WILLIAM ROBINSON'S garden book, "The English Flower Garden," has been published by The Amaryllis Press, ending complaints from people like me that it is nothing less than a scandal for this great turn-of-the-century book to be lost.
It went through 15 editions but has not been available since the 1930s. When you consider the number of worthless books cascading into the world you marvel that Robinson's -- the best single garden book in our language -- was not to be had except from dealers in old books. My own late 19th century edition is in a thousand fragments, but I still read it.
The present reissue is 720 pages, and the names of plants have been brought up to date by Graham Stuart Thomas. The foreword is by me and the introduction by Deborah Nevins, not that anybody ever reads such things or needs to, and I mention it partly to point out that if the book sells a million copies I do not profit a dime.
Its price is $35, and the publisher is Ngaere Macray who also reissued a series of Gertrude Jekyll's books.
Robinson was an Irishman who wound up at a pretty old manor in Sussex, leaving this earth in his nineties with almost all his firm opinions intact, as well they should be, since they were right.
His greatest influence was to push gardens out of the sterile dull form he found them (a band of red, a band of yellow, a band of blue annuals in a trite geometrical formation) and into a new mode of informality and respect for the plants themselves.
His book comes at a good time since some of the old abuses of which he complained are beginning to be seen again. Architects, who as a group cannot tell a dahlia from a juniper, naturally see things as blobs composed of standard units which is all very well for parking lots and the facades of buildings that nobody looks at, but it is not at all well in designing gardens.
Robinson and Jekyll bear some responsibility for the trend, which would horrify them, of repeating the same plants endlessly, for they both insisted on using plants so they show up well and have impact in the garden. Thus waterlilies are grown in masses in a pool, not in pails uniformly distributed about the place, and if there are only 50 daffodils in a garden, they are grown in clumps so that you see a number of flowers at once, not as single bulbs spaced one every four feet the length of the garden.
Nature groups cardinal flowers along a stream, and we do well to do the same, or as nearly the same as we can. This earlier insistence on grouping plants effectively made sense then and makes sense now, but if pushed too far you wind up with gaudy marigolds not in an occasional clump a yard wide or in a bed used for cutting them for the house, but in tiresome repeated beds of violent color.
I shall take a daring example, the new building of the National Geographic Society on M Street. First, and most important, it is a glorious example of restraint and lack of usual commercial greed, since endless commercially valuable feet are left open and not built on. This is a miracle and worth a number of awards. This open space has been turned into a garden for public pleasure, and has some good things about it. The double line of flowering pear trees will provide modest flowers in April, shade in summer, and splendid leaf color in fall. A number of large hollies are planted, to give warmth and interest in the winter. Dwarf rhododendrons will give later floral color after the pear trees, and a few bright geraniums will theoretically help along the summer.
I criticize the project only in detail, not in general, and I do so today only to emphasize the distinction between the Robinson-Jekyll theory of gardening and the mechanical one.
Each floor of the new building has a polished rose stone parapet running the entire width of the structure, and this was to be bordered, on every floor, with plants, somewhat like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Since the polished stone is rather extravagant, and so is the expanse of polished window glass floor by floor, it was probably thought wise to use great restraint in the planting along these balconies, and a dwarf yew was chosen. Not a bad choice.
The only trouble with it is that it is monotonous, unimaginative and somewhat trite in concept. It was obviously conceived as a living band of uniform green, to go with the uniform bands of polished pink stone. It is an architectural concept, and it has the merit that no knowledge, experience, sensitivity or taste is necessary to effect it. And it is better, far better, than a band of marigolds or zinnias or geraniums. It is wonderful to have been spared (what I suspect may have been considered) rows of geraniums behind the polished stone.
It is not, however, the solution of a gardener or of an architect of flair and taste in such matters. The effect would have been better if someone had said:
"All right, we are going to use plants with this polished stone, to lighten the effect, to avoid a pretentious monumentality -- to keep our building from producing the awful effect of, say, the J. Edgar Hoover Building. Now let's see what we should do.
"Dwarf yew would be fine, very fine, if our building were a town-house sort of thing, but our building is very large indeed, and it may be an error to back endless uniform rims of rose stone with equally uniform crests of dark green. That might be all right for a building 30 feet wide, but maybe not for a building as large as ours, especially since it will be repeated floor above floor from the ground to the top.
"So the uniform yew may be monotonous. On the other hand this is not a building occupied by a thousand ardent gardeners. We hardly want to use all this valuable plant space for collections of alpine flowers, however well some of them might flourish. We cannot have something absurd or flimsy or something that contradicts the beautiful severity of the polished stone. It must be low, it must be within the realm of the possible in terms of upkeep. Is there anything besides yew that might give an even richer effect, a more sophisticated, cheerful, uptown look, that is still within the reality of a maintenance budget?"
This is the first dialogue of a designer of such a planting, if he is himself sophisticated and humane, aware of the complexity of life and of design. Without hammering the matter, I sense strongly that this dialogue was never held, and that the first possible solution was adopted, without further effort or thought.
The bands of dwarf rhododendrons -- fairly unattractive ones in bloom, actually -- and the beds of geraniums bespeak the same attitude: let's stop, as soon as we hit on something that is not actively outrageous or so ugly that the wrath of the city will fall on us.
It is very different from the Robinson approach, of defining the limits of a garden, whether behind polished stone and in front of a public institution of great fame, or whether it's a window box or a meadow or a city cat-run garden or a patio. The realities are accepted to begin with. Then the whole world (the world of the designer's imagination and knowledge and skill) is searched. Things are thought of and ruled out, things are dreamed of and then laughed at, things are at last brought together in a design that enchants everybody.
Such an accomplishment is almost impossible, however, whenever plants are thought of as abstract units. In great gardens, such as Hidcote or Knightshayes or Tresco, any designer is acutely aware of the abstract esthetics of the design, for plants do indeed form abstract patterns. And since this is so, you might think no harm would come of regarding them as abstract units to begin with, since in the final completed work they will form these patterns.
A careful study of Robinson -- possibly even a quick reading of him -- will show the difference of approach. At the great gardens the abstract beauty is abundantly present, far more so than at the National Geographic, but the effect is richer, more joyful, more satisfying. In all cases of splendor involving plants, you begin with a certain reverence or awe at the beauty of the plants themselves as living creations and you go on from there. The difference of approach may not seem substantial, but it is an enormous difference.
The garden on M Street would have profited greatly by a full awareness of what Robinson is all about.
As it is, I am grateful for this building and its planting, so vastly better than I expected or even hoped. Even the yews in monotonous ranks are not actively bad, merely a bit hackneyed like the pears and rhododendrons.
It was a chance to do something magnificent, as well as adequate, and the reason it falls short of glory is not a question of money or labor, but of consciousness and creative effort made possible by experience, knowledge, love and natural ability.
There is no better introduction to gardening, or to what gardening can be, than the Robinson book, whether the reality is a window box or a 10-acre field.
It cannot be too widely read or too actively understood.