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The Journey to Wilding the Garden ~ May 2020

May began with strong winds and changeable skies, with Tom’s visit in the first week seeing him battle to keep the order list dry and pinned down as he laid out the new plants in the prepared beds. The following day even saw us retreating into the greenhouse at speed as a barrage of hailstones peppered the grass white and collected on the glass of the roof like a Christmas card. It was passing, quickly giving way to days of clear blue skies. 

Planting begins in earnest

Planting begins in earnest

The planting began in earnest; almost two hundred primulas,[the flowers and young leaves are edible], several mints, Vietnamese basil with a potent, almost medicinal flavour, Solomon’s seal, whose emerging shoots you can eat like asparagus, fennel, currants and blue sausage vines, sea buckthorn, violas and various herbs to name a few.  We hope to create pathways through the garden as we become familiar with them, for chutneys, flavouring charcuterie and meat rubs, jellies, jams, salads and teas.

The seasonal jobs continued alongside planting. The North Terrace that skirts the house is home to a series of architectural box circles clipped into amorphous mounds, ringing shaped domes of Hornbeam and Hedera helix. Stretching nearly a hundred and fifty metres, we are mindful of box blight and the dreaded box tree caterpillar at this time of year. The adult moth lays eggs in early spring and the resulting larvae eat the leaves and produce webbing over their feeding area, causing defoliation and severe dieback, made much more obvious with topiaried plants. A relatively new pest, it was only recorded in gardens in 2011 and is concentrated mainly in the South of England. Scrutiny and keeping plants healthy are our main defence, so a few days were spent spraying with foliar feed and watering, preparing them for next month’s topiary clipping marathon.

There are some moths we are happy to see; Penny had set out another trap overnight that revealed a profusion of visitors. Sundry brown moths, brimstone, a green lunar and the buff tip which bears the most remarkable resemblance to a broken twig of silver birch, and the impossibly iridescent maybug, like a flying VW Beetle. My absolute favourite the buff ermine, with white black flecked wings and a fur- like cape reminiscent of Cruella de Vil’s famous outfit.

Planting in the gravel bed

Planting in the gravel bed

The days were filled with planting out the remaining vegetable seedlings, cropping the now abundant broad beans and squeezing annuals into gaps where spring flowers would recede. In between, we began the tricky operation of emptying the tank pond that forms the centrepeice of the kitchen garden.  A Victorian circular stone pond ten feet in depth encompassed by wrought iron railings stores the run-off from the roof of the castle. With time the stonework has developed cracks and there were signs of water escaping, so a specialist was contracted to lay a waterproof coating that kept the original features visible. The bulk of the water could be pumped to a higher tank and an overflow reservoir under the potting shed. The stumbling block came when we reached the sludgy bottom. After a few ineffectual [and exhausting] attempts at hauling buckets to the surface, a Heath Robinson approach of lowering a heavy petrol pump by ropes onto an upturned tub and filtering out the mud and duckweed with a roll of chicken wire proved successful.  Within three days it was cleaned, dried and resurfaced.  The rescued frogs and dragonfly larvae are still waiting in temporary accommodation; refilling takes somewhat longer.

Charlie had begun an email discussion with the steering group on the nuts and bolts of removing the croquet lawn prior to groundworks beginning next summer, the basic premise ‘To spray or not to spray?’  Measuring over 1200 square metres it presents problems of scale, timeframes, economics and ecological impact.  In taking up large areas it’s best to start with as weed-free an environment as possible, to mitigate ongoing maintenance and ensuring the healthy establishment of young plants. The choices are limited; lift the turf and smother the ground, a year being the minimum effective amount of time. Or spray with a Glyphosate based product.  Neither one is one hundred percent effective when it comes to eliminating the latent seed bank, but the main aim is to remove or repress pernicious weeds such as couch grass.

We’re committed in the garden to organic practice, and as Jekka pointed out in the online meeting the discussion prompted, Glyphosate is shown to have many adverse effects in the soil’s biota, which can take years to rebuild. James reminded us that in five years the chemical will be removed from sale following several studies. But time is not on our side: Tom, James and Mick have all been involved in large scale projects and are well aware of the benefits of forward planning.

So, a compromise was reached. Almost a third of the space is to be scraped and smothered. The rest will be sprayed in spring. With the ongoing baseline survey of the garden we may be able to form unique insights into the comparisons.

The month drew to a close with more meteorological firsts – it was the sunniest May on record in England and Wales with many sites recording over 300 hours. The garden had reached that stage of exuberance where beds overflowed into paths and plants reached around each other, Alliums popping, Euphorbias fizzing, the Nepeta a buzzing hum of blue and the stately Stipa giganteum waving its seed heads above it all like a disheveled conductor. Red and white onions fattened in their rows, laden roses tumbled off the pergolas and walls like a surging crowd. Nigellas, Verbascums and Ammi’s sneaked into the pathways before we’d noticed. The turbulence and uncertainty of life with Covid 19 recedes beyond the walls and for us, as for many others, the garden is a place of refuge and grace.

Moy Fierheller, Joint Head Gardener


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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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