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July 08, 2013

William Robinson, The Father of Natural Gardens

William Robinson was an Irishman born into the Victorian garden age of colorful exotic bedding and mock Italianate gardens. In his early 20's, he was appointed head of the Natives Plants section at Regent's Park. Here his exposure to the native and 'wild' plants of the English countryside heavily influenced his opposition to the current Victorian garden aesthetics. He spent many years traveling around England and visiting the continent, inspiring him to advocate for a change in English garden style. He was a prolific writer, starting the magazine, The Garden, and writing the book, The Wild Garden. His writing promoted the ideas that natural gardening was less costly to maintain with less replanting of tender annuals. He also advocated more closely planted beds, less showy beauty, and the naturalization of exotic perennials and annuals planted in a manner in which they will thrive. He believed in the natural succession of plants to provide year round interest and beauty in the garden. He was more an advocate for the natural garden style than an actual garden designer. His work was not a restoration effort of native ecosystems, but rather the creation of something more than that, something picturesque which looked natural.

In 1884 Robinson purchased the Elizabethan manor of Gravetye. Here he was able to put his words into action. Gertrude Jekyll and he developed a lifelong friendship and provided each other with plants and ideas for the other's garden. She designed numerous English gardens, of which Robinson surely had some influence. At the Italianate garden, Shrubland, designed by Charles Barry, he made some modifications. Here it appears, he soothed the beds around the house in his naturalistic style with lush plantings. Throughout his life he continued to be a writer for this new 'style'.

How does Robinson fit into garden history? SInce his death, Robinson's influence is alive and evident in modern and contemporary gardens. Here are some examples from gardens that I have seen.

Hestercombe, designed by Gertrude Jekyll is a celebration of natural plantings. The ease of the plants in the garden, as if they may have just settled there. The plants there play off the hard geometric architecture of the Great Plat, the Dutch Garden and the Orangerie shown above.

Margery Fish's East Lambrook Manor is an example of Robinson's style. She was considered one of the originators of the cottage garden. Her garden still exists today and is a beautiful example of a naturally planted garden. Here there is no order, except perhaps the obsession with snowdrops, Galanthus. Every season has something beautiful to experience in this garden. This small garden has no vistas; It is all about planting a succession of color schemes to delight the visitor.

Beth Chatto's garden in Essex is a lovely example of what can be done with plants on the existing soil. Here there is a casual and relaxed atmosphere. The garden is natural in feeling, yet the plants herald from around the world solve her troublesome soils.

Great Dixter by Christopher Lloyd is a naturalistic dream. So many of the views are worthy of painting. Many of the plants reseed and spread naturally throughout the garden. From the entrance meadow to the sunken garden, there is nothing formal about this garden.

More contemporary landscapes by Piet Oudolf's, including his redesign for the Highline in New York City, continue to see Robinson’s naturalization style. By using plants which would be called weeds by some, Oudolf has created a naturalesque park in the heart of Manhattan from an abandoned elevated rail line. He uses many different plants in a way that creates a feeling of nostalgia. Millions of visitors, locals and tourists, are testament to the popularity of Robinson's Naturalistic planting style.

Finally, Cleve West's winning garden at Chelsea last year has both strong, stable yew hedges and naturally spaced herbaceous border.. What could be more natural than a planting that consists of common flowers and weeds? The composition was beautiful, soft and inviting. Everyone was commenting on one plant in particular, Tragopogon, a ubiquitous ditch weed found around the world, but here somehow it had everyone's attention.

I think that Robinson's influence may perhaps be underestimated. He declared elaborate bedding and the other Victorian design ideals dead and advocated for this 'naturalistic' style that he felt was more appropriate. Trends and styles come and go, but from his lifetime to today, people continue to respond to and admire this garden style.

Robinson, W. F:L:S. The Wild Garden London, U.K., John Murray, 1883
Uglow, Jenny A Little History of British Gardening London, U.K. Pimlico, 2004

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