William Robinson and 'The Wild Garden'

A young Irishman goes over to England to seek his fortune in the world of gardening. Some years later he has set up a gardening magazine, has his name to a couple of books and become a household name. He is hugely influential - in Britain, Ireland and even America. But this isn't Diarmuid Gavin. This is William Robinson, and it's more than a hundred years ago. Founder of The Garden magazine and author of numerous books, he gave his name to 'Robinsonian' gardening, and is Ireland's most illustrious and celebrated gardener.

Starting his career as a gardener's boy in a Co. Waterford estate and moving on to other estate jobs around Ireland, he fled the country after quarreling with his employer and deliberately letting the fire go out in the glasshouses full of tender plants. Irritated and bored by the formal bedding schemes predominant at the time, and the clipping, hoeing and general manipulating of the garden, he was influenced by the beauty of plants in their natural environments than in their tortured, drilled and fussed-over garden state. His wonderfully opinionated tone is thoroughly refreshing, now as it must have been at the time, and he didn't mince his words when describing the gardening style of the time:

"I saw the flower gardener meanly trying to rival the tile or wall-paper men, and throwing aside with contempt all the lovely things that through their height or form did not conform to this idea..... The choke-muddle shrubbery, in which the shrubs kill each other, shews betimes a few ill-grown plants, and has wide patches of bare earth in summer over which pretty green things may crowd."

The Wild Garden was first published in the 1870s and ran for numerous editions. He constantly revised and updated it as new information was received from readers and correspondents. It was hugely influential and ran to multiple editions over decades. In summary, he advocates that plants should be allowed to naturalise and colonise their environment, and that plants from all comparable parts of the world should grow in a lightly-managed way. He has a wonderfully opinionated tone and a dislike of formaility, hard landscaping and fussiness. Paths should be grass, mowing should be kept to a minimum, beds and borders should be replaced with 'wild' plants and materials should be local. This is an instinctive route that some gardeners take: a visit to Mount Usher shows how wonderful the effect can be, or to Jimi Blake's garden, Huntingbrook, for a garden that is still relatively young.

What makes this edition of The Wild Garden so impressive is the fact that it has new chapters and photographs by Rick Darke. These are placed at the start of the book, so that the main body of the book is a faithful reproduction of the Fifth Edition of 1895. Darke's chapters are characteristically thought-provoking and superbly illustrated with his own photographs. These chapters contextualise the 'wild' garden to our our own timet, focussing on individual places such as Mount Cuba in Delaware, urban parks in Berlin, Duisburg and Cologne, as well as the landscape and gardens at Gravetye Manor, Robinson's own one thousand acre estate in Sussex which is now run as a hotel. It is refreshing that Darke has selected such a diverse range of case-studies as it illustrates the breadth of the Robinsonian style - or at least shows how far it has progressed over the last century or more. Darke's inclusion of so many North American gardens is refreshing and apt: Robinson had an avid readership in North America and important (and wealthy) garden makers of the day such as Henry du Pont of Winterthur in Delaware.

There are many things which Robinson writes which could be written today. In fact, 140 years later he still seems somewhat ahead of his time. His inspiration is nature - though in his case he wants to enhance it by the introduction of species from around the world. He is quick to point out, though, that beauty is right under our noses with our own native plants - almost completely overlooked by the nursery trade and kept at bay from our gardens:

"The passion for the exotic is so universal that our own finest plants are never planted, while money is thrown away like chaff for worthless exotic trees......... on which fortunes have been wasted."

Most refreshing of all about Robinson is that he sees gardening as a process rather than an end-product. He requires learning, experimentation and knowledge on the part of his readers and almost advocates a kind of guerilla gardening where plants and seeds are strewn about the place.

The Wild Garden, William Robinson and Rick Darke, (Timber Press, 2010).