Wild Garden. The Hollister House Garden, Washington, Connecticut, was begun by George Schoellkopf in 1979. Open to the public. © Claire Takacs

Secrets from The Garden: Wild gardens aren't really that wild

Our new book, The Garden Elements and Styles, traces the trend for unruly planting back to an outspoken critic of Victorian formality

Our new book The Garden: Elements and Styles is the ultimate guide to garden design, from the oldest, most highly cultivated conventions to the most recent styles and trends. The scholar, horticultural authority and author, Toby Musgrove offers a truly global view of how we shape our natural world. Read this book and you’ll discover, for instance, courtyard gardens were popular in ancient Egypt; and that Los Angeles guerilla gardener Ron Finley plants curbside vegetable gardens to educate his fellow citizens about the joys of simple food cultivation.

Finley isn’t the only rebel in this new book. Musgrove traces the fashion for unruly planting - something some of us less attentive gardeners might accidentally encourage - to one deeply committed garden designer.

“In some ways, the phrase ‘wild garden’ is an oxymoron, for by the very act of cultivation we actively prevent a garden from attaining its wild, natural state,” writes Musgrove. “In fact, the wild garden does not mean disorder, wildness or wilderness, but rather a style of naturalistic planting and form of garden layout that became fashionable in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Its promoter, the Irish garden writer and designer William Robinson, was a fiery critic of the formal Victorian garden, with its Italianate terraces populated with parterres, fountains, statuary and tens of thousands of tender, seasonal bedding plants massed together in bold shows of bright colours.

The Garden: Elements and Styles
The Garden: Elements and Styles

“Describing his approach in The Wild Garden (1870), Robinson believed a garden should be a place in which hardy plants were cultivated for their own beauty and planted according to their habitat requirements: in damp and boggy streams and pools, in woodland and heath, naturalized in meadows, or grouped in informal beds and borders set around with grass.

By including only natives and old-fashioned favourites, Robinson’s wild garden would today be called a wildlife garden. Moreover, in an early expression of what we now call low-maintenance gardening, he believed that once planted, the plants should ‘flourish without the slightest attention’. Wild garden-making was also practised by Robinson’s friend and colleague, Gertrude Jekyll, who naturalized shade-loving plants in her ornamental woodland garden at Munstead Wood, Surrey. She explained her approach in Wood and Garden (1899), by which time the style had evolved to embrace exotic plants primarily from Japan, the Sino-Himalaya and China. The wild garden became a richly planted mix, with individual taxa grouped and massed within a planting scheme and garden design that expressed a unifying control. Enjoying a subtropical microclimate, one English garden that captures this essence is Tresco Abbey on the Isles of Scilly.”

Far from lettting nature run wild, then, Musgrove shows us just how cultivated this style of planting is. For more on the highly cultivated origins of other elements and styles, order a copy of The Garden: Elements and Styles here.