Romantic gardening

“He leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden.”

                Horace Walpole from ‘On Modern Gardening’ (1780)

In New Zealand, we tend to place a very high value on tidy gardens. Edges, hedges and lawns, as I once heard a prominent gardener espouse. Attend to those and the rest of the garden will look fine – although, if it is a garden open to the public, it must also be weed-free.

I call this garden grooming, the outside equivalent of housework. It is a never-ending task to keep a garden manicured, but it is a matter of pride for many. You will likely be judged by your neighbours, relatives and visitors on how tidy your place is.

All those sharp lines and tidy edges give a high level of definition to a garden that makes for good photographs but they do not make my heart swell with joy.

Helianthus and large grasses swaying in the autumn breeze here at Tikorangi

When I set out in 2009 to get to grips with contemporary summer gardens, primarily in the UK and parts of Europe, I was jolted out of that preoccupation with orderly, tidy gardens. There is a whole lot happening there and not much of it has to do with tidiness. I saw a generous profusion in the modern plantings, a fresh energy and vitality in the scale, the colour and the size of the plants that were never going to straitjacketed into obedience in a nice, orderly manner.

Current trends overseas are referred to as the Dutch New Wave, New Perennials, the new naturalism, naturalistic gardening, Piet Oudolf-inspired, prairie planting, the meadow revival, the Sheffield School movement and more. They all share certain features which come down to a principle of gardening with Nature, not gardening by controlling Nature. Many gardens sit on the landscape; these gardens sit within the landscape.

My gardening and life partner, Mark, and I landed on the term of ‘romantic gardening’ – a softer-edged, more naturalistic style that blurs the lines between the garden and the wider landscape. It is a different way of looking and it takes a different approach to managing the garden.

Ninfa Giardino di Ninfa, south of Rome, is sometimes described as the world’s most romantic garden.

“You must go to Ninfa,” English friends and colleagues said to us when we first started talking about romantic gardening. The English love Ninfa, which is in southern Italy near the charmless city of Latina. Sometimes it is even described as “the world’s most romantic garden”. Essentially, it is a looser, voluptuous style of gardening set within the ruins of an entire small town that was sacked in 1370 after being occupied since Roman times. How can the result not be romantic? It was very different to all the classic, grand Italian gardens where formality and structure gives the framework and the planting is largely an afterthought.

Torrecchia Vecchia is a modern example of what the Italians call the romantic, English style.

We also visited Torrecchia Vecchia nearby: a smaller, private garden which emulated some of the Ninfa style. It, too, was created around ruins, this time of a small village. On the day, I admit I was not blown away by its beauty, although it had some lovely areas. In retrospect, it has given me more to think about because it was a modern interpretation of what the Italians call the ‘romantic English style’. This is not surprising when you know it was created in the mid 1990s by leading English designer, Dan Pearson.

Given New Zealand’s distinct lack of abandoned villages, small towns or anything in ancient stone, we need to strip away the underpinning physical structures of these gardens to see what could work here. Trying to re-create the magic of historic Italy in tanalised timber or ponga logs is really not going to cut the mustard.

Wildside in Devon, UK, shows how a romantic garden can be created without hard landscaping

Without the human-made structures, the layers of history and romantic back stories that typically characterise ‘romantic gardens’ elsewhere, we looked to the natural landforms, plants and management strategies instead. “Enhancing Nature”, Mark likes to call it.

The simplicity of an early spring scene in the Wild North Garden is more romantic than stylish.   

For us, a romantic garden is one where the overriding sense is of being in the garden, rather than looking at the garden. English garden writer, Tim Richardson, talks about the difference between pictorial gardens and immersive gardens. Pictorial gardens are those where your eyes take in a pleasing view, where design and structure are usually the key elements. That is why they photograph well. Immersive gardens are more about the wrap-around experience, enveloping you in the movement, texture and colour of the close-up view.

This softer-edged approach of working in cooperation with Nature is underpinned by increasingly important principles – sustainability, support for natural eco-systems, better environmental practices, harmony and respect – while placing a high value on both prettiness and beauty. It is sometimes a celebration of the simplicity, rather than grandeur.

Softening hard surfaces by allowing plants to colonise the cracks and gaps

Romantic gardening is not tied to a particular garden design style: it can work with cottage-style, woodland, meadow, sunny perennials, or even just a suburban section. The exception is a formal garden which requires strict maintenance and precision for its impact.

It is a way of looking with different eyes and a different mind-set translating into gentler ways to maintain the garden. Moving away from sharp definition and excessive tidiness means a softer-edged garden, a blurring of hard lines so paths and garden are more seamless, where plants are not corseted into submission but allowed to festoon – but within reason.  Instead of focal points, we limb up taller plants to create views through and to highlight the play of light and shade. In some areas, we let the grass grow long and just mow  paths.

We still have parts of our garden that are maintained to a high level, but not too many and generally closer to the house. I may look at the tidy areas with satisfaction when they are looking spruce but it is the looser areas that can make my heart sing.

Japanese Higo iris flowering in the meadow in Tikorangi The Jury Garden

The Higo iris in the meadow down in the park, the flowering cherries in the Wild North Garden dropping their petals on the water, the voluptuous helianthus with the tall grasses flowering in autumn, the disorderly jumble of colours and blooms in the bee and butterfly garden – all these make me happy in ways that tidy formality does not.

First published in Woman Magazine March 2022 and reprinted here with their permission

19 thoughts on “Romantic gardening

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Yes the link did work, thanks Paddy. Very much a cool climate Ninfa but without the ancient ruins. So very pretty. No wonder you liked Ninfa!

  1. Lisa P

    A very insightful article Abbie. Personally I feel those trendy new perennial style gardens can often have a bit of a common and manufactured feel to them, with the standard river stone gravel and the same old repeated selections of plants. Well I can appreciate them for the modern landscaping trends they represent, I will be honest that a grass garden doesn’t really make my heart sing. The style of garden that I myself would associate with being romantic are the traditional and older style New Zealand home gardens that are dotted with a varied range of plants, shrubs, bulbs and trees. I wouldn’t usually call them highly manicured or naturalistic, but instead a place that you can genuinely relax and be happy in. I don’t think these pieces of paradise, which don’t involve a trend, or a single style are appreciated enough. Perhaps it’s just all the romantic memories that I keep from such gardens. Even at the Botanic Gardens I naturally gravitate away from their newer main attraction perennial style areas. I feel that if you set out deadset on creating a romantic garden then you would likely fail.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      There is a utilitarian element to some of the New Perennial gardens we have seen. I will not deny that. The ones that inspire me are the ones that transcend that and that takes a sure hand and a good eye. But it would be very dull if we all liked the same thing.

      1. Lisa P

        So true it would be, I suppose its how much real passion has been put into it. Your take is so unique, innovative and spectacular. I absolutely adore your plant combinations.

  2. Angela

    I like your comparison of housework to groomed gardens and I confess that I’m fine with some dust as long as no one disturbs it with fingers! Similarly we have recently come to terms with embracing a looser style of gardening as older age creeps upon us. Lots more mulch, less perennials since dry north Auckland summers on tank water are not conducive and filling gaps with smaller shrubs. Oh and for my flower fix, lots more single dahlias that hold up best in the conditions. As for romance, we take an amble together around the garden with an admiring eye rather than the weed spotting one.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      A lot is in how we look and see the garden, isn’t it? I am with you on single dahlias. We only grow the singles but we are swimming against the fashion tide on those!

  3. sarahnorling2014

    Hear, hear, Abbie. You have articulated so well what I have felt myself for a long time. I too am not a fan of this, as you say, ‘corsetting into submission’. Gardening is a dialogue, a partnership with the plants. The romantic gardens encourage that better connection to nature.

  4. Jean Griffin

    Oh how I do agree with you although sometimes it can go a bit too far !
    Here in the UK we are being urged to put away the lawn mower for ‘ NO MOW MAY ‘ Contractors are asked not to mow verges etc all OK until residents complain !
    We do need to leave early flowering so called weeds for the pollinators. Then last week it was ‘LET JUNE BLOOM ‘ and so it goes on. Have a Google to Denmans Garden Near Chichester and see how the two ideas can merge without trouble ! Thanks for your posts, they keep me i touch with NZ when I have not been able to visit

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I thought you local bodies had already fought this battle! Denmans is the absolutely favourite UK garden of two sets of our friends but we have not made it there.

      1. Jean Griffin

        I worked with Mrs Robinson and John Brookes as a propagator at Denmans, will send you some pics

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