Berkshire Botanical Garden Winter Lecture: Wild nature meets the tended garden

Gardener Tom Coward will speak about William Robinson's legacy

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Famed 19th-century Irish gardener William Robinson was an iconoclast.

The grandfather of all modern garden sensibilities and design "was a trailblazer who took high Victorian formality and shattered it," explained Berkshire Botanical Garden Executive Director Michael Beck recently by phone.

"He strove to bring the natural environment into our gardens," just as Beck and his horticultural team do in Stockbridge.

Beck has invited Tom Coward, head gardener at Robinson's celebrated former home Gravetye (pronounced grave-tie) to the Berkshires to talk about wild gardens and their champion at the 23rd annual Winter Lecture on Saturday at Lenox High School.

"Gravetye is an Anglo Saxon word, which means `clearing in the woods,'" said Coward, calling from the UK. "We're on the edge of Ashdown Forest, historically one of the last wild woods in England. It's where 'Winnie the Pooh' was written and set."

A high-end hotel of 60 years, the Elizabethan manor "is 30 miles from London, but in the middle of nowhere, so we've got the best of both," he said.

Born during the potato famine, Robinson gardened on Irish estates before moving to London in the 1860s. "He had an immense work ethic and intellect and developed himself as a writer," Coward said.

Robinson's best-selling titles included "The English Flower Garden" and "The Wild Garden;" and he taught himself French to write about Parisian parks and gardens.

He brought wild nature into the tended garden with full, soft-edged mixed borders of native and introduced plants, informal tree groupings and drifts of bulbs in wildflower meadows — the ideal of the English country garden.

Socially mobile at a time of great prejudice against his countrymen, Robinson purchased Gravetye as a 1,000-acre proving ground for his progressive landscaping.

Coward has spent a decade renovating those revered gardens.

"I've always gardened," he said. "I grew up on the Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England. It's very beautiful."

Because of warm microclimates, the island's Botanic Garden "has a really interesting collection of Mediterranean, South African, Australian and New Zealand flora," Coward said. "That was always a fascination."

In his early years, Coward gardened with his mother. "I used to do gardening jobs in the village for elderly people who were very good gardeners [but] needed someone young to help them.

"One intimidating character called Col. Yule taught me a lot about gardening," he said. "He was terrifying to begin with and used to hit me with his walking stick if I didn't weed properly. He became a very dear friend."

When a dairy farm Coward worked for went out of business, he got a job planting trees in a fruit nursery.

"I was 16 and fell in love with growing trees," he said. "They don't kick you like dairy cows do. Fruit is an interesting place to start because you've got really tangible results."

Coward studied botanical horticulture at storied Kew Gardens, and his employers included Sir Paul McCartney.

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"I was fortunate in having some very good teachers and mentors, they were brilliant people and encouraged everyone around them," he said. "Horticulture does that; if you love what you're doing, you want to share it."

Like Robinson, Coward traveled widely. At age 20, he spent a gap year working with trees in Oregon, and kitchen gardened in France and New Zealand before returning to England and historic properties Great Dixter and Gravetye.

"It's essential to look at plants in the wild to really understand them, and meet as many gardeners as you can," he said.

He visited Israel's Negev desert to study how plants adapt and evolve in extreme habitats. Gardeners need to learn how to adapt, too. Coward has noticed winters arriving later, and hotter summers with more unpredictable rainfall.

In recent years, he has visited both U.S. coasts almost annually.

"There's very novel thinking in the U.S., particularly with the wild garden, an intellectual element that's really exciting," he said.

His observations of New England warm-season meadows inform herbaceous perennials experiments in cold season meadows back home.

Coward will also talk about Gravetye's unique oval walled kitchen garden. Finished in 1900, it "was one of the last great kitchen gardens ever built."

"It was a really exciting project to restore that from brambles and thistles to make it a productive garden with a purpose."

He grows produce for the manor's restaurant that can't be bought elsewhere. "Our challenge is to have a [year-round] production of fruit and vegetables with key ingredients each month for a Michelin Star menu," he said.

Coward is passionate about growing food. "It's almost an extension of the wild garden because it's part of being in touch with nature, and can have massive effects on the world around us," he said.

Wild gardens work best when there's contrast with some element of formality, he said. "Robinson designed the garden very beautifully with contrast, sometimes subtle, sometimes strong.

"I studied Robinson when I was a student, and I've known of Gravetye since I was 18. It's a dream come true to work here. The garden needed so much renovation, there's always another step to take, the work is never finished."

It's important to respect the legacy within a historical framework and context, he said, "and continue moving forward in the vein of what Robinson was trying to achieve. It's not a museum piece, it's personal and progressive.

"And it's gone full circle — I work in a historic garden and still get to grow fruit and vegetables," he said.

"Tom Coward is a wonderful speaker, very down to earth," Beck said. "The Winter Lecture is our biggest speaking event on the calendar, [with] over 400 attendees last year. It's a terrific way for people to get excited about the new season, and hear from some really inspiring, well-known professionals in the field, see some great photos of beautiful places and reconnect with one other. It really rings a bell on the start of a new year."

Unlike previous speakers, Coward won't be signing his books at the post-talk dessert reception. The popular magazine and media contributor hasn't written any.

"There's been endless discussion," he said. "But I'd rather be gardening."


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