Robert J. Garden, British soldier and civil servant, joined the British Army in 1839 as an ensign in the 45th Foot Regiment. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1842 and the next year was sent to the Cape Colony with his regiment. After taking part in the Seventh Frontier War of 1846-1847 he was promoted to captain in 1848 and that same year was stationed in Pietermaritzburg. In 1851 he and H.F. Fynn* tried unsuccessfully to raise a native force to assist the Governor of the Cape Colony on the eastern Cape frontier.
Fynn had discovered the fossiliferous Cretaceous deposits at the mouths of the Mtamvuna, Mzamba and Mpenjati Rivers (now named the Mzamba Beds) many years earlier, though he had not collected specimens. Garden visited the area during 1851 and collected fossils with the aid of private Thomas Souton. He wrote a brief description of the strata, "Notice of some Cretaceous rocks near Natal, South Africa", for the Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society (1855, Vol. 11(1), pp. 453-454). The fossils were described by W.H. Bailey in the same volume (pp. 454-465). The collection included 35 species of molluscs, 30 of them new to science; a new echinoderm; a fish tooth; and some reptile bones. The species showed some resemblance to fossils from the Cretaceous beds of India.
Garden travelled widely through Natal and recorded information relating to its history, ethnology and botany. He kept a diary and also made drawings and water colour paintings. His diary and other papers are in the Natal Society Library, Pietermaritzburg, while transcriptions of these documents can be found in the Campbell collections, University of KwaZuly-Natal. He was a heavily built, humourless and quarrelsome man, critical of all the people he met, and hence much disliked in the colony. In November 1853 he returned to England and brought to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew a collection of living plants, packed in a Warden case supplied by Dr. W. Stanger*. The collection contained several new species, two of which, Streptocarpus gardenii and Clivia gardenii were named after him by W.J. Hooker. Garden retired from the military as a major in September 1854. From 1856 to 1862 he was in the consular service in India, from where he sent more plants to Kew.