William Robinson, says Tom Coward, was “the Irishman who taught the English how to garden.” Although largely forgotten today, Robinson’s work in the late 19th and early 20th centuries at his English estate, Gravetye Manor, embodied a new concept of how gardeners could relate to nature. Through his influence on contemporaries such as Gertrude Jekyll, Robinson continues to be a seminal — and revolutionary — influence on contemporary gardening worldwide. For those who want to know more about this fascinating character, Tom Coward, the current head gardener at Gravetye Manor, will be delivering a talk about Robinson’s horticultural legacy and new directions being pursued in that garden at Berkshire Botanical Garden’s annual Winter Lecture on Feb. 22.
Born into humble circumstances in 1838 and raised during the era of the Potato Famine, Robinson worked as a gardener at a series of Irish estates before emigrating to England in 1861. There he encountered new opportunities. England’s Industrial Revolution had created a middle class with disposable income and a need to landscape their new homes. Robinson, whose interest in wildflowers led to a violent dislike of the artificial, hyper-formal style of gardening then popular, used the media opportunities created by the steam-driven printing press to spread his ideas about a new kind of gardening. Robinson’s theories, most fully expounded in his book, The Wild Garden, published in 1870, called for basing the garden on a more natural model. Instead of planting annual flowers in meticulously plotted patterns (the previous style of gardening) Robinson proposed intermingling hardy perennials, shrubs and trees in informal combinations similar to those found in the wild.
Robinson practiced what he preached, instituting his new style of planting at the Sussex estate, Gravetye Manor, which he purchased in 1884. Planting bulbs and perennials by the hundreds of thousands, he filled the woodlands and meadows around the house (the estate would eventually encompass 1,000 acres) with a planned progression of seasonal color. His popular magazine, The Garden, not only helped to pay for this program, it carried the news of Robinson’s new, more natural landscape style to a broad audience, one which was nostalgic for the rural scenes it had left behind in its pursuit of industrial prosperity.
It’s important to note, adds Coward, that although Robinson was a fan of wildflowers and an advocate for the wild, he was not a nativist. Because it was largely covered by ice during the last ice age, Britain has a relatively restricted flora of native plants, and Robinson enthusiastically supplemented this with hardy plants from around the world. A better case for a purely native wild garden, Coward adds, could be made in the United States, with its far richer indigenous flora.
After Robinson’s death in 1935 at the age of 96, the gardens of Gravetye fell derelict. Converted into a hotel and restaurant in the 1950s, the estate has experienced a series of restorations, most recently under the supervision of Coward, considered one of the most respected gardeners working in Britain today. Currently the gardens extend to some 30 acres and while remaining true to Robinson’s principles, Coward has taken the planting in some new directions. In part this is to accommodate the requirements of the hotel and restaurant — the kitchen garden, for example, has come to reflect the restaurant’s menu. But Coward has also capitalized on new plants that have become available since Robinson’s time, an innovation of which Robinson would surely approve.
In this vein, Coward’s talk on Feb. 22, scheduled for 2 p.m. at the Duffin Theater at Lenox Memorial Middle/High School, 197 East St, Lenox, Mass., will focus not only on what he has done at Gravetye Manor but also on ways in which its principles can transfer to the listeners’ gardens.
For information about this talk and to reserve tickets, visit www.berkshirebotanical.org/events/winter-lecture-tom-coward, or call the Berkshire Botanical Garden at 413-298-3926.
Be-a-Better-Gardener is a community service of Berkshire Botanical Garden located in Stockbridge, Mass. Its mission to provide knowledge of gardening and the environment through a diverse range of classes and programs both informs and inspires thousands of students and visitors each year. Thomas Christopher is a volunteer at Berkshire Botanical Garden and is the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including Nature into Art, The Gardens of Wave Hill. His companion broadcast to this column, Growing Greener, streams on WESUFM.org.