The Robinsonian Wild Garden
Ignacio Silva, Head Gardener at Emmetts Garden
Recently, the idea of the ‘wild garden’ has become increasingly popular. Some people associate this idea with informal garden designs and planting schemes which resemble natural scenes: a wildflower meadow, a woodland garden, or a pond surrounded with native vegetation. To others, it suggests gardens which support wildlife, including bees, butterflies and birds, and are managed according to certain ecological principles, such as using the no-dig method and avoiding the use of pesticides. The great popularity of Isabella Tree’s book Wilding (2018), describing a rewilding project in West Sussex, also indicates the widespread concern with the decreasing biodiversity in our gardens. However, rewilding, which involves a conservation approach and aims to restore a space to a more natural state which encourages wildlife diversity, has little to do with the original concept of the wild garden.#
The Rose Garden at Emmetts Garden
The term ‘wild garden’ was coined by William Robinson (1838–1935), an influential gardener and journalist from Ireland. In his book The Wild Garden, published in 1870, he advocated the idea of naturalistic gardening. According to him, the design of these plantings should be dictated by the plants’ habit and their cultural preferences. However, for Robinson, this did not mean letting the garden run wild. Rather, plants should be allowed to develop their natural forms and achieve a natural look, while the role of the gardener was to manage them in order to obtain and maintain this aesthetics. Robinson’s wild garden was carefully designed to imitate nature, and the gardener’s intervention was both pivotal and hidden.
The Rock Garden at Emmetts Garden
Robinson is credited with the introduction of the mixed herbaceous border and large drifts of native hardy perennial plants. However, his concept of the wild garden did not imply the exclusion of exotic plants. Indeed, he encouraged ‘the use of any plant that could be naturalised, including half-hardy perennials and natives from other parts of the world’, in order to create “naturalised” plantings. His ideas about wild gardening also led to a resurgence of the English Cottage Garden. His book Alpine Flowers for Gardens (1870) showed, for the first time, how to use alpine plants in a designed rock garden.
The Rock Garden at Emmetts Garden
The impact of Robinson’s ideas can be seen at Emmetts Garden, a National Trust property on Ide Hill near Sevenoaks, in Kent. Emmetts’ origins date back to the nineteenth century, but its current layout and design is largely due to Frederick Lubbock, who owned it from 1890 until his death in 1927. Lubbock expanded and transformed the Victorian garden, adding the Rose Garden (fig.1), the Rock Garden (figs.2 and 3), the North Garden (figs. 4 and 5), and the South Garden. The design and layout of these additions, particularly the informal planting style, was greatly influenced by Robinson. Although there is no proof that Robinson ever visited Emmetts, he must have been familiar with the garden through correspondence. References to Emmetts, with an image are included in the third edition of Robinson’s Alpine Flowers for the Garden (1903). Robinson’s influence can be traced in the design of the naturalistic Rock Garden, aiming to provide ideal conditions for the growth and display of alpine plants. The South Garden and the North Garden are examples of essentially Robinsonian wild gardens. The South Garden comprises a specimen collection of exotic trees and shrubs underplanted with naturalized bulbs in grass. The North Garden contains specimen shrubs interplanted with bulbs and herbaceous perennials, closely corresponding to Robinson’s guidelines for creating a garden of flowering shrubs. Further, the bog garden, which is associated with the lower pond in the North Garden, appears to have been inspired by Robinson. Finally, the formal Rose Garden terrace echoes, perhaps, Robinson’s paved Rose Garden at Gravetye.
‘Pine Border’ in the North Garden
Gardening has evolved since Robinson’s times. It has moved on from his concern with aesthetics and the plants’ cultural preferences to include aspects such as the interactions between the plants and the planting designs with the wider landscape, the use of plants which are adapted to the specific local conditions (i.e., Beth Chatto’s ‘right plant, right place’), and the creation of wildlife havens. These features take the wild garden to a new level. However, it could be argued that, rather than moving away from the Robinsonian concept, these developments bring gardens closer to it, as Robinson regarded nature as the source of all true garden design.
The North Garden at Emmetts Garden