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The Journey to Wilding the Garden ~ June 2022

June begins with bustle as we prepare for a garden safari practice run-through for Knepp staff and the arrival of the first public guests of the year shortly after. The last of the snags are sorted in the refurbished Old Apple Store, and all there is left to do is go over our notes and double-check our plant identification. 

So many of the new plants in the Pool Garden are bursting into flower with the longer, warmer days. It’s a job to familiarise ourselves with all 831 taxa and their stories. The white spires of Himalayan foxtail lily (Eremurus himalaicus) have already burst and browned but still make impressive two-metre structural features next to the shorter narrow-leaved foxtail lily, Eremurus stenopyhyllus. These flowering yellow-orange bushy wands are repeated all through the stony ridge of James Hitchmough’s section of the planting design. They have a wonderful way of opening their myriad star-shaped flowers from the bottom of the flowering spear and slowly working their way to the tip, giving a constantly changing two-tone effect. Acid yellow flowers of the dwarf and Siberian spurges (Euphorbia characius ‘Humpty Dumpty’ and Euphorbia nicaeensis) sprawl and bob amongst their grey green leaves. The spiky-necked, burr-headed sea holly (Eryngium maritime) gives a lovely contrast with its metallic blue hues. 

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In the Pool Garden, Foxtail lily (Eremurus stenophyllus) and sea holly (Eryngium maritimum)

James paid us a flying visit to check the progress of the seeded plants we had sown over the pot-grown and bare-root plants that went into the ground in November. Out of the forty-three species sown, only five had not yet shown themselves. They may emerge next year, the conditions being not quite to their taste this season. We’ll keep monitoring. There has been a good take on the nine species of beardtongues (Penstemon), although there was some debate around which was which at these early stages. Only Penstemon pinifolius is easily recognisable with its rosemary-like leaves. Their emergence is a good indicator for the health and suitability of the plant community across the crushed concrete and sand areas. Their native habitats have similar characteristics, from Mediterranean hillsides to the stony riverbeds of the Caucasus mountains. Penstemons are native to North America.

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Suzi, James Hitchmough and Karen spotting emerging seedlings in the Pool Garden

James considered applying a nitrogen feed in a powdered form of hoof-and-horn, which lingers longer in the substrate than the quick hit of man-made fertiliser. His concern is that there is next to no nitrogen in the concrete and sand mix. The plants are adapted to survive in harsh conditions, but this first year of establishment is important. Nitrogen helps plants with photosynthesis, regulates uptake of potassium, and promotes leafy growth. Of course, additional nutrients may benefit seeds finding their way into the garden from the wider landscape, and these could crowd out the original planting. At the moment, we’re still at the debating stage. 

The safaris got underway, visitors spending time with one of Knepp’s ecologists as well as joining us for a walkabout in the garden. Responses ranged from inspiration to surprise – at our choice of substrate, the plant selection, the topography. Some were instantly keen to try these elements in their own gardens. The more hesitant described their experience as food for thought. One point of view that gave us food for thought; the Pool Garden could not be described as a rewilded garden. Having used machinery, and brought in 14,000 plants, this – they said – is a designer garden, not a garden made with rewilding principles. Those principles can only be applied in a few years’ time, when the garden has established. 

We felt these were all valid points. They prompted more questions for us: How would you manage a project of this size without machinery? How can you create a garden setting without bringing in plants from ‘outside’? How do you make a garden without ‘designing’ it? Where do the parallels lie between the rewilding principles applied in the garden and the rewilding project?  

There were two key elements to our responses; time and scale. In the Knepp rewilding project, Isabella and Charlie Burrell waited six years before the last agricultural field was released from the plough.  It was eleven years of bureaucracy before they were able to remove weirs, break up the Victorian ditch drains and scrape out lags and beaver-inspired pools from the river Adur, and nine years to hem in the herbivores in the Southern Block with nine miles of deer fence. The herbivores who drive the dynamic landscape were introduced slowly.  To apply the same time frame to the garden seemed both impractical and costly. But we might suggest to others to cover the ground for a two-year period at the beginning if they had the time, to mitigate the competitive emergence of plants naturally associated with nutritional topsoil such as nettles and brambles. And to grow plants from seed and bring them on over those two years, so that you would not be buying in plants. For this you would need the space, growing medium, water, nutrients and time to care for them. In order to change the topography of the garden without machinery or herbivores, many hundreds of man hours and no doubt the equivalent in blisters would be needed. With any rewilding project, a new baseline has to be set and interventions made to kickstart natural processes. The smaller the scale the more hands-on the management will be. 

Historically, a garden is a plot of land attached to a building: it’s purpose ranging from food production to a show of wealth and status. Their creation has rarely been driven by making space for nature. Changing mindsets and inherited practices are the challenges that gardeners face. To see the garden as a link in a chain of connected ecosystems uniting larger, functioning green spaces is to see through the eyes of animals, birds and insects who don’t recognise borders. 

 The word rewilding is not a definitive thing, but a place on a spectrum. It can conjure many different things to many minds, and our ways of thinking are in just as dynamic a state as the garden itself. Whether in the garden, or the rewilded Knepp Estate, the motivation is the same: for nature to recover and biodiversity to thrive and prosper.   

 

Moy Fierheller   Deputy Head Gardener   June 2022   

   

What we’re reading this month:

A Rewilding Britain landscape at RHS Chelsea… | Rewilding Britain 

BBC Radio 4 – Start the Week, A revolution in food and farming++ 

COMPOST CLUB (@compost.club) • Instagram photos and videos 

BBC Radio 4 – The Food Programme, Can we bring food diversity back to the table? 

About the Oostvaardersplassen (staatsbosbeheer.nl) 

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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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