The quintessential English cottage garden style is not so English at all

What we think of as the quintessential English cottage garden style — mixed herbaceous borders and some pomp and circumstance, and yes, by that we can infer a bit of Elgar and Victoria sponge) — the type of garden praised and replicated across Britain, and adhered to here by a certain type of Irish mindset and the open-garden brigade — is not so English at all.

The quintessential English cottage garden style is not so English at all

In fact, it had its germination in the mind of an Irishman. A man born in Co Laois. A man of whom the London Evening News said on the advent of his 95th birthday in 1933 that he: ‘changed the face of England’ — that man was William Robinson, (1838 – 1935).

Now don’t get me wrong, I love a long border, I love an open garden, I especially love cake with cream, but all my life I’ve seen that setup as a displacement of an Irish gardening vernacular, indeed I would go so far as to say I’ve seen it as a sort of cultural genocide and creativity killer.

Why every ‘top garden’ looked the same and how every Irish gardening pundit waffled on about lawns, roses and asters, just bored the life out of me.

It seemed of a different era, a different culture and a bit too ‘wannabe ascendency’ for my Irish, working-class sensibilities. Think how shocked I was when I learned it was all the doing of a guy who cut his teeth pushing a wheelbarrow around Curraghmore House in Waterford.

A reappraisal was urgently called for. I was in my early 20s, gardening was both a hobby and a means to pay college fees.

I liked what Diarmuid Gavin was doing, I liked what Mary Reynolds was doing and I liked gardens as art, as symbolism, as a gateway to spirituality or self-expression. Formula gardening was not my thing — I thought of the English style as formulaic and even twee.

I was into exploring biodiversity and permaculture practises and one day I picked up a book The Wild Garden written by Robinson — that was my introduction to this giant of horticulture.

Later I got a copy of Alpine Flowers for Gardens and finally The English Flower Garden and I discovered all about his collaborations with Gertrude Jekyll, of whom the lion’s share of the credit often goes for creating the English style. But it was Robinson’s activism for more naturalistic realism, his criticism of staid bedding and all that stuffy Victorian manicuring of the garden, that inspired Jekyll.

William Robinson was against the grain of gardening tradition at that point. A little bit rock ’n roll. Those mixed herbaceous were liberating in a suffocating era. It was an upset and it did cause a bit of a kafuffle.

Plenty of prominent architects, head gardeners, estate owners and peers of the realm had something to say about it — not pleasant in many instances. They did not like this upstart at all.

It got a bit rough for a while — not quite the Sex Pistols and Fleet Street or Taylor swift and an Ex — but his ideas did find fertile ground with writers, poets, with the Arts and Crafts movement and in circles that wanted a change to society. Slowly but surely his influence became an adopted style. Soon it was even fashionable.

Robinson’s background was in botany, as much as it was in garden design and really, he was not about a new style but about how plants could better thrive and how nature and man could meet on good terms.

In fact, his botany first brought him to prominence as he was elected as a fellow to the Linnaean Society at the tender age of 26, perhaps two-thirds or more below the average age of other fellows.

He corresponded with Charles Darwin, who learned of this Irishman who visited North American prairies to study plants in the wild, who trekked up the Alps to take notes on indigenous flora and who understood diversity. It was Darwin who sponsored Robinson for membership in the Linnean Society.

One could think of Robinson as a Darwinist — in how he argued for the creation/maintenence of ecosystems that allow plant communities to naturally grow and interact in their native environment — which backed up the idea of the influence of habitats upon organisms.

And more importantly illustrated it in living form to the Victorian sphere of influence. Robinson’s interest and advocacy around naturalising bulbs and acclimatising plants from other regions of the world, also touches upon adaptation.

Of course you could read into it that Robinson’s wild garden — which was far from wild and more of a mix of naturalised exotics and native plants that shared similar ecosystems — was a champion of ‘Vitalism’ — that late 19th century movement (in response to Darwinism) which advocated every organism possessed an innate vital spirit — all to be valued and preserved and all deserving of a place.

No brute selection, but all life deserving to survive. In truth, it was a bit of both — the garden could illustrate and elucidate science and be spiritual as well.

Robinson’s success was in part due to the Victorian era’s excitement around the new and the possible. He was of the era, but also helping redefine it.

That’s the great thing — gardens after Robinson didn’t have to be stage sets or full of artifice, and he railed against statuary, topiary and carpet bedding — considering the established norms as boring as wallpaper. He brought life and enquiry back to gardens. From centuries of being a show of man’s dominance over nature, gardens became vibrant, radical and thoroughly exciting again.

They became ‘wild’ again. Man now stood in nature not against it. That’s heroic by any standards. How we garden today is still along these lines and more — it has allowed gardening to be a universal pleasure — not just the preserve of the wealthy or ‘statured’.

Robinson was a go-getter, by the time he hit his 30s he had founded a gardening periodical which he named The Garden and had several manuscripts on practical gardening under his belt, and a publishing deal in the pipeline.

The wealth accrued from his knowledge and writing talents led to him purchasing Gravetye Manor in Sussex, where he explored his theories on how gardens should be.

He broke with rigid geometry and formulaic planting schemes, moved to create drifts and organic lines and introduced sustainability and ecology awareness and even began advocated the importance of tree planting and green spaces to accentuate human health and happiness.

The latter is something that sounds modern to today — the man had talent, foresight and the capacity to shift paradigms. No wonder the British claim him.

I dare Laois to take him back — to build a Robinson-style garden to attract all the eco-tourists, or to set up an horticultural scholarship in his name.

I’ve been writing about our horticultural heroes all year — I hope they have inspired you or brought you a sense of pride. We have a great botanic wealth here, in our horticultural people and in our ecosystems.

Let’s celebrate that whenever we can.

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