Book Review: On the wild side: experiments in the new naturalism

On the wild side

Since  on the wild side: experiments in the new naturalism has been published nine years ago, it is remarkably prescient in the current ecological ethos that pervades gardens. Keith Wiley is clearly a plantsman at heart, and his chief virtuosity is transcending just as his British compatriots William Robinson and Beth Chatto accomplished with their gardens. Wiley’s new garden, not far from the Garden House, combines plants unconventionally by exploiting microclimates and terrain sculpting.

The book’s major core lies in Wiley’s experiences visiting diverse habitats worldwide and his experiments evoking their beauty at the Garden House, Devon, United Kingdom. South Africa and Crete are particularly rich picking grounds for ideas. It is easy to see how the breathtaking wildflower spectacle in Namaqualand led to the inception of the African Garden, which borrows species native elsewhere.  And the Mediterranean flora, a source of garden plants in British gardens, form picturesque landscapes within rocky and arid terrain. Wiley does not ignore woody plants, and taking a leaf or two from the Chinese and Japanese, emphasizes skillful pruning as a transformative technique for naturalistic, wilder effect. As expected, grasses do receive their star billing in one chapter, but the choices are not restricted to the few genera, such as CalamagrostisMolinia, and Panicum in danger of being cliches in contemporary naturalistic plantings.

Outside of wild places, Wiley finds inspiration in unexpected ways. Who would have anticipated the stone pathway lined with Irish yews at the late Rosemary Verey’s Barnsley House to be a source of an idea? Whether intentional or not, rock roses (Helianthemum) and Acaena microphylla had been permitted to spill forth onto the pathway. Sometimes the tendency to fixate on the obvious sources cause us gardeners to ignore what is realistically achievable and within our local stomping grounds.

At times on the wild side does appear overextended, but such is the degree of Wiley’s enthusiastic knowledge that oversights in specific areas are easily forgiven. This book is a solid visual and informative complement to other books on similar subjects by William Robinson, Beth Chatto, and Noel Kingsbury.

~Eric

Categories: Gardeners, Gardens, Horticulture, Plants, ScrollTags: ,

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