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The Journey to Wilding the Garden ~ April 2022

The race is on in the garden: a jostling for space to claim light, water and nutrients before a neighbour spreads, shoots or burrows and out–competes. The white and purple confetti spires of honesty push their shoulders above the ferns and the Chinese mahonia (Mahonia gracilipes). The palm-like leaves of rhubarb are claiming their territory in all directions; the grey-green spikes of catmint seem to double in size daily, and the artichoke’s silver leaves like origami masterpieces stretch to a metre already.

This is the scene in the Kitchen Garden: the bulk of the plants having gone into the dirty paths of topsoil and gravel mix, capped with Breedon gravel this time last year. Plant begins to meet plant – green islands merging to form waves and relaxing the once formal lines between the beds and the paths.

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The newly laid “dirty path” of the Kitchen Garden in February 2021 on the left. On the right (taken this month), the planting of April 2021 spreading to form waves.

In the Pool Garden, the last of the plants that Tom Stuart Smith and James Hitchmough laid out at the end of last month have been bedded into the sand and crushed concrete. We fretted slightly, as temperatures swung from 2 and 3°C with occasional nasty ground frosts to dry sunny days in the high teens. Some of the outer leaves of the mescal agave (Agave parryi) transformed to a strange mush beneath translucent outer skin, the Beschorneria yuccoides (Mexican lily) frazzled to yellow paper and the Sichuan peppers’ new leaf tips shrivelled to brown crisps. We had left the tree echium (Echium pininana) and tree dahlia (Dahlia imperialis) under cover in the cold greenhouse, wary of losing them completely. Although many plants showed some signs of wear, most rallied, throwing out new shoots and sloughing off their tattered leaves.

The greenhouse itself has seen a frenzy of activity. Charlie Harpur joined the garden team from Tom Stuart Smith’s office at the beginning of the month and the department has expanded to include the new Market Garden at Swallows Farm on the Knepp Estate. This is where the new café and farm shop will open next year, showcasing Knepp Wild Range meat, eggs from the regenerative farm and organic, home-grown fruit, vegetables, herbs and salads. While the capable hands of Rosanna Catterall and Signe Greve Jensen carved out a series of beds from the 2.5 acres of heavy, compacted Wealden clay – a former pony paddock – sowing around 10,000 vegetable seeds, we got to work on the Market Garden’s cut flower seeds. For the moment we’re sticking to a reliable range of crowd pleasers such as cornflowers, Ammi, Cosmos and Nigella, getting around thirty species going with an aim to produce fifty bouquets a week. Adding in the vegetable seeds and tomato and aubergine seedlings already popping up for the castle’s Kitchen Garden, every inch of the castle greenhouse was crammed to the corners with trays and pots. The rising heat of the sun in the daytime saw us frantically putting up shade netting on the cold side and loathe to take down the bubble wrap on the hot side until the night-time temperatures had crept up.

The greenhouse crammed with emerging seedlings.

The Old Apple Store just outside the walled garden where we hosted last year’s safaris is now undergoing a full makeover ready for visitors this coming season. Should those who came at the very beginning of summer 2021 return, they will remember surveying a flat expanse of two-dimensional croquet lawn and long beds of lavenders, euphorbias and roses in the Pool Garden, and no doubt be a little shocked by the comprehensive transformation. The “box of experimentation” that forms dry ridges and cool hollows, sun and shade, nutrient-poor crushed concrete to sand-mulched topsoil presents a huge increase in visual diversity and habitat opportunities.

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On the left, the croquet lawn in May 2020 and right, the same view this month.

By The Old Apple Store, the meadow was left uncut last year. We plan to do the same again this year[IT1] , though we’re mowing paths past the veteran apple trees that line the brick wall. This enables safari visitors to walk amongst the grasses and wildflowers and allows us to harvest apples in the autumn which we juice for sale in the campsite shop. As gardeners, we tend to think of food for invertebrates in terms of nectar and pollen, and therefore focus on providing a long season of diverse flowering plants. But moth and butterfly larvae often prefer native field or meadow plants as their food source. We made a survey of existing plant species, both here and in the haha meadow by the house, to assess what might be missing. We aim to add plugs next season or seed into raked ground after the end-of-summer cut to supplement what is already there. Species such as common bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) support seven butterflies, including the common blue, dingy skipper, wood white, and green hairstreak.  Many grasses, Poa and fescue species service as many as ten different larvae, whilst some caterpillars, such as the brimstone butterfly, have almost exclusive relationships with a specific plant like buckthorn (Rhamnus cathartica). We initially counted twenty-five plant species besides grasses in the terrace meadow and twenty-seven in the Old Apple Store. We’ll continue observing the unfolding diversity in both areas and try to match up our species with the moth and butterfly surveys Knepp’s ecologist Penny Green regularly undertakes. In the absence of herbivores in both these areas we’re nominally replacing their position in the ecosystem, acting as the agents of disturbance, moving seed around and, opening up areas for colonisation with our trowels and spades, much like the snuffling excavations of a pig’s snout.

Theresa Moller, a Chilean landscape architect recently visited the garden with Tom Stuart-Smith and helped us with laying out the plant delivery. She asked an interesting question about “escaping plants” and the wider landscape, both out of the garden and into it. We think the majority of the Pool Garden plants are unlikely to flourish outside the walls since the Wealden clay here is anything but free draining and far from their optimum conditions. The competitive edge lies with the existing native vegetation. How it will work the other way around will be interesting to see as seed blows into the walled garden from outside. This is something to think about, something that gardeners often overlook: how our actions in our own ecosystem ripple out to the wider environment. We’ve all seen the habit of delightful species such as Mexican daisies make uninvited leaps along garden walls and patio crevices, making friends with neighbouring gardens. The same can be said of field and hedgerow plants moving into a space without invitation. The debate over “invasive species” is, to our minds, well explained by Ken Thompson, former lecturer in ecology at the University of Sheffield and author of the book ‘Where Do Camels Belong?’. According to Dr. Thompson most non-native plant arrivals in the wider landscape settle down, find their preferred niche and rub along together. Many are positively beneficial for pollinating insects and other fauna. The triffid-like scaremongering of the tabloids is far from reality. Even Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam are not the villains they are made out to be. According to our own Mick Crawley, emeritus professor of botany at Imperial College and our advisory board member, only one plant in the UK can seriously be considered invasive – that is Rhododendron ponticum, and mainly in depleted landscapes on the UK’s wet western coastal belt. 

For us, in the garden, our mounds of free-draining crushed concrete and sand slow plant growth and allow areas to remain bare for longer periods than a nutrient-rich substrate. This will hopefully result in a broad diversity of seeding, both from inside the garden and out, expanding the range of floral species and the invertebrates and wildlife they serve.

There is a definite sense of the world warming up, more invertebrates busy with food and each other; the evenings lengthening; the high chirrup of new chicks from hedge and wall niches; the scent of thyme and chamomile underfoot. The peace and beauty of a spring garden rarely fails to please, but the knowledge that it is a space shared increases the pleasure tenfold.

Moy Fierheller    Deputy Head Gardener    April 2022

What we’re reading

Growing Greener: Harnessing the power of plants – BBC Gardeners World Magazine

Suppliers: Permaculture and Food Forest Plants. (pfaf.org)

UK Butterflies – Larval Foodplants

Ken Thompson. 2015. Where Do Camels Belong? (Profile Books)

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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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