The Wild Garden – a breath of fresh, if not old, air
The Wild Garden was sent to me by Timberpress to review along with Dear Christo. The latter got my initial interest and The Wild Garden sat on the side as I anticipated that it would be difficult to read given that it was written originally in 1870 by William Robinson and sometimes the language from this period can be, in my opinion, hard work. However, I was thrilled to find this was not the case and I was soon totally absorbed in Robinson’s ideas which seemed to help crystallise some of the thoughts about gardens, and my garden in particular, that I have recently been having.
The Wild Garden went through 7 editions during Robinson’s lifetime and this version is a reprint of the 5th edition with the addition of a commentary by Rick Darke to set it in a 21st century context. I did struggle with this bit of the book. The Introduction was good as it told me who Robinson was and how the book originally came about, but then it goes on to sort of precise each chapter of The Wild Garden and give examples of how this idea or that would work now. I found the writing a little forced and stilted and it took some determination on my part to persist. Also, and this is probably a failing of mine, the majority of the photographs used to illustrate this part of the book were of locations in the US which made it very difficult for me to relate to. However, this is an understandable approach as Darke is American and I think this was the original intended market.
But then I got to Robinson’s book itself. The book has been reproduced with the original engravings and is a delight. Robinson’s purpose was to move gardeners away from the Victorian obsession with huge bedding displays of tender plants; he expresses concern that the fashion had got to such an extent that in some large gardens not a single hardy flower can be found. At the time of writing Robinson was becoming involved in the Arts and Crafts movement whose ethics, as Darke explains, “was linking beauty with utility and promoting an appreciation of local materials and patterns”. The movement had arisen as a reaction to the increasing industrialisation in Britain which was slowly destroying much of the pastoral beauty of the countryside.
Throughout the book Robinson rails against the bedding style but interestingly doesn’t seem to advocate bringing his wild planting right up to the house appreciating that the owners of grand houses would want some form of formality to look at from their terrace. He explains that his purpose is not to get rid of all formality near the house but to “restore to its true use the flower-garden, now subjected to two tearings up a year…” He encourages the use of what we would now call herbaceous borders full of interesting and beautiful plants. He frequently criticises horticultural practices at the time including the annual clear of borders in the autumn and the need to dig over borders before winter and thereby leaving the soil to erosion from wind and rain, “When winter is once come, almost every gardener, with the best intentions, prepares to make war upon the roots of everything in his shrubbery.”
So how does Robinson see the Wild Garden evolving? He breaks the book down into a number of chapters each of which deals with a plant group. There is a chapter on hardy bulbs planted in grass; on the forget me not family; on climbers for trees and bushes; on shrubbery, plantation and wood as just a few examples. In each chapter he provides numerous plants that will work in the location he is describing and how they can be cultivated. He is generous with his advice and it is clear that he is keen to share and encourage others to his thinking without dictating.
I found his writing to be quite humorous. In the chapter on Climbers he derides the practice of growing these plants up walls as they are “rarely seen to advantage, owing to their being stiffly training against walls, and many of them have gone out of cultivation for this reason.” I think Robinson sees the Victorian approach to horticulture as one of demanding perfection, of every plant looking pristine and neat and if possible of having plants that others don’t have. In the first edition he quotes from Sydney Smith (1771-1845) who was an acclaimed moral philosopher. Smith describes how he stayed at a house with beautiful and formal gardens which were said to be “laid out with consummate taste”. To start with he enjoyed his visit and the gardens as they appeared “so much better than Nature”. However, “In three days’ time I was tired to death; a thistle, a heap of dead bushes, anything that wore the appearance of accident and want of intention was quite a relief.” I found this fascinating as it is a feeling I have felt when visiting some of the gardens of the big houses. I find myself staring through the topiary and bedding schemes looking for something else, something real, something wonderful, something surprising, something magical, something a little wild.
The other attitude which came through in the book which really spoke to me and which relates to a debate that is often promoted now, particularly in some gardening blogs, is the idea of the garden as art. I have written about this myself and struggled to come to a conclusion but I found Robinson’s simple response as a breath of fresh air which brought everything together for me. Robinson says that as gardeners we have the luxury of being able to choose from plants from across the world and that unlike nature we can tweak the environment to make them suitable for plants where none would normally grow. But most importantly, for me, he says: “Foolish old ‘laws’ laid down by landscape gardeners perpetuate the notion that a garden is a ‘work of art, and therefore we must not attempt in it to imitate nature!’ true gardening differing from all other arts in this that it gives us living things themselves, and not merely representations of them in paint or stone or wood.” This makes so much sense to me plants are living and breathing things which grow, fade and die and as such a garden cannot be a work of art unless you are only seeing it for a brief moment in time. I think gardens transcend the idea of art, we can manipulate, tweak and create but at the end of the day whatever our desire, our plan, our scheme, our aspiration we are merely custodians of that piece of soil and Mother Nature will do as she wishes, when she wishes so we should do our tweaking and our planning but then we should sit back and see what happens and enjoy it for what it is.
I think this is the essence of what Robinson was saying. When he refers to The Wild Garden, he is not talking about turning your garden over to the countryside or letting it become a wilderness. Rather, he is suggesting that we loosen our control, that we stop gardening so intensively, that we recognise the beauty of the hardy plant world and reduce our reliance on tender exotics. If we do this we will have beauty to look at for more of the year and we will enjoy our green spaces more as, unlike Sydney Smith, we will not be desperate for some respite from the “consummate taste” of bedding schemes etc.
I found myself nodding along with this book and as Darke says it is a book that begs to be dipped into and read and re-read. The fact that its message is as relevant today as it was in 1870 is interesting. I think we have moved a long way from the position Robinson was confronted with but we have other issues to address. I think we can take the book as encouragement to work with the environment we are in, to choose plants that are right for it and to let them grow as they wish.
I do believe that this is the way forward and the ethics of the book will be key to my thinking about my garden, and others in the future I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is interested, even mildly, in this approach to gardening and even if you aren’t you might discover that Robinson challenges your thinking.