The lessons we can learn from Victorian gardeners
Alexandra Campbell finds that gardening rules haven’t changed over the last 150 years.
WHEN I heard that “The People’s Friend” was celebrating its 150th anniversary, I discovered that 1869 was also a remarkable time for gardening. One gardening writer in particular, William Robinson, was just publishing his first books – one of which, “The Wild Garden”, still has a major influence on how we garden today.
William Robinson is often called the father of the English flower garden, responsible as he was for popularising or creating herbaceous borders, cottage-garden style, ground-cover plants and lots more.
Before “The Wild Garden” was published, “High Victorian” gardening consisted of planting tender annuals out in big blocks of colour. Once the flowers were over, they were cleared away, and the beds were either left bare or a new block of annuals was planted.
It was very labour intensive and expensive. Many of the plants needed a great deal of titivating to keep them at their best.
William Robinson rebelled against the artifice and waste of this style of gardening. By “The Wild Garden”, he didn’t mean “wilderness gardening”. He meant that we should plant plants where they would do well, and let them grow fairly naturally over a number of years.
Rick Darke, who has republished “The Wild Garden” with his own foreword, says that “the wild garden doesn’t abandon design, but it does imply that design devoted to complete control is unsustainable.”
Robinson believed that a gardener should try to avoid having patches of bare earth, and he is also responsible for the concept of “ground-cover plants”.
One of the exciting things about the Victorian age was that people travelled widely and brought back plants, ideas and other treasures
Robinson thought that we gardeners should take advantage of all plants that would grow well in our northern hemisphere climate.
In “The Wild Garden”, he lists asters, delphiniums, foxgloves and pinks as good “hardy exotic” plants for our gardens. Many of these – as well as anemones, snapdragons, echinops, wallflowers and crocuses – are now considered British garden stalwarts.
Robinson struck another blow against formal, geometric and controlled gardens with the publication of “The English Flower Garden”, which made rambling, mixed cottagegarden style gardening fashionable.
Robinson tried out new ways of planting in his own garden at Gravetye Manor, being the first to plant great swathes of daffodils under orchard trees. He also pioneered meadow gardening with early displays of bulbs.
He hated statuary and fences, and urged gardeners to plant hedges, which he referred to as “living fences”. This message was lost over the 20th century, but is now re-emerging in the 21st because hedges are so valuable to wildlife and in minimising air pollution.
You can usually find second-hand copies of reissued versions of William Robinson’s books, but in many ways you hardly need to, as so many garden writers today still recommend the principles by which he gardened.
William Robinson’s garden at Gravetye Manor is now a hotel (www.gravetyemanor. co.uk), and it also has some garden open days.
Knowing little about gardens, I went there on my honeymoon 30 years ago. Even in the depths of winter, it inspired me to start gardening. ■