Nineteenth century England produced horticulturalists, landscape designers, and garden writers who contributed to the long tradition of the preeminence of the English garden style. William Robinson (1838-1935) was among that group.
Robinson, who trained in Irish gardens and came to England where he worked in London’s Royal Botanic Garden, published both a garden magazine and several books. Timber Press recently issued a new edition of his most famous book, “The Wild Garden”, first appearing in 1870.
Robinson knew everybody who was famous in the world of botany and horticulture, like Charles Darwin, as well as Americans like Asa Gray, Charles S. Sargent, and Frederick Law Olmsted. Many American seed and nursery catalogs of that time also mentioned the importance of his writing.
His book presents a message, still important today: use plants that will take care of themselves, once they get established.
American garden writer and landscape designer Rick Darke provides an introdution to the new edition. He says, “For all of us seeking creative, practical approaches to today’s challenges and opportunities, William Robinson’s inspired response to the same issues more than a century ago offer historical perspective and suggest current strategies.”
Robinson wrote his disapproval of garden trends in England, like carpet bedding or borders with annuals, that demanded intense maintenance, and at the same time created an artificial or unnatural look. He wanted a return to a garden where the plants could just grow as they wanted, with minimum pruning, no staking, and generally less demand for garden maintenance.
Robinson confronts the issue of what are native plants and how exotic plants, or those brought from other cultures, may well become part of the landscape. He suggests beginning with local flora, but also makes allowance for exotics as part of the garden.
The setting that Robinson describes for the wild garden, or placing plants where they will thrive, could be any place in the landscape, but especially near woods, meadows, or water. Plant choice in such places is important to create a more natural look as the plants mature.
The theme of Robinson’s book seems quite relevant today. He calls the kind of planting he recommends, the wild garden or naturalizing, a term popular today. The lily of the valley is an example of a hardy plant he suggests for taking over an area. Just let it spread to create a delightful springtime look.
Does his idea make sense to you in your garden? What plants do you let go in your garden for a great sweep of flora, which tends to amaze a garden visitor?