On the Wild Side

I was quietly excited to receive On the Wild Side by Keith Wiley to review.  Whilst the book was originally published in 2004, Keith came to the UK’s gardening public’s attention when his new garden, Wild Side, was featured on the programme LandscapeMan.  You only have to mention the chap who landscaped his garden with a digger truck and people know exactly who you mean.

Keith’s approach is described as naturalistic and it is one which has interested me for a while.  The book was written while Keith was still head gardener of The Garden House so before he had completely free reign of his new garden which featured in the programme which explains why some of the ideas seem to be only forming in Keith’s mind as he wrote the book.

I have to admit that my reaction to the book is very mixed.  Keith starts by explaining his background and the early part of his horticultural career at the Garden House which had a very traditional garden.  He got my attention when he starts to talk about his growing dissatisfaction with the gardens he was seeing, “if I came away with one different creative idea I would consider I had had a good day”.  I can completely emphasise with this feeling.  I have found myself increasingly walking around beautiful gardens but not feeling inspired.  Keith talks about his growing feeling that part of the problem is the way we cultivate ornamental plants with intensive practices just as we do with vegetables, “the whole approach to soil management and plant feeding in ornamental gardening owes its origins to the historic practices involved in growing vegetables”.  I couldn’t agree more.  I personally feel that some of the instructions in ‘how to’ garden books are ridiculously prescriptive and gardeners should trust their instincts and give things a go. We should  be looking at how plants grow in the wild in order to provide the best environment for them.

One of Keith’s overriding guiding principles to gardening is to ignore the idea that it is necessary to have all year round colour for every area of the garden. Instead he advocates colour for specific periods of the year in specific areas.  This chimes with my thinking about my own garden exactly at the moment.  He also describes his approach to using a wide range of colours in one border.  Instead of having blocks of one plant against another and trying to avoid the colours jarring, if you mix the individual plants up you have an overall effect and the colours will work well.  I find this fascinating but I suspect it is harder than it sounds to make it work well.

The book goes on to look at various native environments that Keith has visited around the world and how these have impacted on his horticultural, and in particular his planting, practice.  I was very intrigued with his descriptions of creating a South African border through applying a thick layer of sand to the surface of a border as this replicates the conditions the plants from South Africa grow in.  I’m not sure about the idea of replicating a native environment; for me this is heading towards a theme park approach.

Whilst I find the ideas in this book refreshing and thought-provoking I have found the book hard to read and follow.  An example of one issue I had can be found in the chapter on shape and structure which wandered into mulches and was quite disjointed.  I felt that Keith had so much to say on so many things that he was trying to cram all his ideas into one book rather than making it more succinct and more accessible.  The other thing that irritated me, especially in the later chapters, was Keith pondering how different native plant combinations would work in a garden or worse still saying such and such would look nice with some perennials under it – all a little vague. I would much rather had  read how he took this ideas and used them in the garden and see how they worked.  It was all a little rambling in places.

However, Keith’s enthusiasm and passion shines through the pages and it was wonderful to read such liberating sentences as “One of the sublime beauties of this style is that there are no rules, with parameters being set only from the limitations of our own imaginations, experiences and memories…”  I do hope that Keith is right and that “we stand on the edge of perhaps the most exciting period in gardening history for maybe the last hundred years.”


9 Comments on “On the Wild Side

  1. Excellent review. Will order my copy this weekend. Interested on Wiley’s planting philosophies as Garden House is supposed to be first rate. Thought he was still head gardener there. Where’s he moved on to?

  2. That was extremely informative – just wondering whether I should add yet another book to the groaning shelves of gardening books…..evenly marginally worse to feelings of missing some vital scent, pleasure or colour combination than cookery inspires…. I put it down to a personal lack of confidence!

  3. Susan – Keith moved to Wild Side, see link in post, which is his own garden just down the road from The Garden House two or three years ago

    Catharine – I too have groaning bookshelves to the extent that I am waiting for son to make me a bookshelf

  4. Interesting to read your review Helen. This book is in my to be read pile which has sadly been neglected over the last few months. Hoping to rectify the situation when the dark nights set in. I must admit that I was slightly misled by the title and thought that the book was written post Keith developing Wildside. He certainly has created two outstanding gardens which I hope you will see before long 🙂

  5. This looks like a book I have to read. I become increasingly more interested in native plantings and a natural, wild look even in my small space. Appreciate your insight.

  6. Thick layer of sand = South Africa? I guess, if you were trying to grow fynbos somewhere ‘English with lots of rain’. No thick layer of sand in my heavy clay garden ;~)

  7. Hi Helen, excellent review and interesting to read your insight on Keith Wiley’s book. We have visited the Garden House for the first time only a few weeks ago when we stayed in Devon, and quickly popped round the Wild Side too. But we only made it to the plant sales area and not bothered to go into the main garden bit due to lack of time. I did have a peak on a particularly finished bit and it looked promising, but to my understanding a large section of his still needs to be cultivated/developed.

    Loads of interesting points you have raised here, in particular about the lack of new ideas and how regimented ornamental gardening has become. A lot of books, in an attempt to over simplify things has reduced giving advice to a set rule of instructions that must be followed to a t. When there’s so much room for innovation and instinctive decisions out there.

  8. Good review Helen; I must say my feeling about Wildside was very negative when I saw it in spring 2010. The plantings were a mishmash, bitty and with plants with very different needs planted together. I came away feeling I had learnt a great deal about what I like and what doesn’t work in a garden. Directly afterwards I visited the Garden House which I enjoyed enormously. I felt that Keith was basically a goods plantsman but had tried to do something differnt at his own garden which sadkly had failed. Christina

  9. Pingback: The Garden House, Devon | The Patient Gardener’s Weblog

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