While this month will forever signify the anniversary of ‘The First Lockdown’ in the UK, here and around the world many different faiths also celebrate renewal, rebirth, and awakenings. The globe tilts and the sun crosses the plane of the Equator on March 20th, the Spring Equinox. The garden is rousing from sleep, the peach and apricot blossom seeming to arrive all at once like exuberant party guests, hairy bittercress [Cardamine hirsuta], suddenly peppering the kitchen garden beds with its tiny white flowers overnight. Emerging greens have reached equilibrium with the brown stems and seed heads of winter. We hold back from clearing these insect habitats, as native bird nesting begins, and the threat of frosts linger.
The rose pruning continues in the garden even as the first delicate, red-tinged leaves emerge from the thorny stems. Many of the climbers and ramblers in the walled garden need reshaping and hadn’t yet had our full attention; Rosa mulliganii which covers almost all the old Peach House south facing wall took three days to unscramble and tie in. The idea is that it ‘escapes’ from the garden on to the lean-to roof on the other side. It is one of the biggest climbing roses in this country and many a curse rang out from the top of a ladder as pliant eleven metre stems ensnared our coats and hair. Come May when the huge musk-scented clusters of white flowers are tumbling over the brickwork all will be forgiven.
We were talking about horticulture versus principles of rewilding while pruning, hardly a ‘hands off’ occupation, but it echoes one of the natural processes of stress and disturbance in wilding in the form of browsing herbivores. One of the advantages of working in the setting of the estate is being able to observe the behavior of free roaming herbivores through the seasons. Instead of burning our woody prunings, we have fashioned a snaking brash hedge beyond the compost bays after Nigel Dunnett’s ‘Nest’. Chestnut stakes mark out the shape and we ‘fill’ to make the hedge. We have often parked up in the morning to see the Longhorn cattle or Exmoor ponies gathered around it like a nativity scene, dragging Christmas tree limbs, rose stems and cedar branches out and contentedly feasting. So, if Rosa mulliganii was in the wider landscape it would no doubt be browsed in the leaner months before grass begins to grow. Roses have clearly developed strategies over millennia to respond in a positive way for their survival by producing more flowers, and just so, a gardener prunes. There have been some studies that suggest herbivore saliva can stimulate and benefit a browsed plant.
A goat will nibble the new young shoots of an olive tree on a Mediterranean hillside, and the plant responds by fruiting and flowering on the new seasons growth and produces two stems from one. We pruned the three old olive trees [Olea europaea], in the pool garden, mimicking that natural process. They were rescued from a demolition site in Spain ten years ago, and we shaped them for ease of harvesting in three flat heart-shaped loose sections. We hope to have a good enough crop to repeat our preserving of 2019, which produced some surprisingly edible results.
The month ended with a fantastic visit from Abby Rose, co-founder of Vidacycle, and the developer behind the Soilmentor app we are now using across the Knepp estate. It was a wonderfully sunny warm day, and a rare opportunity for the ecology, wildland, cattle, regenerative agriculture, and garden staff to meet, together with Charlie and Ned Burrell. Abby had come to give us a practical training day in how to use the Soilmentor App to best effect in measuring responses to land management over time. We headed to the walled garden armed with spades, trays for worm counting, infiltration tubes to measure the rate of water absorption and a length of rope for marking out a transect. One of the tests that is initially difficult to grasp is the VESS test [Visual Evaluation of Soil Structure], which looks at a spade size ‘slice’ of soil from a GPS marked spot. You can photograph and score the top and bottom of the sample, adding details of depth and texture. Microbial activity around the roots of plants creates a fine bobbling structure of the soil. The mutually beneficial relationship between plants and microbes consists of an exchange of nutrients and sugars, and the resulting exudates create a soil that is both free draining and water retentive, in a healthy and dynamic state. The density and depth of the root growth defines this ‘top’ section, made biologically, whereas the bottom of the sample is often the result of manmade issues such as compaction; the soil is fissured and breaks into ‘blocky’ lumps. This is the area where land management can be used to good effect by the choice of plants and their potential root depth. Pulling out a Mouse Ear Chickweed, we saw the fibrous roots thoroughly coated with fine bobbly soil, a ‘weed’ we would normally try to eradicate. The importance of ground cover and active root growth for as much of the year as possible became so much clearer looking at the garden from the soil up. As we moved through the estate from the compacted field in front of the house, to one of the fields about to be used in the Regenerative Agriculture project, it was enlightening to see the differences, not just root depth and structure, but the amount and types of worms, the colour and even smell of the soil. After fifteen minutes on the stopwatch, the water held in the infiltration tube belligerently refused to entertain any idea of penetrating the heavy Wealden clay on all the sites. There was a suggestion we may adapt the app to time how long water might remain on certain sites; clearly every puddle has a silver lining.
Sunny days and cold nights ended the month, the beginning of lockdown easing on the horizon a tentative hope of change. One of the Tamworth pigs in the Southern Block delivered six piglets, the cycles of nature continuing with comforting reliability, new life springing up, new futures.
Moy Fierheller Joint Head Gardener March 2021
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Nigel Dunnett’s brash hedge (46) Pinterest