Monday, March 15, 2010

"The Wild Garden"

A new edition of William Robinson’s 1870’s classic The Wild Garden has been published recently by Timber Press with additional material from Rick Darke. I was reminded of this by an essay by Darke appearing in the Jan/Feb issue of the American Gardener  entiled "What is Wild."  (Check out the link to the essay to see what I'm talking about.)  As I read this article I was immediately impressed at how well it captured my feelings on how I  like to design a residential garden—how to wed wildness and civilization.

 Robinson, a botanist and master gardener of 19th century Great Britain, wrote The Wild Garden in response to the contrived nature of the Victorian style garden. He was looking for a more natural, spontaneous, and lower maintenance way of gardening. The Wild Garden is not a manual on creating a wilderness, but rather a way of bringing nature and natural processes closer to the human environment. The key to this approach is to use plants that can naturalize to the existing site conditions and allowing them to grow and reproduce in a natural way to fill all the gaps or niches in the garden. Filling the ground plane with plants is naturally weed suppressive, conserves soil moisture and provides habitat for all sorts of creatures. To do this, plants need to be able to produce and disperse viable seed. Depending on the species this may require a genetically diverse ‘breeding stock’ and leaving some seed heads to mature and disperse their seeds.

In this style garden maintenance becomes more of an exercise in editing out seedlings rather than weeding and replacement of failed plants. The edited seedlings can become new additions to other areas or gifts to gardening friends.

In Robinson’s England of the mid 19th century, plants from the world over were available, including many from North America. These are reflected in the plant lists which he provided for the many different garden conditions encountered by the British gardener. His criteria for plant selection were that the plant be well adapted to an area to survive (rather than adapting the garden conditions to a few plants) and reproduce without dominating the garden (non-invasive). Early editions were focused on the use of introduced plant species while the 5th edition includes a significant chapter (60 pp) on ‘British Wildflowers and Trees.’ Thanks to ‘Google Books’ some of these early editions are available free of charge over the internet: 2nd edition; 5th edition.

This ‘wild garden’ approach is similar to that used for an entry garden I installed 3 years ago at the church I attend. This is a mixture of about half eastern US natives and half ‘exotics’. (I'm still waiting on a Leucothoe to fill the back corner.)  You can see that the ground plane is full. This garden gets no added fertilizer and very little supplemental water beyond the rain. Maintenance takes only 1-2 hours/year and mainly involves pulling out seedlings of bittersweet and euonymus from under the eaves where the birds sit. The Wild Bleeding Heart (Dicentra eximia) are spreading by seed and may be due for some ‘editing’ this year.

1 comment:

Karyl said...

This is such a perfect example of a wild garden style and it looks lovely. Send some of that extra Dicentra eximia my way!