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The Journey to Wilding the Garden ~ August 2021

While our backs have been turned, clearing the Pool Garden ready for Anthony to begin the groundworks, thugs have been busily drilling down tap roots and sending leaves sprinting into the light in the Kitchen Garden. Inevitably, the movement of soil when the ‘dirty paths’ were laid last winter distributed seeds and roots. So, we weed like a selective herbivore, pulling all those plants we know will crowd, strangle or over-run. In the future, once all the new plantings have established and claimed their territories, we can overlook a dandelion or two, particularly as all its parts are edible.

Tom Stuart-Smith and James Hitchmough came for a site visit early in the month to see how the Pool Garden preparations were progressing and assess the crushed concrete that has been repurposed from demolished buildings on the wider estate. The ‘dry hills’ in the design of mounds and hollows amongst winding pathways are to be a mix of this concrete and coarse sand, decreasing fertility and increasing drainage. As James posted on his social media “…we want to make legible how ecological factors shape how designed vegetation develops”. He did some testing on different ratios to assess the drainage and therefore oxygen content, settling for a fifty-fifty mix of concrete and sand. There were some interesting questions in response to his post: such as whether mycorrhizal fungi will colonise these sorts of substrates; how the leaching of the concrete is controlled, if at all; the effects of the action of worms, plant roots and weather. It’s all part of the evolving story that will unfold with this project, and certainly for us a journey of unknowns and discovery.

The wisteria on the front of the house

The work in the rest of the garden continued with the annual summer prune of the immense wisteria on the front of the castle undertaken from a large cherry picker. Over the last two seasons we’d taken back the overhang from almost two metres out from the wall in some places to a more manageable fifty centimetres. This year we concentrated on thinning out some of the older stems around the windows, trying to curb the triffid-like behaviour of the intrusive spring and early summer growth.

In the Kitchen Garden, the “limits of acceptable change” that govern our wilding/horticulture tussle had been reached when it came to the matter of the ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare). In the two beds that had been transformed from lawns to a topsoil and horticultural grit mix last spring, seven 9cm pots of ox-eyes were planted, dotted through plantings of Monarda, Lavandula, Rosmarinus, Ferrula, Cynara, Calamentha and Clinopodium. In the spirit of allowing natural processes, we had thinned the resulting thousands of seedlings several times but eventually let them romp, admittedly mainly because other areas were claiming our attention. The ox-eye daisy’s composite, open, flat flower that is also horizontal, provides a valuable ecological service to pollinators, sporting a landing pad to enable feeding from its multiple nectaries, and allowing access for even short-tongued species. But, with four-feet-high ox-eyes now dominant in the bed, toppling over and smothering the other plants, the tipping point had been reached and we cleared them from the beds before they self-seeded again. There was no denying, though, they had helped us in the early stages, retaining moisture and providing a very good weed suppressant as the new plants established.

Our last group of visitors came on the third of our safaris this year, another positive exchange of information and ideas, every question another thread to the story of the project: What about the chemical composition of the concrete, does it not have corrosive elements for plants? [We’re going to send off a sample in response to this one]; when buying plants in from a nursery, if the plant has been sprayed with a neonicotinoid pesticide, [it is often applied as a seed coating], will the seed you collect from the fruits continue to contain the chemical? This is definitely one to investigate more closely, as we are constantly working to close the loop, cutting down our carbon footprint by collecting seed and propagating from cuttings or division rather than replacing plants from external sources.

The ha-ha terrace lawn

The end of summer was fast approaching, not the sunniest in memory, and certainly more stories of flooding in the area than seemed usual. The decision by Issy and Charlie to allow the whole of the haha terrace lawn in front of the house to be given free rein to grow long and wild over the summer had proved successful. They had always been reluctant to let it go, thinking that long grass would impede the view of the lake and sloping pasture from the house, but this proved a small price to pay for the wildlife bonuses that sprang up around them. To sit in an easy chair amongst dragonflies, bees, butterflies and myriad droning insects was a delight, not to mention the exciting appearance of some common orchids and a few dozen oak seedlings in the sward.

We waited for the seeds of yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) to brown and dry before we spread them in the grassier ‘meadow’ areas, grinding them into the soil with our boots. The plants’ parasitic action reduces the vigour of the grass by feeding from their roots, allowing space for other species to grow, and this year we saw wild carrot, campion, betony, salad burnet, creeping buttercup, vetches and speedwell amongst others flourishing here. The buff and beige, ash and chestnut colours of the end of season grasses were cut and collected, some spread on grassier areas to re-seed, some taken to form a new cold-composting hayrick. Neither Suzi nor I have any skills with a hand scythe, although no doubt it would prove a satisfying accomplishment if we set our minds to it. Bernard was entrusted with manhandling a mechanical scythe – no easy task with the profusion of ant hills that had erupted all across the meadow. We raked the hay by hand, this area of the garden being home to a nationally impressive number of 21 species of waxcap fungi that are likely to suffer if compacted by the weight of a tractor-pulled grass harrow. They need old, undisturbed, unimproved, short grassland; the addition of nitrogen, as on most lawns, spells disaster for waxcaps. We wait to see if the cut is early enough to allow the fruiting bodies to emerge in November.

The olives in their previous formal surrounds

The olives surrounding walls dismantled

As the natural processes in the garden transition from one state to another, the Pool Garden work mirrors the metamorphosis with much of the formality of the former garden breaking down – the pergola outside the Potting Shed dismantled, the edges of the patio flagstones removed, the swimming pool paving broken up at the edges, the walls encircling the Spanish olive trees reduced to a tumble of loose stones- and we turn towards Autumn and the inspiration and challenges of change.

Moy Fierheller Joint Head Gardener

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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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