Copyright © Leslie Turek 1993
Written for Radcliffe Seminars course “The Arts and Crafts Garden”
20 October 1993
In The Wild Garden, William Robinson extols the beauty of plants growing unfettered in natural settings. Robinson pictures roses, wisteria, clematis, and Virginia creeper cascading over walls, shrubs, and trees. Forest glades are carpeted with trilliums, lily of the valley, and daffodils. Stone walls are graced with stonecrop, houseleek, rock cress, and arabis. Self-sown plants are encouraged, and meadows are dotted with wildflowers among the tall grasses. Iris, meadowsweet, monkshood, trollius, and daylilies grow in informal profusion along the margins of lakes.
This is a vision that is familiar to us today, with our understanding of ecology and plant communities and the current popularity of natural gardening. But in 1870, when The Wild Garden was first published, Robinson’s ideas were revolutionary. Richard Mabey’s introduction to the 1983 reprint of The Wild Garden helps us to understand the strong unconventionality of Robinson’s views in the Victorian world where “carpet bedding” was the rage:
Tender and often rather garish flowers from Imperial outposts were laboriously raised in greenhouses, planted out in dead straight rows and symmetrical formations (with the exact spaces between each plant kept quite bare for contrast), allowed their brief season of brilliance and then ripped out again. Gardeners were not so much plant stewards as drill sargents.1
Robinson sought to set the plants free from this regimentation, and to let the plants themselves and their natural growth habits determine the planting design.
In The Wild Garden, Robinson did not intend to transform the traditional flower garden near the house (this he dealt with in his later and even more popular book, The English Flower Garden); he was urging owners of large tracts of land to see their wild areas–the meadows and woodlands distant from the house–as potential gardens of a different sort. In A History of Gardening in England, Mrs. Evelyn Cecil draws an interesting contrast between Robinson’s approach and the eighteenth century landscape gardening movement:
The idea of naturalizing plants in shrubberies, wild places, and grassy banks, and grouping them to produce natural picturesque effects, was just the reverse of ‘landscape gardening’. Instead of bringing green undulations of park-like appearance up to the house and banishing the flower-garden, the art of ‘Wild Gardening’ … extends the flower-garden into the surrounding country.
Robinson pointed out that plants such as goldenrods and asters that might be too coarse and rampant-spreading for more restrained gardens would thrive picturesquely in a wild setting. He did not limit his attention to native plants; he also advocated seeking out hardy plants from any temperate region of the world that could thrive naturalized in Britain. Two chapters are devoted to discussing a long list of exotics that he felt were particularly appropriate to this style of gardening: monkshood, yarrow, marsh mallow, windflower, columbine, pink, foxglove, and delphinium, among many others.
Although Robinson did not specifically address the traditional herbaceous border in The Wild Garden, his influence on it should be acknowledged. By drawing the focus of gardening back to the plants, he began to articulate many of the principles of planting design that would later be enhanced and elaborated by Gertrude Jekyll and others. These principles of planting design were only briefly mentioned in Robinson’s text, but were brought to life by the excellent woodcuts by Alfred Parsons that enhanced the 1881 edition.
Robinson felt that plants in pleasing combinations could form a picture greater than any other plant alone. Plants in the wild garden “will look infinitely better than they ever did in formal beds, in consequence of fine-leaved plant, fern, and flower, and climber, grass and trailing shrub, relieving each other in delightful ways”.3 He recognized that plants could be appreciated for their form and texture, as well as for their flowers.
Robinson also deplored the Victorian tendency to plant flower beds with a succession of tender plants, digging up the entire bed and leaving it bare for a good part of the year. He pointed out that the natural combination of plants in a wild garden would provide a succession of effects, as each plant blooms in its turn and then is followed by “other kinds of beauty”.4 The illustrations showed examples of this type of succession, such as marsh marigolds amid the pointed shoots of iris in early spring, followed later by blooming iris, meadowsweet and bindweed.
Robinson’s emphasis on “the rightness of plants allowed their natural settings”5 was eventually to become an underlying principle of the Arts and Crafts garden style. In addition to his obvious influence–the frequent inclusion of meadow, woodland, and water gardens into the Arts and Crafts garden plan–Robinson’s treatment of plants had an influence on the planting design of more formal flower borders. Gertrude Jekyll used her painter’s understanding of color and proportion to develop her famous flower borders, but her designs always had the fundamental goal of “arranging plants and trees and grassy spaces that they look happy and at home, and make no parade of conscious effort”.6 Nothing could have pleased William Robinson more.
1. Mabey, Richard, in his Introduction to The Wild Garden, by William Robinson (London: Century Hutchinson, 1983 edition), p. xvi.
2. Mrs. Evelyn Cecil (Alicia Amherst), A History of Gardening in England, Third edition (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1910), p. 300.
3. Robinson, William, The Wild Garden (London: Century Publishing, 1983), p. 7.
4. Robinson, p. 8.
5. Mabey, Introduction to The Wild Garden, pp. xvii.
6. Jekyll, Gertrude, Introductory to Wood and Garden, as reprinted in Gertrude Jekyll on Gardening, edited by Penelope Hobhouse (Boston: David R. Godine, 1984), p. 23.