This year is the hundredth anniversary of a tremendous garden book, "The English Flower Garden," and I shall say a word about its author, William Robinson.
He was born in 1838, died at the age of 97, and transformed gardening in the English-speaking world. He was born poor in Ireland (County Down) and died rich in England (Sussex) and he managed to annoy virtually everybody in his time, pointing out landscape architects did not know one tree from another, and casting aspersions on all who disagreed with him in such matters as clipping yews (you clip a yew and Robinson is after you in full cry).
When he was young, there was scarcely a garden that contained roses, carnations, irises, primroses, lilies, water lilies--there was scarcely a garden with the chief fragrant flowers. Instead, gardens were full of stone, grass, clipped shrubs and trees, with occasional hectic displays of color from tender plants bedded out for the summer. The grossness of these gardens was well illustrated until recently (they have torn it up for further building, at the moment) by the hideous garden of the Smithsonian Institution "Castle," which was planted to show what "gardens" used to look like.
Robinson was a superb gardener and he had enormous knowledge of plants. He did not see how you could design gardens without knowing what was to go in them. It seemed to him asinine to mass a great turbidity of begonias outside the windows of the house merely to make a blob of color, while ignoring daffodils, crocuses, irises, peonies, roses and all the other flowers that truly delight people. Nobody was ever delighted--no sane person, at least--by solid beds of geraniums.
There is, of course, something to be said for bedding-out; that is, the system of massing begonias and so forth for a steady show of summer color. For one thing, it takes no thought, and this has great appeal to those who have no brains. Then it is efficient, in the way a Ford assembly line is efficient: you dig everything up, set out all the little plants, and in one fell swoop dig them up again in the fall and either throw them out or winter them over in the greenhouse. Another thing in favor of the stupid system is its expense, for whenever a good bit of money is involved there are always possibilities of raking some of it off. And finally the system had the merit of making people complacent: why bother to contemplate, why wrestle with any complexities of Nature as flowers burgeon and decay through the years, when all you have to do is schedule the mechanical clipping of hedges, the periodic reworking of gravel paths and the equally mechanical operation of setting out lobelias or geraniums or whatnot at fixed intervals over a given area of clean earth.
Robinson, however, did not regard flowering and foliage plants simply as units of the most blatant background. He had the odd notion that a rose, an iris, a lily, was beautiful in itself and could give enormous pleasure to the gardener growing it. He went even farther than most amateur gardeners--he thought gardens were for all practical purposes sacred. It was a desecration of holy things to treat the greatest and tenderest flowers as mere blobs of massed color, and he stormed about on this subject with such vigor, such logic, such sophistication and such moral power (there is, after all, a moral question in using beautiful things as a pig uses swill) that he changed the opinion of the world.
We now take it for granted that endless gravel walks are dumb, that designs worked out in stridently colored weeds are dumb, that cartloads of "garden ornament" are dumb, and that nothing in a garden should be there at all unless the gardener believes it is very beautiful.
What he did was to insist on turning away from gardens as impersonal, unimportant, monotonous backdrops and to convince the world that gardens are a great source of refreshment, full of wonderful things in their seasons. His approach led away from triteness, from ignorance, from mechanical plodding on, to a new enchantment at the great deep riches of Nature and a comprehension of her endless complexity and beauty. After Robinson, gardeners began to see, began to feel--things they had not done for many decades.
A human ought not--or at least need not--approach life as a set of weary mechanical tasks to be got through with as little pain as possible. It is possible for the human to explore, to discover, to learn. There was nothing to discover or learn (or delight in) in the bed of red geraniums. But now there are millions of humans who bound out of bed at 6 in the morning to see which morning glories are open, which roses survived the storm. Small plots, we now know, need not be tiresome and without interest to the gardener, but may be full of the most astonishing excitements when the snowdrops spear through the ice-covered ground in February and the dahlias get bigger and bigger as September wanes.
He declined a knighthood shortly before his death. It would have been a more appropriate gesture to offer him in 1883, the year his masterpiece appeared.
I have always considered it the most important book on gardening ever written, and over the years have suggested to a number of publishers they should reissue it. It went through 15 editions in Robinson's lifetime and is said to have been read by more people than any other garden book ever written.
I am glad the Ayer publishing house will reissue it in January, a decision they reached without any suggestion from me. I hope it will be a tremendous commercial success and annoy all the publishers who care nothing for a landmark work, but chiefly for the junk they hope will appeal to prevailing ignorance and indifference.
"The English Flower Garden," in one of its many editions, may be found in any library. Any library that does not have it is not worth tax support.