This section is from the book "How To Make A Flower Garden", by Wilhelm Miller. Also available from Amazon: The Well-Tended Perennial Garden: Planting and Pruning Techniques.
I CANNOT remember ever to have seen the gentle art of wild gardening numbered among the kingly sports, yet of them all there is perhaps none more worthy of the name. When we read in Mr. Robinson's entertaining book how whole estates may be devoted to its development, we can understand how the ideal wild garden may call for time, money and elaborate equipment such as only those of princely birth and fortune may be presumed to possess But it is not of such extensive affairs that I purpose to speak, but of a modest experiment of my own, one quite within the reach of any purse, and calling for no more of royalty than inheres in any citizen who exercises sovereignty over his own back yard. In fact, mine is such an unpretentious little thing that I am hardly worthy to be called a wild-gardener, and it may be thought presumptuous for me to speak as if I was an accepted member of the guild. Still I have noticed that the true wild-gardener is to be recognised by certain qualities of the mind and heart rather than by the number of acres over which his possessions extend. If he delights in the out-of-door life; if he prefers the field laughing with daisies and spotted with Queen Anne's lace to the regularly laid out garden he exhibits some of the hall-marks of the brotherhood.
There is hope for him that he may yet attain to that attitude of tolerant contempt for all purely conventional gardening which is the distinguishing characteristic of the wild gardener. There never yet was one at all worthy of the name who could ab de a regular flower-bed. Your prim and formal border is an abomination to him, and it is a settled canon of his cult that wild gardening bears about the same relation to the ordinary kind that epic poetry does to the roundelay. And I take it to be some evidence of inward grace and worthiness that the feeling appeals to me as by no means indefensible. Just as if there were not beauty enough in the individual flowers, but we must strive to construct out of them a lot of formal beds, designed after the latest oilcloth, and in which the subtle and delicate beauty of the parts is lost in the commonness of the whole!
It is much the same as if the masterpieces in the Uffizi were grouped together so as to reproduce the mosaics in its pavement, and all the sweetness of Fra Angelico, the grace of Raphael, and the power of Buonarroti were sacrificed to the mediocrity of a Greek border. If one can imagine how Ruskin would have felt over such an arrangement of the masters, one can understand how it is that all lovers of the wild garden the world over go back to nature for their inspiration, and echo Mr. Robinson's prayer for deliverance from the "death note of the pastry cook's garden." But to our subject.
The country home faces upon a street in a little rural community not so far from New York but that the proprietor of the wild garden, who works for a living during such intervals as his royal pastime allows, has no trouble in passing daily back and forth. From the side and rear the house looked out upon a piece of waste ground which, until my novitiate began, had been abandoned to the sumac and the bramble. This was separated from the cultivated garden and the road by a terrace four feet high, surmounted along its entire length by a trellis covered with sweet peas. Behind this trellis and the bank the seclusion was complete. It was here that I started the wild garden, working entirely screened from the road, while my two young but enthusiastic assistants sat in the shade and offered advice upon the various problems of floriculture as they presented themselves.
I commenced by uprooting the briers and the sumac bushes, being careful to preserve such natural features as the place possessed. A couple of boulders were rolled into picturesque positions, and clusters of bushes were left standing here and there. In one corner near the house a clump of tall white birches grew directly out of the terrace. Another corner was filled with a dense growth of staghorn sumac. Not far off was a fair-sized maple. These furnished shade, so necessary where forest-loving plants are to be naturalised. But by far the most attractive of the natural features of the garden was a wild grapevine with gnarled and twisted stem, as thick as one's wrist, which had clambered up over a couple of birches, covering them with its interlacing arms and bending them over by its weight, until they formed a natural arbour of great beauty. Two wild cherry trees standing nearby furnished convenient support on which the birches leaned when the midsummer wealth of leaves and fruit made the vine too heavy for them to bear. From a little distance off it rose above the surrounding bushes with the symmetry of a dome, the broad, overlapping leaves covering it as with tiles. Beneath was a veritable bower, at all times shady, and a spot presenting many possibilities.
Such were the prominent features of my wild garden, as yet uninhabited except by the ever-present daisy, the goldenrod, and the aster.
Adder's tongue, or dog's-tooth violet.
The task which now presented itself was to fill this up - to bring from forest and meadow and swamp every plant that was "pleasant to the sight," and make it to grow in the garden. The work was commenced in the early spring, and the hepatica and the violet were planted in masses beneath the vine-covered birches. Here, too, I set out in favourable positions, under the tangled lower branches of the trees, colonies of the pink lady's-slipper and of the showy orchis. In the shade of the maple were naturalised the mountain laurel and the wild azalea, with such success, too, that both bloomed the season after transplanting. Along the fence the wild sunflower was started, and it has grown since with increasing profusion. Under the cluster of birches near the house I commenced a fern bed, and in early May excited the mild amazement of the cows by wheeling up through the pastures where they grazed barrow-loads of unfolding fiddleheads. Among the ferns were planted the trillium, the pyrola, and a few stalks of the graceful, if evil-scented, cohosh. Out in the open lot, and just close enough to the maple for its swaying branches to give alternate sun and shade, I established a fine colony of wild bergamot.