When William Robinson started talking about the "wild garden" in the 1860s (and published "The Wild Garden" in 1870) gardeners were much confused. His idea, which was simple enough, was to grow exotic -- that is, foreign -- plants in natural ways. Not in beds or borders, but in natural-looking drifts and patches at the edge of woods, in ditches, hedgerows, meadows and shrubberies.
He was willing to let the garden around the house be as formal as anyone pleased. He had no objection to formal beds in which tea roses (in some ways his favorite flower) were protected, fertilized, pruned, dead-headed and otherwise pampered.
He didn't even demand that the dismal beds of geraniums, lobelias, perillas and other showy creatures set out for the summer be bulldozed, though that is what he thought was the best thing to do with them. No, he was willing for gardeners to have all the trash (bedding plants -- he would have loathed the beds of marigolds you still see even in this enlightened age) they liked around the house. He simply called for the use of beautiful things, once you left the terraces and got into meadows and ditches.
Since his day a good bit of keen sport has been had at Robinson's expense, especially by those who have sat through a lecture or two and deemed themselves authorities on landscape gardening. They think, not having troubled to study the matter, of course, that Robinson meant the garden should be left to run wild year by year until it became impenetrable with briars and docks.
That is hardly what Robinson meant or what he did himself. I wonder what those who criticize his theories of wild gardening think if they ever begin to notice Robinson's wild garden theories are now so much a part of mainstream gardening that it is hard to imagine a garden apart from his notions.
Recently I saw a lot of pictures of a garden atop the Boston Ritz in Horticulture magazine, and I thought what a pleasant cocktail lounge on the roof had been opened by the hotel. Instead, it was a private garden, the cost of which was mercifully kept confidential. There were six Chinese dogwoods in tubs, some white geraniums in pots, a pot of white daisies and a wee fringe of white alyssum, plus a shallow formal pool of water with nothing growing in or around it.
It was very pretty, in its way, and if the owners get tired of it (as I would in 48 hours) they can always sell it to the hotel for dispensing five-buck drinks. But the reason it doesn't look remotely like a garden is because it is a rare example of a garden having nothing to do with Robinson's wild garden notions. Even in that rooftop lounge, however, they let the alyssum creep over the stone (an important Robinsonian novelty, in revolt against the mid-Victorian scheme of dotting the damned alyssums at 8-inch intervals in straight rows, leaving the bare earth between plants for contrast) and they chose the dogwood, Cornus kousa, which for some reason they are allowing to grow naturally.
The point here is not that the garden is fairly ghastly, though it is certainly insensitive and poverty-stricken in its ideas, but that a garden looks odd, indeed, when it owes little or nothing to the wild-garden theories of William Robinson.
We are all familiar (though this was a novelty of "The Wild Garden") with daffodils grown in drifts, not only in meadows or orchards, but even in town gardens. We are used to grapevines over arbors at the kitchen door, mainly because the plant is so beautiful. We see, even in city gardens, billows of clematis, crocuses in the grass and snowdrops under trees. We are familiar, indeed, in this town with azaleas massed under oaks and allowed to grow without any attention to speak of into huge plants as they do in the wild.
All such things seem to us so obvious and usual that we may forget this kind of gardening was a novelty in 1870, startling to most gardeners of the period. How ugly and vulgar the gardening of that day was has been admirably demonstrated by those occasional efforts of the Smithsonian Institution to recreate them near the Castle.
The anger that such gardening arouses in me, as it did in Robinson, and does in all humans who have any taste whatever, is simply the natural outrage at seeing beautiful plants used as nothing more than imbecile-inspired dotty patterns traced (laboriously, I suppose) out of a book. Something of the same revulsion would be felt if horses on a farm were tied neatly to posts set every 25 feet in a pasture; or the same disgust that is felt at women with bound feet (as in China in the past) and five-inch lacquered nails.
It will be noticed that women look frightful with painted eyelids and other whore-type adornments, but feminine fashions are so changeable, and in any case so inconsequential, that it makes no difference, really, and is a sort of merry game with them, in which they gladly swap good looks (or at least nonhideous looks) for the confidence that being in fashion gives them.
But when really beautiful living creatures, trees and flowers, horses and dogs, are treated as utterly malleable "materials" in some fool's design, contradicting all their natural beauty and forcing them into absurd regularities, then one rebels at the ignorant and flagrant disregard of their inborn grace.
In a small garden, or for that matter a large one, it makes sense for flower beds and pools of water (highly artificial constructions, of course) to have geometrical outlines. But the fishes in the pool should be left free, and the waterlilies and other plants should be allowed to grow as they do in the wild, so that while it is all right (and highly desirable) for the old leaves to be removed as they wither, it is not all right to try to force the plants into some bizarre or trite pattern.
It can be argued that a sense of rightness is so vague, so variable according to the observer's own temperament and experience, that no universal pronouncement can be made on the matter. Nonsense. There may be differences of opinion where the limits are to be drawn, but hardly any doubt there are indeed limits.
A yew may be clipped into a rooster, for fun (not that Robinson would let you do it, but I would) but you may not put shellac on lilies to make them shine more. You may have edgings of catmint and even clip it, if it gets too far out on the walk or gets too big for its reasonably allotted space, but you may not try turning it into little globes every 14 inches along a 300-foot walk.
A good many people could profit from Robinson's book. Though an astonishing number of his lessons have gradually been learned in the past 116 years, his book is still useful and exciting. I suppose you buy books at book stores. Mine came from Capability's Books, Deer Park, Wis. 54007.