The lessons we can learn from Victorian gar­den­ers

Alexandra Camp­bell finds that gar­den­ing rules haven’t changed over the last 150 years.

The People's Friend - - Front Page -

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

from abroad.

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., 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. ■

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