Earlscliffe in Print & TV / Earlscliffe as seen on television

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Earlscliffe - as seen on television

Over the past twenty years, the Robinson Garden at Earlscliffe has been featured on a number of television programmes, including broadcasts for Irish Broadcaster RTÉ (Growing Obsession), joint RTÉ/BBC Northern Ireland (Greenfingers), Catalyst (BBC’s Gardener’s World) and Granada (The Sensuous Garden).

In 1995 the garden was filmed as part of Don Burke's Australian documentary programme "Burke's Backyard Overseas". Following the filming, Don Burke published an item on Earlscliffe (without prior permission) in his book ‘Burke’s Backyard Overseas – Travels with Don Burke’ published by CTC Productions 1997 [1]. In this book he lists "David Robinson’s garden" as one of eight places of interest to visit in Ireland.

However, it was a visit by BBC Gardeners' World presenter Monty Don and a subsequent article in the Observer Magazine in 1998 [2] that David Robinson found the most thought provoking.

Monty Don visits Earlscliffe

The Sensuous Garden by Monty Don
Monty Don came to Earlscliffe in 1997 to use the garden as a backdrop for a television programme to accompany his book "The Sensuous Garden"[3] . The programme included a number of 'head shots' of David Robinson as David explained, in layman's terms, concepts such as photosynthesis. These head shots of David were then extensively used on the "This Morning" programme for Granada over a five year period. No royalties were sought by David for these brief clips.

Weed-free zone - "strangely barren and repugnant"

Some time later, Monty wrote an article for the Observer Life magazine [2] where he described a visit to a garden "just outside Dublin" that had been given two stars in the Good Gardens Guide. Although he didn't mention Earlscliffe by name, there was no doubt that this was the garden he was discussing. He described how the book valued two star gardens as being important, but then says that while the garden he saw "had its moments", he did feel that the Good Gardens Guide assessors must have been "dishing out stars like a school teacher on a Friday afternoon".

He went on to describe the 'weed-free zone' at Earlscliffe that is looked after by an "elderly man" (David was in his late sixties at the time which many would not describe as 'elderly'). Monty briefly discussed David's weed control regime and how he has "never visited a garden that felt so sterile." He said that plants seemed to grow out of "an untilled curiously indeterminate surface that looked more like concrete than soil". He said that a "wholly weedless garden is strangely barren and repugnant."

David Robinson had been a journalist for fifteen years and always respected the views of other journalists. However, anyone who knows the gardens at Earlscliffe also knows the incredible beauty in the breadth of subtropical (climatic zone 9) plants that grow there. At the time that this article was published, Earlscliffe garden was open to the public and part of David's income was derived from this. Because of this, David found the article derogatory and wrote to the Editor of the Observer Life magazine asking for a right to reply. The following is the text of the letter he sent:

September 3 1998

To The Editor

Observer Life

I was intrigued to read Montagu Don’s description of my garden as repugnant (Life 16 August). Admittedly he saw little of it, as the sole purpose of his visit was to use my garden as a backdrop for his TV programme ‘The sensuous garden’.

His article illustrates the importance of perception in gardening. He describes my soil as ‘untilled – looking more like concrete’, but I see it as the perfect medium for my plants. As the soil is untilled, their valuable surface roots are never damaged by hoeing. Surface layers are extraordinarily important to plants as they are the richest in oxygen and nutrients. This, along with a favourable microclimate, allows an amazing range of subtropical plants to flourish here.

As a young researcher in the 1950s working on soil conditions and plant growth, I soon realised that, although to the untrained eye, an untilled soil looks compacted, this is usually confined to a thin layer at the surface. Below the surface, soil structure improves as the tunnels made by soil fauna are not destroyed. Because we see through different eyes, and I imagine Monty sees as an artist and not as a plantsman, I don’t mind him describing my garden as repugnant. I take exception, however, to him calling it barren. From my ‘concrete’ seedbed, thousands of self-sown seedlings spring up each year, including Lomatia, Cordyline, Eucalyptus, and many other tender plants. Part of his TV programme on texture was shot in my naturalised Betula/Echium pininana woodland where hundreds of these plants, from the tundra and subtropics, have self seeded and have created probably the only naturalised woodland of this kind in the world.

He describes the appearance of my soil as sinister. Without comment, he walked by many unusual plants, such as Schleflera, Araucaria bidwillii, Agave, Aloe, Furcraea and others that he would never have seen before at this latitude. I wonder was it the strange plants that upset him?

David Robinson, Co. Dublin

David's letter was never published, or acknowledged by the Observer.

To hell with the begrudgers!

Although David seemed a little dismayed by the article, he used it to his advantage and told the story many times over the years.

Whenever he would be asked to present a talk on the gardens at Earlscliffe and he would be showing slides of rare and exotic plants growing and thriving outdoors in such a northern climate, he would always quote Monty and his views on how "barren and repugnant" Earlscliffe was.

In 2003 David Robinson wrote the following for a lecture he was asked to give in England shortly before he was taken ill.

I have great admiration for Monty Don. And I can understand to some extent why women viewers fall in love with him so readily. And there is a moral in this little saga about Monty’s attitude towards my garden. Monty and I can look at the same picture but we see different scenes. I am looking at the picture through the eyes of a plantsman and I see a profusion of plant growth. Monty is looking at the scene through the eyes of an artist, who likes freshly tilled soil – he sees the capped moss covered soil and doesn’t relate this to the prolific growth of plants.

And the moral is – your garden is one of the last places on earth where you can be yourself, where you can do your own thing. Elsewhere in the world we have got to conform. We can’t drive too fast, we are restricted in the type of house we can erect – but in our gardens we can do as we please. If you like purple asters and orange marigolds together in your garden – go for it, that is your prerogative. Don’t let anybody tell you that the colours clash. If Monty wants to damage his cultivated plants by uncontrolled growth or by vigorous hoeing of the surface roots that is his privilege and he is perfectly entitled to do so. But he should not call my garden barren just because I control weeds.

And so gardening has never been easier. Garden centres are full of good plants; and chemical aids including weed killers have never been safer. So your garden as part of your home is your castle. Do your own thing in it and to hell with the begrudgers.

Some years later (shortly after David Robinson had died in 2004) Monty wrote an article for the Observer magazine on plants that survive well at the seaside [4]. In it he described the wonders of the Echium and this time mentions Earlscliffe by name.

E pininana has the more familiar great flowering spire that can reach 3m tall. It is a biennial and will need to be frost-free, or have some protection for the foliage to survive winter, so that the flowers can follow in summer. But I have seen it grow almost like a weed at Earlscliffe, on the Howth peninsula, just outside Dublin, so it is viable in protected places in these islands. They also grow E wildpretii at Earlscliffe, which has shorter spikes, about 1.5m tall, with a dense column of flowers that are often described as red but seem to be more pink to me. Call them pinky red. It, too, is a biennial or very short-lived perennial, which will seed itself.

After this article was written, an email was sent to Monty Don at The Observer to inform him of David's death.

As with the letters that David Robinson had previously sent to The Observer, no reply or acknowledgement was received.

Monty's response

Almost 10 years later, in April 2008 Monty Don discovered the Earlscliffe website by accident and, after reading the above story, he felt compelled to write to us.

His note explained that he had never received any of the emails that David Robinson or David Foley had sent him and he was sad to hear of David's death. He wrote:

I am very sorry to hear that David Robinson has died.

Despite not seeing eye to eye on his use of chemical weedkillers I spent a very happy and fascinating visit to Earlscliffe just over 10 years ago and David Robinson was a charming and fascinating host. As to communication sent to The Observer - I assure you that none of this ever reached me at home. The generosity of spirit and tone of slight bafflement rather than perhaps justifiable anger that David shows in response to my comments are a tribute to his generosity and stature. I salute his memory and trust that Earlscliffe will long remain a tribute to him.

Monty Don

We wrote back to Monty:

Thank you so much for your email.

In many respects, it was a great pity that the emails from David Robinson never reached you as he would have enjoyed communicating and debating with you on various subjects.

However, he dined out on his unanswered communications.

He was often asked to give talks or lectures on various aspects of horticulture (including his own garden) and would show slides of some of the wonderful tender plants he could grow, and then talk with great amusement about how you described his garden as ‘sterile’.

Having said that, he was an avid fan of your programmes and would watch and video them every week, devouring the knowledge he could gain from them. You gave him great enjoyment in many ways.

David Foley

Postscript - and post Simazine!

By David Foley

The correspondence from Monty Don was much appreciated and Monty's own generosity of spirit was shown in his ability to understand David Robinson's viewpoint, especially around the use of the chemical Simazine, without the need to agree with it.

However, now that we live in a post-Simazine world, I wonder how David Robinson would have reacted to these changed times. How would they have compared to the changing times during his life?

The following is my non-scientific attempt at understanding David Robinson's scientific world and philosophy, and my own personal views on life at Earlscliffe post-Simazine.

The need for food

From a very early age, David Robinson had always wanted to work with plants and went on to gain his degree in Horticulture in 1949.

These were interesting times for a horticulturalist. The UK and Ireland were emerging after the Second World War and there was a desperate need to increase crop yields to feed a hungry Europe. One of the most sought after horticultural approaches to increase crop yields was to reduce the competition for the nutrients in the soil by eliminating weeds.

In this post-war period, science was often seen as the answer, and much research went into chemical approaches to managing weeds.

The resulting chemical weed controls introduced in the 1940s and 50s were ground-breaking in that they allowed weeds to be either selectively killed, or in the case of Simazine, selectively suppressed, both on a small or a very large scale. This use of chemicals resulted in much higher crop yields and this approach was seen by some as an important solution to world food shortages.

David Robinson was closely involved with this worldwide research and over the years became an established expert in this field.

Pushing horticultural boundaries at Earlscliffe

When David moved into Earlscliffe in the late 1960s, he furthered this research into weed control by using his extensive knowledge of herbicides such as Simazine on the Earlscliffe gardens.

As well as for food production, the use of products like Simazine was being used to transform the overall horticultural world. By suppressing weeds, plants that wouldn't normally survive in, say, northern climates such as Ireland, were now able to grow and thrive in these environments.

Using these techniques, David had great success, and within a short space of time he was pushing horticultural boundaries. One of his favourite pastimes was proving people wrong when they said, "that plant won't grow outside in your climate".

Considering Earlscliffe is on the Howth peninsula just north of Dublin city at a latitude of 53.3º N, using these weed control methods, David was able to grow incredibly exotic and tender subtropical (climatic zone 9) plants that needed no winter protection outside.

David always said that this wasn't simply the result of skilled plantsmanship but owed a lot to the unusually favourable microclimate at Earlscliffe. Although this is undoubtedly true, David also proposed that reduced competition from weeds gave some tender plants a better chance of surviving and thriving, which is why the use of Simazine was an important success factor.

Also, the use of chemicals reduced the amount of manual weeding required, which David said allowed him to manage seven acres of garden without too much external help. (In fact, the only help he admitted to having in the garden was the cutting of the lawns by his wife, Muriel, who performed this regularly until she was 80!)

The result was that over a 30 year period, the Earlscliffe garden became renowned for its broad collection of climatically hardy plants from all five continents and was visited by many interested and enthusiastic experts, amateurs and professionals alike, such as Monty Don.

A silver bullet?

However, David Robinson's approach to managing weeds wasn't viewed as being a 'silver bullet' by everyone.

A growing number of people were influenced by alternative viewpoints such as those being expressed by books like "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson. Published in the 1960s, this publication painted a different picture of the modern world, and, in the process, contributed to the worldwide awareness of the dangers of environmental pollution and the use of chemicals.

Closer to home, one of David's constant critics was his own daughter, Karen, who, as a Landscape Architect, understood the changing worldwide view on environmental issues. Karen would have broadly agreed with some of the opinions expressed by Monty Don in his 1998 article in The Observer Life magazine [2] and would often remind David to temper his views when giving lectures or talks, especially on weed control.

However, the Earlscliffe garden belonged to David Robinson, and, in the end, it was his choices that were implemented.

In his defence, David would always argue that chemical weed control methods were only dangerous when incorrectly prescribed or applied. He would state that as a horticultural scientist with almost sixty years experience, he knew how to safely utilise these products and, in his opinion, the results at Earlscliffe spoke for themselves.

The death of David and of Simazine

In late 2003, David Robinson became ill. He never really recovered and died on the 27th March 2004.

A month later, on the 26th April 2004, Simazine was banned in Europe.

As David had become a worldwide expert in the use of chemicals to control weeds, it seemed fitting that Europe almost looked like it had waited until after David's death to ban his chemical weed control product of choice.

Since the ban, people have wondered how David Robinson would have coped in a post-Simazine world. How would his garden 'experiment' at Earlscliffe survive without the use of such chemicals?

The brave new world at Earlscliffe

After David died, his daughter Karen and the rest of the family took over the management of the gardens at Earlscliffe.

Karen has a slightly different approach to managing the gardens at Earlscliffe than her late father. To start with, she has a full time job which means that she can't spend all of her energy on the garden the way that David did, especially in his later years.

Also, although her father rarely brought in external help, Karen is happy to bring in additional expertise when needed, especially to do the major maintenance activities.

One of the challenges at Earlscliffe is that not using Simazine has resulted in a greater need for manual weed control. Karen keeps on top of this by using a number of techniques, including applying layers of bark and wood chip mulch to suppress the weeds.

The overall result is that the Earlscliffe garden, post-Simazine, has survived and is doing well! 

Then vs. now

Does the garden look as good now as when David Robinson managed it?

As Father Jack would say in the TV series, Father Ted, "That would be an ecumenical matter!"

In my opinion, I think that it is a difficult question to answer as, in many ways, the garden today is just different!

The tender plants still grow here, and some grow very well, and now that the ground is free of Simazine, there are a number of plants grown that may not have previously survived the Simazine regime.

However, David had access to many sources of rare plants that we don't have, so the variety of tender specimens in his time was greater.

Also, he had superior horticultural knowledge and expertise that would be hard to replicate or match.

Nevertheless, with my non-scientific eye, I  believe that parts of the garden are looking better now than ever!

In fact, post-Simazine, the biggest current threat to the garden is probably global climate change. For instance, there were more plants lost in the cold winter of 2010 than in any previous winter since our records began, and Earlscliffe experienced its hottest summer ever in 2018, when many plants also suffered.

However, that's another chapter to be written on another day.

Maybe now is the time for Monty Don to return and give us his views on how Earlscliffe is being managed post-Simazine.

We think that he would be pleasantly surprised.

And we would like to think that David Robinson would be as well.

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This page was last updated on 16-Oct-2021 .