With the start of the month came rain, ripening fruits and visitors. Despite a remake of the fruit cage over the winter, replacing netting with chicken wire around the sides, a rustling among the tayberries revealed the impish features of a young squirrel who nonchalantly slipped between the roof netting and the roof crossbar when encouraged to leave. A reminder to seal the edging with more attention when we put the roof netting back on in Spring. The peaches didn’t escape his attention, with several endearing bitemarks in the still hard skins suggesting a reduced crop this year. An emboldened furry character trotted across the path and into the Stipa gigantea whilst Craig and I chatted by the pond. Likely a vole, he seemed alarmingly plump. We hope that previous sightings of stoat droppings might deal with his root and shoot nibbling ways.
The drier weather heralded the beginning of the box topiary marathon, traditionally undertaken on Derby Day, which usually falls in the first week of June. While Covid 19 postponed the race, the box’s shaggy appearance clearly had no such check. Although it is possible to clip with hedge trimmers, and many do, much of the shaping here is done with Niwake shears. Niwake is Japanese for “garden trees”, but also refers to the art of sculpting them. The shears are light and sharp and using them means the cut on the leaf browns less than from a hedge trimmer as the wound heals. We use hessian to cover the cut areas and to slow moisture loss. Since much of the topiary is in close proximity to the house and outside eating area, this give a visual advantage as well as a vastly less intrusive noise. That click-click on a sunny day seems quintessentially the sound of summer.
Scraping off the turf from the croquet lawn
Meanwhile, after the decision to split the croquet lawn removal into organic and non-organic treatments, we needed to smother a section of the grass as soon as we could. Almost a third of all the turf in the Southern Garden was to be covered, and we duly ordered three 100-meter rolls of landscape matting, planning to pin down a double layer. Terry arrived with the digger and spent a morning scraping off the turf, which now sits in a covered pile by the compost heaps. We’re hoping this will break down to a useable seed compost in a few years. We’re conscious of trying to ‘close the loop’, if it’s not recycled can it be repurposed? The matting has a fifty-year life span, but any new paths made on the Knepp estate need to be underlaid with the stuff to secure the winter wet of Wealden clay; at least it will serve a double purpose.
Landscape matting covering the croquet lawn
The extensive metal framed vegetable cage that encompassed all the raised beds is similarly being passed on we hope, to a market garden start-up on the estate. The cage was put up some years ago with the arrival of a peacock in the walled garden, known as Percy, who we’re told would happily work his way through any plantings, new or old, including barging into the greenhouse. Thankfully his reign was over by the time we arrived, and with Tom’s design, we’re trying to introduce more natural elements with supports, using hazel cut from the estate. While birds can still be an issue nipping out some of the younger plants, we need them on others to manage aphids, blackfly and flea beetle. So smaller, more temporary coverings are being moved where they’re needed, rather than the one over-arching structure. Once Craig had wrangled the long poles into submission, we realised how much the metal horizontals had drawn the eye, and without them the focus of the garden as you look through the undulating beech hedge in particular is slowed down, and you take in the foreground detail before moving beyond.
Suzi has been occupied with continued soil research and keeping up with the veg planting. The brassica and runner bean seedlings were planted along with the leeks and more successional peas. We’re experimenting interplanting tomatoes and corn in the fruit cage and peppered with nasturtiums and marigolds, it makes for a bright and cheery finish to the salad greens of the raised beds. The continued hot and dry days meant having to regularly water the potatoes in particular, but the early crop of ‘Linzer’ proved a great success in the eating, keeping its shape when cooked and delicious to boot.
The search for a meaningful soil survey for the garden is a little less straightforward. We had some very useful advice earlier in the year from the soil scientist Dr Mathew Shepherd, with ideas for some kitchen experiments. Measuring, recording and most importantly interpreting information was something we needed a helping hand with. Most soil analysis is for agricultural uses or organic certification. As part of our base line survey we want to be able to measure and observe change, if any, and how it affects plantings and biodiversity. After disappearing down several online wormholes, Suzi finally got into the world of regenerative farming and found a wonderfully helpful lady called Abbey Rose. She has developed an app called Soilmentor, to support farmers to monitor and compare their results with similar projects. Soil tests, ‘Key considerations’ and written content are able to be customised to the individual’s needs. This way you can choose a basic menu of repeatable tests using GPS to pinpoint test positions, make visual recordings and keep track of results. The number crunching is done for you and can be viewed in various formats, graphs, percentages or numerical tables which makes for a more user-friendly and useful record for non-scientific backgrounds such as ours.
Armed with this and the discovery of a company that can analyse chemical composition, the basics being Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium plus Calcium and organic matter, we feel that we’ve made some real progress. We’ve often reflected as gardeners that we know too little about soil, that it’s so fundamental in understanding your garden and that it’s a shame basic testing isn’t more widely promoted in the horticultural world.
The month drew to a close with a heatwave, the temperature reaching the mid-thirties. The garden panted, Nigellas and Alliums turning quickly to architectural seed heads, floating pods and spaceships, the peonies petals singed brown, the roses husking to hips already. Enter the annuals, Cosmos parading pink and white above their feathery foliage, Ammi majus holding up frothy plates of creamy blossom and Nicotiana leaves elbowing into planting gaps.
The momentous hatching of the first recorded wild White Stork chicks at Knepp for 600 years has buoyed us all through these weeks of global tragedies. We were lucky enough to visit the nests and see their surprisingly large heads poking above the rims of their parent’s substantial constructions. The majesty and grace of these birds remind us to look for the beauty and magic out there, and lift our heads from the screen.
Moy Fierheller, Joint Head Gardener
What we are reading:
The Glorious Life of The Oak by John Lewis-Stempel