Victorians welcomed wild gardens.
Among the nineteenth century English horticulturists, landscape gardeners, and garden writers who contributed to the long tradition of the preeminence of the English garden style you will find William Robinson (1838-1935).
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 issued a new edition of his most famous book, The Wild Garden, first appearing in 1870.
Many American seed and nursery catalogs of that time also mentioned the importance of his writing, even mentioning the wild garden.
Victorians loved the idea of the wild garden. Nicolette Scourse in her book The Victorians and their Flowers writes, “By the late 1870s the pendulum of garden fashion was swinging away from Italianate terraces and formal parterres filled with tender exotics towards the wild garden, championed by William Robinson.”
Robinson’s 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 introduction to the new edition. He writes, “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.
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. Lily of the valley, though not a native plant, can serve the landscape well.
I recently found this surprise in my back yard. Lily of the valley appeared to fill the crevice between these two tree trunks. (left) Thus a bit of the wild garden found its way into my own garden.