The modest bowed white heads of Galanthus
Walking into a January garden, it is easier to take the measure of a gardener than in the height of June’s abundance. Who has thought in October to plant those Galanthus now pushing their modest bowed white heads through the grass under the oak trees? Or set out those tulip bulbs that now show tubed tongues of leaves poking out beneath the Pyrus, or the serried rows of daffodils? They are about to burst into flower – surely a little too early? It has been almost 14° this last week of the month. Those winter flowering shrubs we pass from the car park, Sarcoccocas, Viburnam bodnantense, Osmanthus delaveyi, whose scents are so much stronger and delightful for their scarcity. The Helleborus argutifolius, (meaning ‘with sharp toothed leaves’), one of the few flowering perennials that can defend themselves against the mouths of both the deer and the cattle.
All these plants help the ‘hungry gap’, where those insects and birds that neither hibernate nor migrate have a much reduced larder from which to forage. We have left off weeding the hairy bittercress littering the beds, their tiny white flowers perfect for a lone bumblebee. This is a weed that is difficult to walk past, always in the periphery of your mind is the image in summer of their dry seed heads exploding like popcorn out of a hot kettle. We talk about how it is in our nature to meddle, and that we need to rewild ourselves with patience and let go our impulse to curb natures enthusiasm.
Suzi’s month has revolved around organising a soil survey as part of the wider baseline survey of the garden that Knepp’s ecologist Penny Green will be undertaking. In our infancy in ecological understanding, two elements are clear; surveys must be simple and repeatable. How will we know if the same spot in five years will even be able to be measured? We don’t. It seems we need to rely on educated guesses and luck, focusing on those areas we suspect will undergo the main changes.
A perfectly capable and recommended soil surveyor was contacted but we discovered the results taken from sixteen ‘core samples’ cover the whole area assessed, more suitable for agricultural surveys. We realised we needed more specific and localised information. Luckily Dr Martin Shepherd, a professor of soil science has come to our rescue. He has kindly given us a range of ‘kitchen’ experiments to assess such diverse findings as soil health, PH, it’s biomass, mycorrhizal infection rates, the movement of water and gas between soil particles with intriguing equipment such as porridge and underpants!
Aside from the obvious fun we anticipate undertaking this project, it started a whole conversation in the potting shed about how the horticultural industry has got it all the wrong way around. It is an easy sell to begin with the flower and encourage the consumer to work backwards and manipulate the soil to accommodate that plant. If garden owners had a better understanding and familiarity with the diversity of soils and the range of diverse plant communities that can be grown in them, perhaps those new-build gardeners who expend so much energy removing rubble might save their time and money planting a perfectly pleasing array of flowers that are happy to grow there.
The rest of the month has been spent looking out onto the lake and the grazing fallow deer from the tops of ladders, pruning the larger climbing roses that scramble up the walls of the house. We’re making space and encouraging flowering among the lower limbs, trimming back the lateral stems in readiness for the cherry picker to manage the higher tangles beyond ladder reach.
Seed heads of Phlomis
When the harder frosts arrest pruning, we trawl seed suppliers for the vegetable and seed orders. Keen to make the kitchen garden as organic as possible in all areas, we found sourcing organic vegetable seeds without much difficulty. Annual and biennial seeds were more of a challenge. Most choices focus on traditional wildflowers; Borage, Corncockle, Cornflower, Calendula and Poppies. These are fine flowers to have of course, but a wider range of annuals fulfil so many uses in a garden; their long flowering period, providing food for a wide range of pollinators, their self-seeding capabilities, their use as cut flowers. The sheer numbers of plants from a single seed packet can fill gaps left by spent spring flowers; difficult to resist buying despite their non-organic status. What gardener can live without sweet peas?
So, we are considering a seed saving course, to fine tune our previous knowledge and make sure the second generation [as we wish for our own progeny], a chemical free and natural life.
Moy Fierheller, Joint Head Gardener
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