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The Journey to Wilding the Garden ~ April 2020

The orchard exploding into blossom

The orchard exploding into blossom

The seemingly endless sunshine continues, and this strange lockdown world constantly ebbs and flows around our consciousness.  Nature thrives in the absence of so much human activity and like a gift to celebrate the anniversary of our first year here, the orchard explodes in a riot of blossom and a carpet of blue speedwell. Sadly, Suzi and Karen were unable to witness it all, both being struck down by fatigue and breathlessness, and the presumption of having contracted the virus.  The rest of the estate seem to have escaped any infection, and we double our safety measures in isolating the greenhouse and potting shed, tool and machinery sharing, even using different gates into the garden.

The horticultural world is buckling under the restrictions and we’re lucky that we can continue in our work and that the garden is not yet open to the public. Those gardens that rely on the income of visitors have become creative, coming together as a community online, holding masterclasses, streaming diaries and blogs, giving virtual tours of gardens, sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm.

Our own garden meeting was adapted to an online format in the first week. Tom brought everyone up to date on the most recent design plans. The emphasis in the kitchen garden is now firmly on almost all the plants having an edible element.  Mick Crawley raised the question of winter structure and we discussed leaving seed heads and skeletons of perennials as we did last year, as well as the height and form that the existing yew topiary, beech hedge and pear trees provide. Many of the loosely planted pathways will be Mediterranean culinary herbs such as thymes and oreganos’ and we’ll try winter annuals and biennials; the aspiration a ‘secret garden’ left to its own devices.

We went on to consider the South Garden’s more radical upheaval and some of the particulars of planting. The potential problems we might encounter with managing weeds and seedling identification in the early stages. The idea of mulching with fine grained versions of the different aggregates to help establish communities and keep materials ‘legible’.  Tom described the varying levels and aspects within the garden walls as ‘a box of environmental experimentation ‘, creating as many different areas of diversity as we can.  James Hitchmough spoke of the planting moving from sparse sowing to dense blocks of vegetation across PH boundaries, orientations and heights, presenting a diverse range of opportunities. With the current situation still so difficult to predict, we hope work will be able to start next summer.

Back in the garden, Penny had set up a moth trap, one with a weak beacon light in an effort to draw only those species within the walls. Early morning, the egg cartons revealed only a few characters, possibly due to the nights being quite cold for the time of year. I’m always struck by the fantastically theatrical sounding names: among the visitors were the Lunar Marbled Brown, Earl Grey and Great Prominent, all beautiful.  She had also put out a plea across the estate to be on alert for the Oak Processionary Moth, a non-native pest whose caterpillars form large nests. They feed on the leaves and can strip a tree bare, leaving it vulnerable to other stresses and diseases, while venomous hairs on their bodies can cause rashes and respiratory problems for humans.  

I was focused on trying to prepare for the upcoming plant delivery and managing the ever growing vegetable and ornamental seedlings crowding the greenhouse. Although the days had been warm, with plenty of clear blue skies, cold nights made me reticent to put them into the ground. Both Suzi and Karen, like many others, were taking longer than expected to feel completely well, and seedlings outside can sometimes mean as much work, spread over a greater area.  The garden was burgeoning though, many plants responding much earlier from the weeks of winter rain and the spring sun. April 15th saw the first of the roses unfurling on the front of the house, surely the earliest date I’ve noted in any garden. The long purple elegant racemes of the Wisteria on the southern front hung from top to bottom at the same time. We noted this with relief; we had undertaken last year’s summer prune with enthusiasm, keen to reduce some of the vigour in the higher reaches and improve air flow by clearing away dead limbs, but you never know if you’ve gone a little too far until flowering.

Stu and his faithful mini digger !

Stu and his faithful mini digger !

The last week saw a flurry of activity as all the Phase One planting plan got underway. Stu arrived with his mini digger to scrape off the two squares of lawn in the Kitchen Garden that are being planted up.  Bernard alternated carting off the turf to the compost area, [we’re repurposing this for seed compost]and digging up the Paperwhite daffodils planted in a block along the East wall for cut flowers. Terry and Stu were preparing to relocate five of the fourteen-foot mop headed Robinia pseudoacacia to the campsite, by digging half a trench around the root ball and backfilling with compost. They’ll complete the second half in the Autumn, giving the trees an opportunity to form more fibrous roots and reducing the shock of being transplanted in the winter dormant months.

Converging on a single day, the plumber Russell with a new outside tap, the landscaper Anthony with a workmate, digger and dumper and a delivery driver with 600 or so plants needed some patience with my slightly overwhelmed brain. Not to mention keeping social distancing at safe levels. Thankfully, Bernard rescued me from removing a large Sambucus and Maureen the Housekeeper volunteered a strong arm for plant unloading.  Anthony was the same contractor that had laid the existing garden landscaping, so he was previously acquainted with the under story as he scraped out a 26 metre long stretch of the gravel path to increase the size of the East wall’s bed. Suzi arrived to check the plant order and some semblance of calm had resumed by the days end.

We surveyed the panoply of plants, many in their juvenile stages.  We’ll be their carers as they grow and mature, and we ‘ll come to know their habits; we’ll have favourites and to some we’ll show dogged respect.  Fergus Garrett, who we met at Great Dixter this time last year has been delivering some fantastic online masterclasses during the lockdown. One that struck us was when he was talking about Ferula communis, the giant fennel, and how he has experimented with layering plants beneath them. He was relating how seed collected from plants in the higher altitudes or lower levels behaved differently, and how over thirty years he has watched how and when the plants develop leaves and flowers, noticed their characteristics, played with companion planting. His relationship with the garden is intimate, and it teaches us that above all looking carefully, giving yourself  time  to enjoy and notice those nuances, and having the patience to observe the changes are the best skills you can cultivate as a gardener.          

Moy Fierheller, Joint Head Gardener 


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Lesser Celandine


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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.

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