The overbearing, colourless skies we had seen for days at the beginning of September typically only moved aside to usher in a heatwave, just as the academic year began and students were compelled to return to the classrooms. The Kitchen Garden is all blues and yellows,, Russian sage, catmint in its second flush, the sky-blue flowers of common chicory (Cichorium intybus), the indigo hues of agastache and hyssop, the buttery spires of Olympic mullein (Verbascum olympicum) thrusting above.
Common chicory (Cichorium intybus)
The business of earth moving and mound making in the Pool Garden had begun in earnest, a cacophonous orchestra of kangas, dumper trucks, diggers and electric sanders accompany us through the day. Anthony Riggall, our landscaper, spent several hours mapping out the complex ‘brain’ pattern of the paths that wind around the hillocks and gullies of Tom Stuart Smith’s design, before beginning to carve out hollows almost two metres deep. The change in the soil was marked by a colour palette grading from an ashy-brown topsoil through dark to light squirrel greys, finishing in the crayon yellow of heavy Wealden clay where it met a layer of ironstone. This hard sedimentary rock containing a significant proportion of iron ore has been around since the first animals and plants became abundant on this planet around 541 million years ago and occurs in a variety of forms. In the garden it manifests as flat, reddish-brown coated tablets with a dark interior about the size of your hand. We’re hoping this fractured layer below the clay will help with drainage, since most of the new plants arriving in November hail from free- draining, nutrient-poor substrate habitats. To mimic these growing conditions, Tom’s design uses crushed concrete and coarse sand in differing mixes and proportions varying in depth from five to twenty centimetres, layered over topsoil or subsoil. The largest and deepest bowl gradually developed, forming a balloon-shaped indentation in the centre of what was once the croquet lawn. The bottom of this basin will become an ‘ephemeral pond’, the water materialising and disappearing with the conjuring of the seasons.
Anthony begins digging the indentation that spontaneously becomes an ephemeral pond
Although we have the central Victorian circular ‘tank’ in the Kitchen Garden that collects rainwater from the roofs of the old stables, which, in turn, waters the vegetable plot, it is not ideal for wildlife being deep and encircled by wrought iron railings. The Pool Gardens’ new wet area will hopefully attract and provide opportunities for a diverse range of generalist species as well as specialists in ephemeral ponds – a vital habitat which is sadly lacking in our landscapes today.
This month saw the release of The State of Dragonflies report, looking at occupancy trends over a fifty-year period, from 1970 to 2019. Mike Dilger, the British Dragonfly Society president, notes that often these aerial predators are ‘canaries in the coal-mine’, informing us about the state of our wetlands. The general trend is an increase in diversity as new species arrive and there is evidence of a northwards range shift as temperatures rise. Although there is a great deal of good news, there are also declines in those dragonfly species that favour a cooler climate, and the drying out of habitats such as bogs is also having an adverse effect on dragonfly numbers. It will be interesting to note how long water pools in the hollow, the time it takes to drain and dry out and what effect these natural processes have on biodiversity. From our baseline invertebrate survey carried out in 2020 by Graeme Lyons eight species of dragonflies and damselflies were recorded. He will be returning in future to a quite different landscape, and, we hope, an increase in sightings.
In the Kitchen Garden the courgettes are growing before our eyes, graduating from impish pickles to humongous marrows in days. The red Kuri squashes are a brilliant splash of orange beneath teepees of climbing cobra beans and the mix of Sungold, Gardeners Delight, Noir de Crimée and Beefsteak tomatoes in a basket for the house kitchen is a flaming explosion. The hard edges of the ‘dirty paths’ (a topsoil and gravel mix under a gravel cap) that surround the beds are starting to blur as the planted Mediterranean herbs begin to spread and meet their neighbours, loosening the once- formal lines of the original Georgia Langton design. There are some unwanted visitors that have taken up residence over the summer, too;: fescue grass, mouse ear chickweed, sallow seedlings, Canadian fleabane and the odd juvenile bramble. We started a trial spraying of a solution of distilled white vinegar, discovering it has commonly been used in Berlin as an organic weed control for some years. Our thoughts turned to how its ‘burning’ action might affect the soil biota. After some searching, it appears that, provided repeated spraying is limited and the mix sufficiently diluted, it can have a positive effect on bacteria numbers and enzyme activity. We plan to focus our attention on first generation seedlings in the spring to curb their enthusiasm and reduce the path maintenance, mindful of timing – some visitors may find the ‘chip shop’ aroma less than appealing.
Morning mists have begun, the oaks emerging from seemingly solid air like benevolent cloaked giants, while the stags commence their primordial calls to rut. We can feel the tilt away from the sun, the light beginning to slant, the smell of the earth rising. As the days progress an Indian Summer lulls us with perfect clear blue skies. We collect seeds of radish, sweet peas, poppies, cornflowers, angelica, and bishop’s weed (Ammi majus). Tom arrives to check the progress in the Pool Garden and to give us a wonderful demonstration of his vision of “goat topiary” on the yew columns in the Kitchen Garden. Charlie Burrell had seen fantastical natural pruning by wild goats on hillside trees and shrubs in Crete, reminiscent of the sculptor Tony Craggs’ works ‘Stacks.’ Any new growth is nibbled as soon as it appears, giving the plants domed heads of close-cropped greenery, their shapes warped and twisted. All parts of the genus Taxus except the flesh of the fruits are highly toxic, both live and dead. The deer and ponies in the rewilded areas of the estate do browse yew presumably in medicinal quantities and seem to know how much to eat (yew is known to have properties that can treat cancer and Knepp used to send off the topiary yew cuttings to laboratories for this purpose). However, it appears that the memory of yew’s toxicity has been bred out of the cattle and, one year, a snow-laden branch proved irresistible and deadly. In the garden, the idea of ‘goat topiarying’ the yew is to give an ornamental representation of an example of a natural process and add to the feel of the space becoming wilder, relinquishing its earlier formality.
Tom Stuart Smith pruning the ’goat topiary’ yew
The month drew to a close with the dramatic flourish of a Victorian villain entering the pleasant scene: winds of up to 74mph were recorded across the Isle of Wight and storms took hold of summer and threw it behind us with roaring, lashing horizontal cloaks of rain. Time to gather ourselves in readiness for change and new arrivals.
Moy Fierheller Joint Head Gardener September 2021