After taking liberties with a couple lines from a Simon and Garfunkel song, I can add that if it wasn’t for this particular Mr. Robinson, we gardeners might still be planting beds of short, neatly spaced annuals arranged in elaborate patterns. Called carpet bedding and pictured below, that was the popular mode of gardening for much of the 19th century.
(A more modern version still remains popular in some venues—especially around public buildings where landscaping firms can be hired to do all the work. But it generally keeps the annuals, while dispensing with the designs, which must have required lots of maintenance or frequent replacement to ensure that the plants remained in a perpetual "holding pattern.")
But then a reportedly somewhat cantankerous Irishman named William Robinson came along and pointed out the obvious, that gardens should look more natural than that. Of course, he may just have been justifying his earlier sins.
Word has it that after serving as a garden boy for the Marquess of Waterford, lugging water from the river to that nobleman’s glasshouses, a 21-year-old Robinson was put in charge of the glasshouses of his next employer--Sir Hunt Johnson-Walsh. However, after quarreling with the baronet one frosty day in 1861, Robinson may or may not have allowed the stoves in those houses to go out, leaving all the tender plants to freeze.
I’m thinking that the conscience of any dedicated gardener would be haunted by that sort of carnage. So I prefer to believe that the quarrel was caused by his accidentally allowing the fires to go out, and the timing got mixed up by gossips later.
Apparently that incident didn’t hurt his career even though it may have forced him to exit Ireland, because a family friend got him a job at the Botanical Gardens in London instead. There he specialized in hardy perennials, especially English wildflowers.
Whether he just was standing up for his new charges or whether he always had hated those bedding annuals, it’s hard to say. At any rate Robinson soon was deploring “the number of beautiful plants shut out from our gardens by the few plants used to perpetrate the crudities of bedding out.”
He also disliked other artifices included in the gardens of the wealthy—such as standard roses, statues, topiary, and fountains—and favored the cottage gardening often practiced by the untitled who had neither the space nor money for all of the above. In their small plots, flowers, herbs, and vegetables of all sizes grew closely together in spilling profusion.
I favor that style myself, and not only because it allows me to get away with weeds which would show up like sore thumbs in those carpet beds! The cottage garden look just does appear more natural. And I believe, as Robinson did, that true artists imitate nature rather than trying to beat it into submission, so to speak.
A member of the Linnean Society by age 29, Robinson soon was hobnobbing with the likes of Charles Darwin and James Veitch. All those new connections would allow him to quit his job at the Gardens to become a journalist instead. And he eventually founded his own magazine, simply called The Garden, which would continue for over 50 years.
Robinson would earn enough from it and from his books—the most well known of which are The Wild Garden and The English Flower Garden—to purchase a manor named Gravetye for himself. (It now is an upscale hotel.) And, though he wasn’t “to the manor born,” he apparently exerted a great influence on those who were, as well as on us more plebeian gardeners.
Many of the ideas he espoused, such as the naturalizing of flowers, planting in drifts, and making as much use of perennials as of annuals would become the new norm. For which we say, “God bless you, please, Mr. Robinson.”
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Images: The cropped and sharpened William Robinson image is courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery of London via this license. The carpet bedding photo is by Pestizid and the A Cottage Garden with Chickens painting by Peder Monsted, both in the public domain.