architect resurfaced in 1998, when she became a faculty member at the Taliesin School of Architecture teaching Design With Nature.

Brooking never formally studied design, but after years working in the field, she passed the Council of Landscape Architectural Registration Board exam and began her private practice in 1962. Over the past five decades, she has been involved in many residential, commercial and institutional projects.

A member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, she lived in Hawaii for years and taught landscape architecture at the University of Hawaii’s School of Architecture. Later, she worked in England on town-planning projects. Currently, she is registered in Arizona, New Mexico and Hawaii.

While this Master of the Southwest says she is not well-known, her clients are numerous and all seem respectful of her talents. “What I find most interesting about Joan is the way that she leads her life without a TV, computer, or other conveniences of life,” remarks Lisa Khan, whose Phoenix property was designed by Brooking. “She lives organically to the greatest extent possible, and her work shows a true understanding of nature. She is brilliant and vibrant and appreciates life.”

Some other interesting tidbits about Brooking: She earned her pilot’s license, taught canoeing and lifesaving, played polo, surfed, is well-versed in medicine and religion, is learning to read Sanskrit, lives part-time in a remote village in New Mexico in a house with no heat, is designing a pair of homes under 1,000 square feet for two friends, and works seven days a week.

Brooking says she wouldn’t have it any other way

Brooking often softens outdoor spaces with draping trees, such as Tolleson’s weeping junipers (above left). The squared planting beds and fire pits (lower right) provide visual interest along the vanishing-edge pool.

Joan Brooking created an English garden outside this Scottsdale business. “We chose Joan because she isn’t your everyday landscaper,” says Kim Barnum of Nelson Barnum Interiors. Brooking, who likes to use edible plants whenever possible, incorporated artichokes, chard, purple kale and curly parsley in this flower garden.

Ali and Lisa Khan’s property (pictured above, right, and below) was featured in the November 2010 issue of Phoenix Home & Garden, as well as on the magazine’s Grand Tour of Gardens that same year. “Joan is knowledgeable about nearly any topic you can think of, from the earth and organic energy to archaeology and human nature,” says Lisa, who worked closely with the landscape architect. “She strives to create an environment that serves the client and also enables the plants to thrive.”

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