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GARDEN : On the Wild Side : As Naturalistic Gardens Come More Into Vogue, the Traditional Dividing Line Between Flowers and Weeds Is Becoming Blurred

October 18, 1987|JOHN FELTWELL

A NEW ENTHUSIASM for "wild" gardens has arisen this century. Many gardens now feature a special wilderness area in which plants are encouraged to mix freely and attract all kinds of insects and mammals. The traditional dividing line between flowers and weeds is becoming blurred. As wildflowers are increasingly threatened with extinction in their natural habitats, more people are introducing them into their gardens. One attractive way of conserving endangered species of wild plants is to create a "wild" lawn, where traditional hedgerow flowers mingle with mixed long grasses. By careful planting, color and interest can be maintained throughout the year.

The movement in favor of natural gardening at the end of the 19th Century was headed by William Robinson. It did not go unchallenged, however. The publication in 1892 of "The Formal Garden in England," by Reginald Blomfield and F. Inigo Thomas, presented a strong case for the revival of formalism in garden design. Gertrude Jekyll herself, a staunch supporter of Robinson's ideas, learned to modify her approach in her collaboration with the architect Edwin Lutyens, adapting plants and color schemes to blend skillfully with garden layouts that incorporated many more formal gardens.

In the end, it is Gertrude Jekyll's influence, perhaps more than anyone else's, that has permeated garden development in our own century, bringing together the best of styles inherited from the past in a happy compromise, a blend of formal and informal, the peak of man-made art with the glories of the plant world. Her genius was in her ability to select exactly the right balance of color, form and texture to match new architectural schemes, to meet the search for beauty in its natural form and to deal with the demands of a changing world.

And, indeed, the world was changing fast. The days of the great estates were numbered; wealthy patrons were a dwindling race. Already the introduction of estate duty in 1894 had affected the balance of riches, and there was appreciably less money to be spent on the embellishment of large gardens. World War I destroyed forever the established order; labor became expensive and money became short. Another generation of gardeners emerged, keen amateurs with their small plots on the housing estates that grew like a rash around all the big towns between the wars. They gardened for pleasure, doing their own work, and they were hungry for information. That was furnished by a proliferation of gardening books and magazines that were published--and are still being produced--to satisfy the growing demand.

THE NEAT SUBURBAN garden of the 20th Century, with its trimmed hedges and bedding plants, was in quite a different category from the old cottage garden that had enjoyed special limelight in Gertrude Jekyll's writings. Hers was a romanticized concept, however, more closely related to a reduced version of the herbaceous border of a big estate than the truly traditional cottage garden. That was a far more practical affair, a means of survival for the rural poor, where they could grow vegetables and fruit to support themselves and supplement an otherwise restricted diet. Though flowers were often grown, they were a luxury and consisted mostly of traditional kinds, such as roses and marigolds, cornflowers, sunflowers and hollyhocks. The "cottage gardens" Jekyll advocated were more likely to be found attached to the houses of the better off.

The romanticized view of the cottage garden was fostered by the paintings of such artists as Helen Allingham, who at one time was an illustrator for the novelist Thomas Hardy. She devoted her time to painting cottages and their gardens, especially in the south of England.

The country cottages that Allingham painted from life are as natural-looking, colorful and quaint as one could ever imagine an English home to be. They were idealized pictures of working houses, with women in bonnets, women and children, chickens and ducks; picturesque views of streams, hills and tiny bridges, waysides full of wildflowers, colorful herbaceous borders, rambling roses covering wattle-and-daub walls reaching to thatched or tiled roofs. Tall elms and poplars stand in the fields and along the lanes. Her paintings seem to show perpetual spring and summer, always a riot of color. Dismal winter scenes are not depicted.

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