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The Journey to Wilding the Garden July ~ 2021

Like all change, Phase Three of the redesign of the walled garden is both incredibly exhilarating and utterly terrifying in equal measure. As if mirroring the mood, the low atmospheric pressure all month caused dramatic thunderstorms, flooding and lightning up and down the country; at Heathrow, a high of 32.2 degrees was recorded. The London Fire Brigade received over 1,000 calls.

Where Stuart had dug out the shrubs from the Pool Garden long border, the terrain resembled the aftermath of a landslide; the rain pooling in dents and craters, roots protruding, the pencil cypresses thrusting skyward incongruously, spared the ravages. They will remain as signposts of the garden’s previous incarnation and continue to provide a strong vertical visual

It seemed counterintuitive to lead another group of Rewilding Your Garden Safari visitors into such a barren and chaotic landscape. We had some concerns that our wonderful wildlife expert Laurie Jackson would find very little to show the guests, although the vast, recently fallen oak near the house has created a whole new range of habitats. We’ve decided to allow this two-hundred-year-old giant to lie where it fell, neatly between yew hedgerows, in the new wildflower meadow, and follow its slow decay. 

Despite all, with many of the company knowledgeable in rewilding and gardening, the general feeling among our safari guests seemed to be one of high spirits and interest, to be standing at the bottom of the mountain before the climb. We hope many of them will be back to see how the garden evolves over the years.

Any attempt at preserving the pristine croquet lawn had been long abandoned

The day approached to tackle the removal of the croquet lawn. Any attempt at preserving a pristine ‘billiard table’ green surface had long been abandoned, and the relaxation in mowing meant that a lovely clover-rich flowering carpet had sprung from the historical addition of fertilisers. Those clovers, dandelions, several thistle species and creeping cinquefoil were now rife through the lawn and all sported long tap roots. These native wildflowers – considered pernicious weeds by most gardeners – are perfectly happy reproducing from small segments of root, and once the landscaping work really gets underway, the large digging bucket will inevitably propagate more of these hard-to-remove characters.  Some plants, usually those with thick and fleshy roots, have the ability to regenerate into a new plant where a group of growth cells change to become root cells, usually after some type of ‘wounding’ or cutting.  If we allow these super-resilient pioneers to get away, especially now, before the thousands of other plants we’re soon to introduce have had a chance to establish themselves, the weeding challenge for us will be enormous, if not impossible. These few plants will outcompete the rest, resulting in a much less complex system of flora – the rich and varied palette we want to establish for species diversity in the long term. 

The decision on how to approach the task of eradicating these ‘thugs’ had been discussed over a year ago at one of our early Advisory Board meetings. Tom Stuart Smith, our garden designer, and James Hitchmough, with a wealth of experience in establishing wildflower meadows, and Mick Crawley, one of the UK’s top botanists, were adamant: we needed to have as ‘clean’ a planting medium as possible, and the best way to achieve that is to spray with Glyphosate. Glyphosate, also known by the brand name ‘Round Up’, is a controversial herbicide recently banned in Austria and due to be phased out for use in Germany by 2023. In Tom, James and Mick’s view, however, a single episodic application of Glyphosate at the start of a project is a very different consideration from routine and repeated use of the chemical which builds up in the soil over time. Jekka McVicar, a seasoned plantswoman and owner of a very successful organic herb enterprise, was equally resolute in her opinion about the damaging effects of the chemical on soil biota. The RHS-based horticultural training Suzi and myself received twenty years ago taught us the positives and negatives of the use of chemicals. As time has passed, we, too, have come to view artificially prepared synthetic chemicals, as unsustainable, preferring to use alternative, organic methods.  

Glyphosate and smothered area soil samples

Other options were discussed, such as taking off the top 200mm of soil, and replacing it with soil brought in from elsewhere. The carbon footprint from both on-site vehicles and transportation, and the processes by which the soil might be collected, however, would be significant. Jekka practices the “smothering” technique at her herb farm. Smothering –  – ie light deprivation by overlaying with heavy black plastic (itself, a carbon cost)-], is an effective way both to eliminate ingress of weed seed, and, by occasionally lifting the covering and removing emerging seedlings, the latent seed bank held within the soil. However, for this to be really effective, the smothering needs to be done for a minimum of two years. 

An opportunity for an experiment emerged. We would overlay one section of the lawn with heavy black plastic with the aim of smothering the weeds (Jekka’s approach), and use Glyphosate on the rest (Tim and James’ approach), enabling us to compare the efficacy of the two treatments and – by testing the soil in the years to come – any perceivable long-term effects. With the Glyphosate treatment, inevitably, the results were immediate: one application and the grasses and broad-leaved perennials yellowed to a sun-baked prairie, dead to the very roots, leaving the ground ready to welcome the newcomers due to arrive in November. We wait to see how successful Jekka’s smothering approach will be. 

Meadowsweet in the Kitchen Garden

In contrast to the blitzkrieg going on in the Pool Garden, the Kitchen Garden planting on the other side of the wall has responded to the wet and warmth with gusto. The dusky pink, sea anemone- shaped flowers of the wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) have rocketed to meet us at our five-feet-high eye level, and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) has expanded its territory in its second summer, shooting up early and keeling over in the rain, sending up creamy sprays of intense feathery bursts from the ground, regardless. The squashes and pumpkins are rampaging across the new no-dig vegetable patch. Hitherto-untried Tromboncino squashes have produced some tremendous curling fruits, two feet long and resembling some strange Tyrolean wind instrument. They are delicious raw or cooked.

There are more weeds in the path, and more ox-eye daisies than we’d like. There is more work than time but, if you come into the garden quietly, there is a charm of goldfinches chittering away, honey and bumble bees, flies and hoverflies littering the fennel flowers, and cabbage white and red admiral butterflies, and of course, the inevitable wood pigeon pecking the tips of the brassicas. After all, this garden is for everyone.

Moy Fierheller    Joint Head Gardener    July 2021 

What we’re reading:

Frontiers | Pesticides and Soil Invertebrates: A Hazard Assessment | Environmental Science ( 

BBC Sounds – Genetic Dreams, Genetic Nightmares – Available Episodes 

Waltham Place 

Introduction to Green Roof Shelters 

Related Sites – Green Roof Shelters 

Climate Compost by The Land Gardeners — the land gardeners 

BBC iPlayer – Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival – 2021: Episode 2 

James Hitchmough (@jameshitchmough) • Instagram photos and videos 

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Our 12+ Policy

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.

For this reason, our safaris, holiday cottages and campsite are suitable only for children of 12 and over.

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