History / History of the Garden / 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 Montagu (Monty) Don and a subsequent article in the Observer Magazine in 1998 [2] that David Robinson found the most thought provoking.

Weed-free zone

Montagu (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, such concepts 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.

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.

Although David seemed a little dismayed by the article, he 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.

Some years later (shortly after David Robinson had passed away) 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 was written, an email was sent to Monty Don at The Observer to inform him of David's passing. No reply or acknowledgement was received at the time. (However, see the Postscript at the end of this page)

To hell with the begrudgers!

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.

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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

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Disclaimer. Parts of the data found in these history pages has been derived from sources currently available on the internet. In researching the previous owners of Earlscliffe, certain assumptions have been made as to the validity of this internet data. If you believe that some of this data is inaccurate, please contact .


This page was last updated on 26-Feb-2019 .