At the end of the first week of February, dreary rain gave way to the first clear sunny day we had seen for what seemed like months. To turn our faces to that joyful warmth was bliss. The wet days had seen us thrashing out plans for the garden safaris, due to begin in June. We’re aiming to find the best pathway through the garden that illustrates the concepts behind Tom Stuart Smith’s’ and James Hitchmough’s’ design manifestos. We’re so pleased that Laurie Jackson, a seasoned wildlife guide with the wildland safaris will be joining us too, helping out with the bug and bird spotting.
After two months, Anthony’s work with the digger making the ‘dirty paths’ in the Kitchen Garden was drawing to a close. Like a floor painter backing his way to the door, he dug out and re-laid the last wavy-edged sand and gravel bed around the fruit cage, sealed all with Breedon gravel and finished consolidating the central path where the Kitchen Garden moves into the Pool Garden. The paths take up almost a third of the space; those looking into the garden from that standpoint would have no idea of the transformation that has taken place beneath, seeing only neat sandy-hued walkways between beds. Once we have planted into the gravel the Mediterranean xeric species arriving in Spring, their necks dry and their roots able to keep cool and moist in the soil mix below, those formal lines should soften and burgeon, giving a wilder foraging feel to the viewer.
The wilder side of Tom’s design in the Pool Garden, where undulating mounds of crushed brick and concrete replace the croquet lawn and lavender beds were under discussion in a zoom steering meeting with Tom, James, and the botanist Mick Crawley. The focus on engendering a process rather than producing a finished product informs the choices of over five hundred taxa that are to be planted in the Autumn of this year. Aiming to maximise biodiversity the planting plan is strongly skewed toward the Mediterranean, reflecting the themes that are being explored of fertility versus diversity, climate resilience, surveying biodiversity amongst exotic species, and how the dynamics change over time.
The initial year of establishing the plants and managing the inevitable weed seedlings that will accompany the incoming aggregates will be our biggest challenges. Remembering that this is another part of the story of the garden helps us keep the metaphorical butterflies at bay.
Russ Carrington, who has recently joined the Knepp team and is leading the Regenerative Agriculture project delivered a fantastic talk on the subject with our ecologist Penny Green and conservationist Ivan de Klee, who facilitates other landowners with rewilding. As we have discovered on our forays into the world of soil, many of the principles Russ spoke of can be applied to gardening with conservation in mind, particularly in the Kitchen Garden; soil coverage and living roots for as much of the year as possible, limited soil disturbance, [aiding carbon sequestration], high diversity, and soil health being positively fundamental. We’re looking forward to seeing how nature recovers from historical intensive agriculture in a regenerative setting.
The end of the month saw us donning safety harnesses; the arrival of the cherry picker is usually accompanied by buffeting winds and horizontal freezing rain. This year we were more fortunate and although standing in a cage fourteen metres up with Craig, [the estate’s irreplaceable factotum], couldn’t exactly be described as luxurious, at least we were dry. Each time we come back to the higher reaches of the climbers round the castle we achieve a little more in remedial care. The incredible vigour of the Trachelospermum jasminoides means it reaches to the very top of the crenellations on the wall of the library. But in some places, it was almost two feet away from the wall, harbouring many old nests and dead wood and threatening to pull itself or the downpipe it smothered off its moorings. Despite filling a few trailer-loads with debris, a sizeable covering of the dark glossy evergreen foliage remained. We also managed to finish pruning some of the roses we hadn’t worked on previously, so even with the temporary feeling of being released from a pitching ships deck, once on solid ground we were pleased with the weeks work.
February had seen another weather record broken. On the 10th, fifteen UK weather stations recorded their lowest temperatures ever for the month, many areas dropping to –15 degrees. In the garden, the thermometer stayed at zero for a week, the ground solid, the ordinarily hardy plants crumpling under the onslaught. On the roadsides breathtaking fairie ice palaces sprung up as tyres showered puddles into frozen exclamations of suspended spray metres high. When the temperature swung in a day from -2 to 13 degrees, a surprising amount of life quickly recovered, but it was yet another reminder of the rapid pace of climate change. As lockdown begins to ease, and all our aspirations are pinned to reclaiming some normality, our hope is also that the future can involve a shared mindset of moving towards sustainability, in our food, our gardens and our shared spaces.
Moy Fierheller Joint Head Gardener February 2021
What we’re reading:
Granta Second Nature