The Wild Garden

When I was a college freshman, a professor told me, “There is nothing new under the sun.” At nineteen, I quite resented that. Proving the point, however, is the newly expanded edition of William Robinson’s The Wild Garden—the first book written about sustainable gardening (although the concept was expressed in other terms). It was last revised in 1895.

Robinson lived a majestically long life (1838 to 1935), during which he devoted himself to changing the public perception of gardening, from the Victorian concept of complex walled monuments to a new notion that gardens, when beautified by choice natives and appropriate allies, are more appealing because of their evocation of the natural world. He was also opposed to the collectors’ gardens of his day, the alien parklands and arboreta devised to showcase plants that a patron had paid someone else to collect from distant lands.

When I first read Robinson’s 1895 edition—perhaps twenty years ago—I marveled at the modernity of his plant palette juxtaposed against his archaic writing style. The preface’s first paragraph encompasses only one sentence—of eighty-eight words. (Wait…I know I saw a verb here somewhere!) As a student of the essay form, I enjoyed the challenge of finding his point, but I can imagine that modern readers may find daunting this mode of sentence structure, with its labyrinthine tangents.

Like me and many of my contemporaries, Robinson loved to use clematis to knit the garden together. Hardly a chapter of The Wild Garden goes by without their mention. This may explain why I fought my way through the convolutions and contortions so many years ago.

Timber Press could not have chosen better than to invite Rick Darke to prepare new readers for Robinson’s style and to paraphrase Robinson’s message in the modern vernacular. If Darke, with his lyrical words and translucent photography, can soften the heart of a monocot-phobic chauvinist like me—in his book, The Encyclopedia of Grasses for Livable Landscapes (Timber Press 2007)—imagine what he can do to introduce new generations to the wonders of Robinson’s plant ethos.

When today’s twenty-somethings are ready to expand from vegetables to ornamentals, they will find Darke has updated this masterwork for them. The Wild Garden is not about returning gardens to wilderness, which is impossible, anyway, for most of us; it is about allowing a casual, naturalistic, easy-to-preserve sensibility be our guide for planting decisions. Ornamental gardening is, and always has been, about putting the simplest plant combinations together in our garden’s microclimates for maximum effect. It has been repeated many times since 1895: put the right plant in the right place.

In his new opening chapters, Darke introduces us to Robinson’s themes, pointing out that they lead us to embrace a studied sustainability, still espoused by modern gardeners, that was iconoclastic and highly influential during Robinson’s life. Darke’s photography brings us Robinson’s Gravetye Manor as it exists today-still a private garden. The manor house is now a hotel and the grounds are completely accessible only for guests. The original editions of The Wild Garden were illustrated with charming, but not particularly edifying, drawings in pen and ink by Alfred Parsons. Darke’s new photographs enhance the original text just as faithfully. The garden remains vibrant and true to its creator’s intentions, a tremendous testament to the timeless resonance of the Robinson message.

While there may be nothing new under the sun, the compulsion to create gardens never wanes. Thanks to Rick Darke and Timber Press, the original clarion call of The Wild Garden stands ready to be heard again, enlightening a new generation of gardeners as they approach sustainable ornamental gardening.

Linda Beutler, garden writer
Portland, Oregon