The Self-Taught Gardener: Into the wild

An upcoming lecture at the Berkshire Botanical Garden will show why our Self-Taught Gardener, Lee Buttala, so loves the spirit of the wild garden.

Editor’s note: The Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Winter Lecture, to take place on February 22nd, will examine a great garden of the past that can teach us about gardening in the present.

I think the quality that we are drawn to most in the winter landscape is its sense of wildness. While the orderly pattern of a snow-covered boxwood parterre is unquestionably appealing, the random assemblage of snow-capped trees and shrubs along the roadside conveys a looser and more romantic notion of nature’s beauty than that of a formal garden. As I think about these two different landscapes and how they influence the way we garden, I am looking forward to a lecture on this subject that will take place at the Berkshire Botanical Garden on February 22nd. This year’s Berkshire Botanical Garden’s Winter Lecture will be given by Tom Coward, the head gardener at Gravetye Manor in the United Kingdom, an estate that was once the home of renowned 19th century garden author William Robinson.

Gravetye Manor was the home of William Robinson, an influential 19th-century British garden writer.

I have heard Coward lecture before, primarily about the walled circular vegetable garden at Gravetye, an artful display that raises the craft of vegetable gardening to the level of high garden design. But I am more excited to hear him speak this year about the Wild Garden at Gravetye. When Robinson created this garden, he abandoned the gardening conventions of the Victorian era, which called for straight lines, highly elaborate designs, and precisely bedded borders. He wanted instead to build a garden that, characterized by an overgrown and wild appearance, would retain its beauty even if it were left alone for a decade. In many ways, Robinson was the progenitor of the naturalistic garden designs of Oehme van Sweden, Sarah Price, and Piet Oudolf, whose gardens have defined the new gardening movement of the past decade.

Gravetye Manor is now a high-end hotel, and Coward has been working to enliven, reinterpret, and bring back the gloriously designed landscape that surrounds it. Having struggled to remove invasive weeds from Gravetye, Coward might not be in complete agreement with Robinson’s notion of letting a garden, even the Wild Garden with its more naturalistic plantings, sit on its own for ten years, but he would not argue with the beauty and intelligence of Robinson’s design.

Tom Coward at Gravetye Manor. He will be speaking in the Berkshires on February 22nd.

The Wild Garden, which in Robinson’s time included a mix of native and non-native plants, is truly an inspiration for those gardeners who hope to inhabit the territory that resides between the formal gardens filled with highly hybridized plants that once defined horticultural excellence and the restoration of the native landscape that has come to define the environmentally minded approach of the present day. Coward has been working not merely to preserve and restore what was already on site but also to steward the landscape and lead it into the future. To do so, he is combining non-local with plants from the region. With this mix, he hopes to simultaneously provide long-lasting color for the hotel guests and habitat for local flora and fauna.

Robinson’s writings remain valuable today. His book on the wild garden, especially, is inspiring reading for gardeners and garden designers working to create landscapes that celebrate the relaxed beauty of nature. Robinson also wrote on the English garden and the mixed borders that most of us associate with English garden design. Many gardens at Gravetye reflect this traditional English design, but it is his work in the naturalistic style that makes Robinson most relevant today.

Robinson’s English Garden at Gravetye has been restored to its original glory, with some refurbishment and imaginative replanting.

Coward and Robinson might both argue that the beauty of such wild gardens is accentuated when they are set in juxtaposition to more formal borders, as they are at Gravetye, and I look forward to being taken away on February 22nd by images of these other areas of the garden as well. Like the differences between the planted parterres and the natural woods that we pass along the road in New England in midwinter, there is little doubt that the beauty of nature can easily hold its own against the artistry of human design. And most likely, at least for me, it is the spirit of the wild garden that will win the day.

And I hope to learn in the New Year in from Mr. Coward how we can combine art and nature to best effect in the garden and in our lives.

I cannot imagine a better holiday present than a ticket or two to BBG’s Winter Lecture. They can be purchased online if you need a last minute present. Click here for more information.

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A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.