The legacy of the 'Wild Garden'

The Shirley Poppy is the most familiar legacy of Rev. William Wilks but his contribution to the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) and to 'Wild Gardening' is far more significant. Deborah Evans tells the story.

Rev. William Wilks (1843 – 1923) was elected a Fellow of the RHS in 1865, aged 22. He rose through the ranks of the RHS becoming Secretary in 1887 and editor of The Journal in 1889. His involvement with various plant breeding committees, organisation of the National Apple Conference in 1883, organisation of the first International Conference on Hybridising and Cross-Breeding in 1899, and central role in negotiating the purchase of the Wisley site all confirmed his reputation. He was awarded the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour in 1912.

His parallel career in the Church took him to Croydon, and in 1879 to Shirley, as Vicar. Here he bred the Shirley Poppy from a seedling found on rough ground and created space for a large rose collection, over 700 varieties of fruit trees — many propagated by `approach grafting' — and opulent herbaceous borders. The garden was written up for The Journal in 1890 and, perhaps significantly, extolled the beauties of winter bark, of 'lichen and moss bearing gnarled branches'.

His own brush with death in the form of throat cancer in 1910 saw him refocus his horticultural activity on seven acres of land he had purchased to the northwest of the vicarage in 1904. Tentative attempts to develop this land, time and money permitting, had established a simple path system across an essentially open field, dotted with trees and shrubs. Wilks gradually expanded the planting to create a highly contrived and layered area of woodland and meadow. Between 1910 and 1912 he built a new house here, The Wilderness, after retiring from the Church.

Wilks was a disciple of William Robinson's The Wild Garden, first published in 1870. He combined Robinson's robust advice with his own in-depth knowledge of the natural world, refined by his plant breeding activities. His main interest lay in plants grouped and arranged 'as Nature does'.

In 1913, The Gardener's Chronicle described Wilks' innovative approach to horticulture, explaining that he neither improved nor dug the ground, simply planting where he felt a plant would thrive in its areas of acid grassland and damp ground. After 12 months `Any plant that cannot take care of itself' was removed, thereafter considered unsuitable for wild gardening.

The garden was a 'cultivated common' with a 'really choice selection' of plants. The carefully managed 'thin woodland' of mature oaks and pine encouraged a rich ground flora where ivy, hardy cyclamen, hybrid daffodils and native plant communities thrived within the interior and along the margins. The article concluded Wilks was 'engaged in a delightful scheme of wild gardening which comes up to within a yard or two of the house'.

Wilks and his wilderness garden featured in The Journal and The Gardener's Chronicle again in 1915 and 1920 respectively. His approach was described as being 'in reach of the many', offering common-sense advice in the resource-poor post Great War landscape. A reduction in lawn area was encouraged, the use of colonising British ferns and flowering bulbs championed, and the use of ivy as ground cover beneath trees, rather than clipped shrubs, endorsed. Even the 'meadow' was celebrated, cut once a year and left unless used as a mulch for newly planted Rhododendrons 'and the like'. Critically, there was always 'an orderliness in the whole scheme' evidenced by photographs which record the meticulously maintained borders, rock garden, kitchen garden, woodland and planted lawn with its exotic Japanese summerhouse.

While Wilks remained an enthusiastic plant hunter throughout his life, especially for native plants, and a magpie at spotting treasures in friend's gardens, he retained a particular interest in fruit growing. A 'fruit plantation' of specimen top fruit was developed at The Wilderness, developing his passion exhibited at the vicarage in its Orchard House and 52 potted fruit trees.

Wilks died suddenly in 1923 and was buried in the graveyard of his church, St. John's, Shirley. In his will he left The Wilderness to the RHS as accommodation for the Society's Secretary or Treasurer. This was not taken up and instead the property was occupied by Wilks's gardener and long-time companion until 1933. It was sold in 1934 and a gradual deterioration of the garden began.

The significance of The Wilderness to the RHS, and the burgeoning discipline of ecological gardening, was fleetingly recognised in the mid 1980s when the National Trust and Department of the Environment considered its merits in the face of a development threat. The 'locally important bog garden and heathland planting' was considered particularly noteworthy, leading to the garden's designation as a Site of Metropolitan Importance for Nature in 1988.

Today, the garden is owned by older person's charity MHA, which runs the adjoining Hall Grange care home. It is being restored after MHA applied for Lottery funding from the Heritage Lottery Funding. Restoration will reveal its structure, plant collections and aesthetic beauty again to the wider horticultural community, as well as opening it up for the benefit of care home residents and their families, plus the wider community.

William Wilks at work
The RHS Secretary at work in his new garden. From "Gardeners' Chronicle: A weekly illustrated guide" (January 18, 1913), Vol. 53, page 34.

William Wilks in his study
Rev. William Wilks, M.A., in his study. From "Gardeners' Chronicle: A weekly illustrated guide" (January 18, 1913), Vol. 53, page 35.

Garden hut
Black and white photograph circa 1910s from a photo abum containing interior and exterior views of 'The Wilderness' in Shirley, Croydon, the residece of Reverend William Wilks (1843-1923). Wilks was the Secretary of the Royal Horticultural Society from 1888-1920.

Wilks's famous Shirley Poppy

If you would like to volunteer at The Wilderness please email or call 07966232359