Close this search box.

The Journey to Wilding the Garden ~ February 2020

The first Sunday in February every year in Brighton is Seedy Sunday, a gathering of all folks horticultural and an incredible array of garden products, organisations and of course, seeds.  Those with prior knowledge arrive early and enter the scrum in the seed swapping hall where you can exchange your own collections or buy other’s contributions at very low prices. It’s a lovely way to trade stories as well as heritage or unusual varieties; those who come are aware of the importance of open pollinated seeds that are not sterile F1 hybrids or bred in a laboratory.  We will see how the highly recommended Marmande French heritage tomato gets on in the greenhouse.

There was another very fruitful visit from Tom Stuart Smith early in the month.  We sat around Charlies table, an A1 sized pencil shaded sketch of the walled garden and orchard laid out before us.  The walls are almost obscured by layered forest garden schemes, the paths in the Kitchen Garden narrowed and edge-blurred by planting, the current yew columns ‘goat-topiaried’ into warped irregular shapes. The South garden keeps the pool and shows the hillocks and dips of the aggregate mounds, the winding pathways and the stag headed oaks replacing the more formal existing pergola.

Then a walk round the garden, some more definite proposals of what will be dug out, [the cultivar shrub roses, the black Sambucus, the Hebes and Olereas] and an opportunity for Tom to note what might stay or be used elsewhere.  Out came the blue spray paint and a free form waving line appeared on the formal squared copper beech hedge that runs the length of the Kitchen Garden.

Bernard’s successful handywork!

Bernard’s successful handywork!

A week later Bernard had cut the hedge to the line; we were all slightly terrified if it would look awful, [although like a bad haircut, you know eventually it will grow out]. It’s fantastic.  When you come through the gate from the terrace there is such a feeling of openness, and a game of peek-a-boo as you walk the hedge when the garden is revealed and obscured by the rises and falls of the beech.

The previously mentioned ‘goat topiary’ is something Charlie had spoken to us about, but we were unsure as to the exact look of the effect. He shared video footage of evergreen shrubs in the mountains of Crete, where it appears a sculptor has crafted eerie, twisted, mounded shapes and columns.  If we were to mimic the goats, it seems we would be close cropping all new shoots to make densely tight rounds and top-heavy angled ‘heads’ at the height of a two-legged goat. The advantages of the cloven hoof! A step for us into unknown territory.

We were discussing Tom’s design after the meeting, and Suzi brought up the “Doctrine of Signatures”, a concept developed in the sixteenth century where God has marked objects with a sign for their purpose. In the case of plants this was their resemblance to parts of the human body and their curative properties, and sometimes the environments where plants grow.  These ideas began to pervade the design of gardens and orchards and as we thought about it, we realised these fundamentals haven’t moved on a great deal since.  Gardens are principally for the benefit and use of man, and attempting to ‘wild’ a garden, is to ask for a paradigm shift in how they are viewed.

This February was the wettest on record, with a named storm almost every weekend. While the west of the country suffered unprecedented flooding, thankfully the garden was surprisingly unscathed, the mulch and ground cover plants taking the strain. The croquet lawn continued to feel spongy underfoot, the oaks and cedars shed their dead limbs in the high winds leaving them scattered below like discarded clothing.

Rosa ‘Smarty’ after their hard pruning, which prepared them to be moved.

Rosa ‘Smarty’ after their hard pruning, which prepared them to be moved.

We retreated to the potting shed. The tomato, aubergine and chilli seeds were sown and put into the propagator.   With the Knepp wild meat range becoming established online, we wanted to be sure we are growing herbs and flavours that will complement the beef and venison cuts visitors to the house might enjoy.  We have around ten varieties of chillies, many of Mexican heritage and we look forward to meeting Jekka McVicar in April for her recommendations on herbs, edible flowers and more exotic spices for the greenhouse such as turmeric, ginger and pink peppercorns.

The climbing rose pruning continued around the castle, and every Friday Yas grappled with thirty-six thorny Rosa ‘Smarty’, hard pruning them ready to be moved.

Bryn has been busy on those few non-rainy days in the orchard, pruning the apple and pear trees into standards by opening their centres and taking down the height to enable picking.  We were interested to talk to him about the main differences in pruning between horticulture and permaculture practices.  It seems permaculture takes a more hands-off approach and pruning over a longer period of seasons. He leaves a central ‘leader’ to grow up, the idea being to concentrate the leafy vigour there so the outer branches confine their efforts to fruit production.  We’ll see him again at the end of July for the summer prune. It seems far distant; we are ready for winters end and for the spring blossom to come.

Moy Fierheller, Joint Head Gardener


What we are reading: 

Doctrine of Signatures: An Introduction to Deepening Our Connection with the Beneficial Properties of Plants


The Garden Jungle Dave Goulson

Creating a Forest Garden Martin Crawford

The Foragers Garden John Wright


Related Articles

Episode 28: Wild Finca

Episode 28 of the Knepp Wildland Podcast transports us far away from Knepp and into the beautifully rugged landscape of Asturias in Spain. We’re visiting

Read More

Our 12+ Policy

Knepp Wildland Safaris and campsite are all about the quiet and patient observation of nature.

Some of the species we are likely to encounter are shy or can be frightened by loud noises or sudden movements. Our campsite with open-air fire-pits, wood-burning stoves and an on-site pond is unsuitable for small children.

For this reason, our safaris, holiday cottages and campsite are suitable only for children of 12 and over.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

* indicates required
/ ( mm / dd )