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Nigel Dunnett Nigel Dunnett | 15:20 UK time, Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) New Wild Garden

"Our garden building - a converted shipping container that has been around the world"

The RBC ‘New Wild Garden’ at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2011 takes its lead from the ideas of pioneering horticulturist and gardener, William Robinson (1838-1935). 

Robinson has had a huge influence on the way we garden in the UK. He popularized the use of perennials, virtually invented the herbaceous border, and made ‘natural gardening’ respectable. And yet his name is virtually forgotten, certainly compared with his friend and colleague, Gertrude Jekyll.

So why turn back to the ideas of someone who was at his peak in the 1800s? How can there be any relevance to today?

Well, Robinson was a revolutionary and a radical in the gardening world, and radical ideas can take time to sink in; sometimes there is a need to constantly remind ourselves of concepts that go against the grain. The fact is that Robinson’s ideas are as fresh and relevant today as they were in Victorian times.  One of the aims of the garden is to update those original concepts and imagine how they might be used today.

Robinson’s work was applied in large country estates, and was tied up with a sentimental Victorian rustic and cottage garden style. Not, at first glance, an area which has anything to say to gardeners coping with the smaller gardens of today’s towns and cities.

But one of Robinson’s great legacies is the idea of the Wild Garden – he wrote a ground-breaking book of the same name published in 1870. His meaning of ‘wild’ was quite different to the view we have now of natural gardens being full of native wild flowers.

Instead, he proposed that plants from all over the world can be used in gardens, mixing native and non-native plants in ways that make it look like they are all perfectly at home.  The native wildflowers and wildlife are supported, but the visual effect can be almost unbearably beautiful through the ‘pepping up’ with carefully selected additions. 

All the latest research suggests that this is actually the best approach to support wildlife in the garden – we really do need to move away from the purist ecological idea that unless you are just using native plants, then you are doing no good for wildlife. In the ‘New Wild Garden’, we have mixes of non-native and native plants in ecological settings of wet and dry areas, sunny and shade.

Robinson was also closely associated with the ‘Arts and Crafts’ movement that celebrated the use of local materials and highly crafted ways – a strong advocate of local distinctiveness, and an opponent of overly architectural garden styles. But how do we do that in a city, where there aren’t any local natural stone quarries or sources of local timber? 

Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) New Wild Garden

"Our 'dry stone walls' are made from throw-away urban materials"

The obvious answer is to use recycled and re-used materials instead.  The ultimate example of this is our garden building – a converted shipping container that has been around the world. Our paving is re-used granite kerb stones from London, our deck is made from former sea-defence groins from Essex and our ‘dry stone walls’ are made from throw-away urban materials. 

Robinson was a passionate conservationist, and this ethic suffuses the whole garden – this is particularly obvious in the way that the garden conserves every drop of rainfall that hits it; it is a fully functioning Rain Garden.

Finally, Robinson was the ultimate publicist, writing extensively and founding his own garden magazine: The Garden. If alive today, he would almost certainly be a prolific blogger and would be exploiting the internet for all it was worth. Things come full circle!

Dr Nigel Dunnett is Reader in Urban Horticulture at the University of Sheffield. He is author of several books on sustainable garden design and planting, and is currently horticulture and planting design consultant for the London 2012 Olympic Park. His previous garden at Chelsea; the Future Nature garden, won Silver-gilt in 2009.

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