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 received from Monty Don was truly invaluable, as it demonstrated Monty's admirable generosity of spirit. He displayed an exceptional ability to comprehend David Robinson's perspective, particularly concerning the use of the chemical Simazine, while maintaining his own stance without the necessity of complete agreement.

Nevertheless, in our current post-Simazine era, one cannot help but ponder how David Robinson would have responded to these transformative times. How would his reactions compare to the numerous changes he witnessed throughout his lifetime?

As I delve into David Robinson's scientific world and philosophy, I must acknowledge that my interpretation is subjective and non-scientific. However, I am genuinely fascinated by his unique perspective and the insights it offers. Equally, I am inclined to share my personal viewpoints on life at Earlscliffe in this new era devoid of Simazine.

The need for food

From a young age, David Robinson harboured a deep passion for working with plants, and his journey led him to earn a degree in Horticulture in 1949.

The era in which David pursued his horticultural career was a fascinating time. The aftermath of the Second World War marked a pivotal moment for horticulturalists, as the UK and Ireland began to rebuild, and there arose an urgent demand to bolster crop yields and provide sustenance to a recovering Europe. One of the most sought-after strategies in horticulture at the time involved addressing the issue of nutrient competition in the soil by eradicating weeds.

During this post-war period, scientific advancements were often seen as the key to progress, prompting extensive research into chemical methods of weed management. The groundbreaking outcome of these endeavours was the introduction of chemical weed controls in the 1940s and 50s. These innovations allowed for the selective elimination or suppression of weeds, on both small and large scales, with Simazine being particularly notable for its selective suppression capabilities. Employing chemical solutions resulted in significantly increased crop yields, leading some to view this approach as a crucial step toward resolving global food shortages.

David Robinson immersed himself in this extensive global research, gradually establishing himself as an expert in this field over the years. His unwavering dedication and involvement in these scientific pursuits solidified his expertise, enabling him to contribute significantly to the advancements in horticulture during that era.

Pushing horticultural boundaries at Earlscliffe

When David moved into Earlscliffe in the late 1960s, he embarked on groundbreaking research in weed control, utilising his extensive knowledge of herbicides like Simazine to transform the gardens of Earlscliffe.

Beyond its impact on food production, the use of products such as Simazine revolutionized the horticultural world as a whole. By effectively suppressing weeds, it opened up new possibilities for plants that were typically unsuited to northern climates like Ireland, enabling them to flourish and thrive in these previously challenging environments.

David's utilisation of these techniques resulted in remarkable success, pushing the boundaries of horticulture within a remarkably short period. One of his favourite pastimes was proving people wrong when they said, "that plant won't grow outside in your climate".

Situated on the Howth peninsula just north of Dublin city at a latitude of 53.3º N, Earlscliffe benefitted from an unusually favourable microclimate, which David attributed to its success. However, he also emphasized that reduced competition from weeds played a significant role in enabling tender subtropical (climatic zone 9) plants to not only survive but thrive, even over winter, with no protection. To him, this highlighted the importance of using Simazine as a crucial factor in his achievements.

Moreover, the use of chemical treatments reduced the need for labour-intensive manual weeding, allowing David to manage the vast seven-acre garden with minimal external assistance. In fact, the only help he admitted to receiving was his wife, Muriel, who regularly cut the lawns until she reached the remarkable age of 80!

Over the course of over three decades, the Earlscliffe garden became renowned for its extensive collection of climatically hardy plants from all five continents. It attracted numerous passionate and knowledgeable visitors, including esteemed experts, amateurs, and professionals like Monty Don, many who were captivated by the extraordinary accomplishments achieved at Earlscliffe.  

A silver bullet?

However, David Robinson's approach to managing weeds wasn't universally acclaimed as a 'silver bullet'. The emergence of alternative viewpoints, influenced by influential books like "Silent Spring" by Rachel Carson, challenged the prevailing perspective. Published in the 1960s, Carson's work depicted a contrasting image of the modern world and contributed significantly to raising global awareness about the hazards of environmental pollution and chemical usage.

Even closer to home, David faced criticism from his own daughter, Karen, a Landscape Architect who understood the shifting global perspective on environmental issues. Karen shared similar sentiments expressed by Monty Don in his 1998 article in The Observer Life magazine [2] , aligning with the growing concerns about weed control and environmental impact. She consistently urged David to consider these perspectives and temper his views when delivering lectures or talks, particularly on the subject of weed control.  

Nevertheless, the Earlscliffe garden belonged to David Robinson, and ultimately, it was his decisions that were implemented. In his defence, David would always argue that chemical weed control methods were only hazardous when misused or incorrectly applied. He emphasized his extensive expertise as a horticultural scientist with nearly sixty years of experience, asserting that he knew how to safely and effectively utilise these products. According to David, the remarkable results achieved at Earlscliffe were a testament to his approach.  

The death of David and of Simazine

In late 2003, David Robinson fell seriously ill, and unfortunately, he never fully recovered, passing away on March 27th, 2004.

Coincidentally, a month later, on April 26th, 2004, Simazine, the chemical weed control product that David Robinson had become an expert in, was banned in Europe. This timing led some to observe that it appeared as though Europe had waited until after David's death to prohibit his preferred method of chemical weed control.

Since the ban, many have pondered how David Robinson would have navigated a post-Simazine world. Specifically, they wonder how his beloved garden experiment at Earlscliffe would have thrived without the use of such chemicals.  

The brave new world at Earlscliffe

After David's death, his daughter Karen and the rest of the family stepped in to manage the gardens at Earlscliffe, ensuring its continued success. Karen, however, brought a fresh perspective to garden management, distinguishing her approach from her late father's practices. Until recently, Karen held a full-time job, limiting the amount of time and energy she can dedicate solely to the garden, the way that her father did, especially in his later years.

Recognising the need for additional support, Karen is open to seeking external expertise whenever necessary, particularly for major maintenance tasks. Unlike her father, who rarely sought outside help, Karen understands the value of professionals and their contributions to the garden's well-being.

One notable challenge at Earlscliffe arises from the decision to discontinue the use of Simazine, which has led to a higher demand for manual weed control. Nonetheless, Karen proactively manages this issue by employing various techniques. One effective method she employs is the application of layers of bark and wood chip mulch, effectively suppressing the growth of weeds.

As a result of Karen's diligent efforts, the Earlscliffe garden has thrived and adapted to the absence of Simazine. Despite the increased weed control demands, the garden continues to flourish, a testament to Karen's commitment and effective management strategies.

Then vs. now

How does the garden compare to when David Robinson managed it? That's a question with many factors to consider, and as Father Jack from the TV series, Father Ted, would say, "That would be an ecumenical matter!"

In my opinion, it's difficult to provide a definitive answer because the garden today is simply different. On one hand, the tender plants in the garden are still thriving, and some are even doing exceptionally well. Also, the absence of Simazine has allowed for the growth of plants that may not have survived under its previous regime. This is undoubtedly a positive change.

However, it's important to acknowledge that David had access to numerous sources of rare plants that Karen doesn't have, giving the garden a greater variety of tender specimens during his time. Moreover, his superior horticultural knowledge and expertise would be challenging to replicate or match.

Nonetheless, from my non-scientific perspective, I believe that certain parts of the garden are looking better than ever. The removal of Simazine has had a positive impact, and the garden has made progress in various aspects.

That being said, the garden faces new challenges, particularly from global climate change. The winter of 2010 witnessed a higher number of plant losses compared to previous winters on record, and the hottest summer ever recorded in 2018 also caused suffering for many plants. These climate-related issues pose ongoing threats to the garden's management.

Perhaps it is time for Monty Don to revisit the garden and share his insights on how Earlscliffe is being managed post-Simazine. We believe that he would be pleasantly surprised by the progress made and the current state of the garden.

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

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This page was last updated on 27-Jul-2023 .