The book from which this chapter was taken was first published in 1870 and was one of Robinson's best-known works: its opening chapter sets out his manifesto for the new direction he envisaged. The ideas expressed here had a tremendous influence on British gardening, and permeated not only this and his other full-length publications, but also his illustrated weekly magazine, The Garden, which he began publishing late in the following year, edited until 1899, and continued to own for another twenty years. His illustrator here was another keen gardener, the artist Alfred Parsons. The illustrations are inserted as close as possible to their original place in the text. Page numbers are indicated in square brackets. [Click on all the images to enlarge them.] — Jacqueline Banerjee

Decorated initial A

About a generation ago a taste began to be manifested for placing a number of tender plants in the open air in summer, with a view to the production of showy masses of decided colour. The subjects selected were mostly from sub–tropical climates and of free growth; placed annually in the open air of our genial early summer, and in fresh rich earth, every year they grew rapidly and flowered abundantly during the summer and early autumn months, and until cut down by the first frosts. The showy colour of this system was very attractive, and since its introduction[2] there has been a gradual rooting out of all the old favourites in favour of this “bedding” system. This was carried to such an extent that it was not uncommon, indeed it has been the rule, to find the largest gardens in the country without a single hardy flower, all energy and expense being devoted to the production of the few exotics required for the summer decoration. It should be distinctly borne in mind that the expense for this system is an annual one; that no matter what amount of money may be spent in this way, or how many years may be devoted to perfecting it, the first sharp frost of November announces a yet further expense and labour, usually more heavy than the preceding.

Large–flowered Meadow Rue in the Wild Garden,
type of plant mostly excluded from the Garden.

Its highest results need hardly be described; they are seen in all our great public gardens; our London and many other city parks show them in the shape of beds filled with vast quantities of flowers, covering the ground frequently in a showy way, or in a repulsively gaudy manner: nearly every private garden is taken possession of by the same things. I will not here enter into the question of the merits of this system; it is enough to state that even on its votaries it is beginning to pall. Some are looking back with regret to the old mixed–border gardens; others are endeavouring to soften the harshness of the bedding system by the introduction of fine–leaved plants, but all are agreed that a great mistake has been made in destroying all our old flowers, from Lilies to Hepaticas, though very few persons indeed have any idea of the numbers of beautiful subjects in this way which we may gather from every northern and temperate clime to adorn our gardens under a more artistic system.

My object in the Wild Garden is now to show how we[3] may have more of the varied beauty of hardy flowers than the most ardent admirer of the old style of garden ever dreams of, by naturalising innumerable beautiful natives of many regions of the earth in our woods and copses, rougher parts of pleasure grounds, and in unoccupied places in almost every kind of garden.

I allude not to the wood and brake flora of any one country, but to that which finds its home in the vast fields of the whole northern world, and that of the hill–ground that falls in furrowed folds from beneath the hoary heads of all the great mountain chains of the world, whether they rise from hot Indian plains or green European pastures. The Palm and sacred Fig, as well as the Wheat and the Vine, are separated from the stemless plants that cushion under the snow for half the year, by a zone of hardier and not less beautiful life, varied as the breezes that whisper on the mountain sides, and as the rills that seam them. They are the Lilies, and Bluebells, and Foxgloves, and Irises, and Windflowers, and Columbines, and Rock–roses, and Violets, and Cranesbills, and countless Pea–flowers, and mountain Avens, and Brambles, and Cinquefoils, and Evening Primroses, and Clematis, and Honeysuckles, and Michaelmas Daisies, and Wood–hyacinths, and Daffodils, and Bindweeds, and Forget–me–nots, and blue–eyed Omphalodes, and Primroses, and Day Lilies, and Asphodels, and St. Bruno’s Lilies, and the almost innumerable plants which form the flora of the northern and temperate portions of vast continents.

It is beyond the power of pen or pencil to picture the beauty of these plants. Innumerable and infinitely varied scenes occur in the wilder parts of all northern and temperate[4] regions, at many different elevations. The loveliness and ceaselessly varying charms of such scenes are indeed difficult to describe or imagine; the essential thing to bear in mind is that the plants that go to form them are hardy, and will thrive in our climate as well as native plants.

Night effect of large evening Primrose in the
Wild Garden (Œnothera Lamarkiana).

Such beauty may be realised in every wood and copse and shrubbery that screens our “trim gardens.” Naturally our woods and wilds have no little loveliness in spring; we have here and there the Lily–of–the–valley and the Snowdrop, and everywhere the Primrose and Cowslip; the Bluebell and the Foxglove sometimes take nearly complete possession of whole woods; but, with all our treasures in this way, we have no attractions in or near our gardens compared to what it is within our power to create. There are many countries with winters as cold as, or colder than, our own, possessing a rich flora; and by taking the best hardy exotics and establishing them in wild or half–wild spots, we may produce beautiful pictures in such places. To most people a pretty plant in a free state is more attractive than any garden denizen. It is taking care of itself; and, moreover, it is usually surrounded by some degree of graceful wild spray—the green above, and the moss and brambles and grass around.

By the means presently to be explained, numbers of plants of the highest order of beauty and fragrance, and clothed with pleasant associations, may be seen perfectly at home in the spaces now devoted to rank grass and weeds, and by wood walks in our shrubberies and ornamental plantations.

Among my reasons for advocating this system are the following:—

First, because hundreds of the finest hardy flowers will thrive much better in rough and wild places than ever they did in the old–fashioned border. Even comparatively small ones, like the ivy–leaved Cyclamen, a beautiful plant that we rarely find in perfection in gardens, I have seen perfectly naturalised and spread all over the mossy surface of a thin wood.

A “mixed border” with tile edging, the way in which the beautiful hardy flowers of the world have been grown in gardens hitherto, when grown at all. (Sketched in a large garden, 1878.)

Secondly, because they will look infinitely better than ever they did in gardens, in consequence of fine–leaved plant, fern, and flower, and climber, grass and trailing shrub, relieving each other in ways innumerable and delightful. Any one of a thousand combinations will prove as far superior to any aspect of the old mixed border, or the ordinary type of modern flower–garden, as is a lovely mountain valley to a piece of the “black country.”

Thirdly, because, arranged as I propose, no disagreeable effects result from decay. The raggedness of the old mixed border after the first flush of spring and early summer bloom had passed was intolerable, bundles of decayed stems tied to sticks, making the place look like the parade–ground of a number of crossing–sweepers. When Lilies are sparsely[6] dotted through masses of shrubs, their flowers are admired more than if they were in isolated showy masses; when they pass out of bloom they are unnoticed amidst the vegetation, and not eyesores, as when in rigid unrelieved tufts in borders, etc. In a wild or semi–wild state the beauty of individual species will proclaim itself when at its height; and when out of bloom they will be succeeded by other kinds, or lost among the numerous objects around.

Blue flowered Composite plant; fine foliage and habit; type of
noble plants excluded from gardens. (Mulgedium Plumieri.)

Fourthly, because it will enable us to grow many plants that have never yet obtained a place in our “trim gardens.” I allude to the multitudes of plants which, not being so showy as those usually considered worthy of a place in gardens, are never seen therein. The flowers of many of these are of the highest order of beauty, especially when seen in numbers. An isolated tuft of one of these, seen in a formal border, may not be considered worthy of its place, while in some wild glade, in a wood, as a little colony, grouped naturally, or associated with like subjects, its effect may be exquisite. Among the subjects usually considered unfit for garden cultivation may be included a goodly number that, grown in gardens, are no addition to them; subjects like the American Asters, Golden Rods, and like plants, which merely[7] overrun the choicer and more beautiful border–flowers when planted amongst them. These coarse subjects would be quite at home in copses and woody places, where their blossoms might be seen or gathered in due season, and their vigorous vegetation form a covert welcome to the game–preserver. To these two groups might be added subjects like the winter Heliotrope, the handsome British Willow herb, and many other plants which, while attractive in the garden, are apt to spread about so rapidly as to become a nuisance there. Clearly these should only be planted in wild and semi–wild places.

Fifthly, because we may in this way settle also the question of spring flowers, and the spring garden, as well as that of hardy flowers generally. In the way I suggest, many parts of every country garden, and many suburban ones, may be made alive with spring flowers, without interfering at least with the geometrical beds that have been the worthless stock–in–trade of the so–called landscape–gardener for centuries. The blue stars of the Apennine Anemone will be seen to greater advantage “wild,” in shady or half–shady bare places, under trees, than in any conceivable formal arrangement, and it is but one of hundreds of sweet spring flowers that will succeed perfectly in the way I propose.

Sixthly, because there can be few more agreeable phases of communion with nature than naturalising the natives of countries in which we are infinitely more interested than in those of which greenhouse or stove plants are native. From the Roman ruin—home of many flowers, the prairies of the New World, the woods and meadows of all the great mountains of Europe; from Greece and Italy and Spain, from the[8] sunny hills of Asia Minor; from the alpine regions of the great continents—in a word, from almost every interesting region the traveller may bring seeds or plants, and establish near his home the pleasantest souvenirs of the various scenes he has visited.

Moreover, the great merit of permanence belongs to this delightful phase of gardening. Select a wild rough slope, and embellish it with the handsomest and hardiest climbing plants,—say the noble mountain Clematis from Nepal, the sweet C. Flammula from Southern Europe, “Virginian creepers” in variety, the Nootka Bramble (Rubus nutkanus and R. odoratus), various species of hardy vines, Jasmines, Honeysuckles—British and European, and wild Roses. Arranged with some judgment at first, such a colony might be left to take care of itself; time would but add to its attractions, and the happy owner might go away for years, and find it beautiful on his return.

Wood anemone (tailpiece to this chapter).

Robinson. William. The Wild Garden; Or our Groves and Gardens made beautiful by the Naturalisation of Hardy Exotic Plants; being one way onwards from the Dark Ages of Flower Gardening, with suggestions for the Regeneration of the Bare Borders of the London Parks. London: John Murray, 1883. Internet Archive, from the collection of Wellesley College Library. Web. 18 June 2022.

Created 17 June 2022