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"In garden arrangement, as in all other kinds of decorative work, one has not only to acquire
a knowledge of what to do, but also to gain some wisdom in perceiving what it is well to let alone."- Gertrude Jekyll
The term 'wild garden' is an oxymoron, since "to garden" would imply that some work is done, so it is no longer wild. Unfortunately it is taken too literally by some and the result is a wilderness. Plants will grow out of control given half a chance, so unless there is limitless space, they will have to be suppressed in some way. Even if there is scope for a wilderness it will not be a pleasant place to visit unless you are handy with a machete or have some livestock to help. Some plants are thugs and will suppress their less vigorous neighbours.
The idea of having a wilder garden became popular in the nineteenth century when the British countryside was the idyllic, romanticised subject of artists. They created scenes of cottages with roses around the door, which contrasted greatly to the grim urban environments of the time. But by the 1870s the countryside was in steep decline due to the mass movement of people to towns and cities in response to the industrial revolution, so the reality of the rural idyll was fading away. Many of those who had moved to urban living pined for the open spaces and the wealthy could afford to create them artificially. This was also the time when public parks began to appear in cities and 'promenading' became popular - it was recommended that garden paths should be wide enough for two ladies attired in crinolines to walk side-by-side.
It was William Robinson, the garden designer, author and editor of The Garden magazine, who popularised the idea of gardening in an informal manner. The gardens of the time tended to have formal layouts using bedding plants raised annually. In his book The Wild Garden he described the use of ornamental plants in a natural setting. Formal beds would be kept close to the house while further out, cultivated and native plants would be mixed to give an unspoiled feel, so he used hardy perennials in wooded areas and semi-wild, rougher parts of the garden.
This was not the first time that nature was allowed to infiltrate the garden, in the fifteenth century Francis Bacon wrote about including scenes of wilderness framed by the foreground of the formal planting. Robinson paid homage to this in the fronticepiece of his book The Wild Garden by calling it a "natural wilderness", a phrase used by Bacon. His ideas were taken up by later designers, and Gertrude Jekyll who took over from him as editor of The Garden, included naturalistic planting in her gardens.
Throughout the twentieth century the theme was adopted by many gardeners who used more relaxed combinations of plants to create their gardens.
The idea that the countryside was and is now, the natural landscape of the British Isles is entirely false since it has been manipulated by man and introduced animals for centuries, in the pursuit of agriculture, sport and deforestation to supply the 'war machine' - most of the ancient oak woods in Britain were felled to build war ships from the fifteenth century until the introduction of iron in shipbuilding. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries in England and Wales most of the open Common land was taken over and a system of Enclosure introduced. The patchwork patterns of fields were laid out with hedges, ditches and walls to keep the cattle and sheep in, and other 'animals' out.
In most upland areas the covering of grass is maintained by the thousands of sheep kept there by farmers; without them the whole area would be covered in trees and bushes. The boulders which were strewn over the land as the ice sheets retreated at the end of the last ice age, were cleared and used to build the boundary walls and dwellings synonymous with these areas.
Most people like the idea of wildlife coming into their garden, but a neat, sanitised area of paving or decking does not allow the diversity of creatures needed for them to survive. It has been estimated that the number of house Sparrows has declined by about 68% in the last 30 years and this has been attributed to the way gardens are managed. Turning front gardens into car parks by removing all traces of hedging and plants leaves nothing for insects and birds to feed on or to dwell in. Also gardens are treated as "brownfield" when it comes to planning so there are fewer restrictions and this "garden grabbing" has led to the loss of many under a rash of apartments up and down the country, with every spare inch paved over for parking.
Robinson was dealing with large areas where the wilder parts did not dominate. In a small urban garden it is still possible to leave a small corner or even the back half. A hedge or other type of barrier can be used to screen it from the more formal, ornamental garden.
It is possible to achieve what appears to be very informal, but it will take more work than you might think. There are some plants which need to be removed or greatly curtailed on a regular basis. Ivy and Brambles are always going to arrive courtesy of visiting birds, and wind-borne seeds blow in throughout the year. The Ivy can be useful to grow over unsightly objects, but left to its own devices it soon creeps over everything.
Tree seedlings need to be removed before they reach the point when they cannot be uprooted by hand as they usually produce a strong tap-root which goes straight down to form a firm anchor for the sapling. Remove them before they reach about 20cm in height, but some are tough to extract even when smaller. Ash and Sycamore are notable examples.
Ferns drift in as spores on the wind or in rain-drops. While they can be very attractive when relatively small, some can become very large after a few years, but it is fairly easy to slice sections off the sides to reduce a crown.
Many of the plants normally treated as weeds in gardens provide food and the habitat for insects, and in turn these insects are the food for some of the birds. Dandelions and thistles provide nectar and pollen, and nettles are the food plant for the caterpillars of some of our favourite butterflies.
After the 'wild garden' has been established for a number of years, with lots of tinkering, a certain equilibrium is reached. With good ground covering plants the weeds are less able to germinate and those of roughly equal vigour can hold their own side-by-side. There will be many losses along the way, but it's the only way to find the most suitable plants.
As an alternative to a 'wild garden' with mostly native plants, a similar effect can be created by developing a so-called Forest Garden that can be planted with several storeys of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants growing together, which bear fruit, leaves and roots that are edible. This uses the principles of Permaculture which forms an ecosystem that is self-sustaining with a little help, and has a structure like a natural woodland. Although this would imply that a large area is required, it can range from a small back garden to several acres.
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