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The Journey to Wilding the Garden ~ August 2022

The hot dry days continue. The grassland around the castle resembles the tawny yellow pelt of some great reclining lioness. The Wealden clay cracks and shrinks, rafts of crisp thistles move quickly from flower to seedhead, sending their feathery stars up and away in a reversed blizzard.

Entering the walled garden gives the sensation of entering a desert oasis, explosions of colour above and about you. In the Kichen Garden fennels have responded to the arid conditions by shooting their yellow umbels eight feet into the air from the gravel cap of the dirty paths, racing the deep, purple-flowered artichoke spires in the beds. Both are a frenzy of honey and bumble bees, hoverflies and flies. The large late-flowering horned spurge (Euphorbia ceratocarpa) native to southern Italy forms a rounded mound of hundreds of tiny flower structures, thrumming with more than twenty insects of various species. We spot a hummingbird hawkmoth most days, favouring the verbena (Verbena bonariensis) and oregano.

Fennel shooting from the ‘dirty path’ in the Kitchen Garden

The dirty paths, with their cap of Breedon gravel atop soil and gravel beds are keeping the roots of the Mediterranean plantings cool. The thymes, rosemary, lavenders and oreganos seem oblivious to the temperatures, already adapted to extremes. The central winding pathway has been colonised by a multitude of seedlings, mainly chamomile, yarrow, oregano and oxeye daisy. In the rewilding project, baked and hardened pathways devoid of vegetation provide vital habitat for many ground-nesting bee and fly species. These pathways are created by droves of ample, heavy-hoofed cattle repeatedly traversing the landscape from one area of new grass to the next. The deer and Exmoor ponies use the same paths, adding to the compaction. Not having hooves at our disposal meant garden volunteer John joined us on our kneeling pads, trowel in hand, hoeing the surface. A surprisingly swift and pleasant undertaking, the mixed scents of the herbs rising as we bruise and brush past them, surrounded by the drone of insects, clearing a foot-wide ribbon of pathway.

It is, of course, an aesthetic as well. The term ‘cues to care’ was coined by Joan Nassauer in 1995 in a paper titled ‘Messy Ecosystems, Orderly Frames’. She discusses landscape elements that are immediately recognisable as designed, a signal of continuing human care. An example might be an area of grass that has been allowed to grow being perceived as neglected, until a mown pathway running through it indicates to the viewer that it has been left deliberately. In a garden rewilding context, it can be a useful tool for gardeners to allow the relaxation of traditional horticultural ‘tidiness’, so important for biodiversity, while still conveying an element of design. The slightly wild and effusive planting in the Kitchen Garden could be interpreted as abandonment in places: the clear path makes the beds easier to ‘read’ and we can see where one ends and another begins, the eye being drawn to its end and whatever planting lies there.

If we were to leave those path seedlings to grow and prosper, the beds eventually merging, we would lose the dynamic, natural process of a changing and diverse environment, creating one large single habitat, with fewer opportunities for biodiversity.

The central ribbon of the ‘dirty path’, cleared of seedlings

On 12 August, the UK Environment Agency declared an official drought, triggered by low water levels in rivers, reservoirs and aquifers and tinder-dry conditions, increasing the threat of fires. From Yorkshire to Cornwall, eight areas were included, with figures showing the first seven months of the year being the driest since 1976. Hosepipe bans and other restrictions were introduced, with farmers in some areas being advised to refrain from irrigating. In the garden, 30°C became a daily norm and we started to see how the ecosystem behaves under the ecological lever of stress. As the days passed without change, our anxiety for the plants and wildlife rose, as intensely as if we were awaiting the fever to break in a beloved, ailing friend. Curiously, it was the older more established kiwi climbers (Actinidia deliciosa ‘Hayward’) along the wall of the old Acacia Walk that suffered the most: their large, furry, heart-shaped leaves hung in forlorn, defeated poses, curving inwards, scorching at the edges or drying out entirely. The twelve-foot red brick wall they are trained on had absorbed the continuous heat with no respite overnight, temperatures rarely dipping below the high teens. The lack of humidity around the leaves, and the reduced water table meant the plant was losing more moisture than it could take up, and its preservation strategy to was to lose leaves and reduce its stress levels. We irrigated as much as we could with watering cans – the appreciation of the invention of the hose really strikes you at these moments – cut back some of the main stems, mulched, and appealed to the rain gods. After July’s heatwave we knew the planting in the rewilded garden was undergoing real challenges. Again, those smaller plants that had grown from seed or put in from 9cm pots or bare-rooted form proved the most resilient in this second onslaught of extreme heat. In the nine months they have been in the crushed concrete and sand, they have extended their roots to seek out moisture and escape the soaring temperatures. The fern leaf yarrow (Achillia filipendula ‘Coronation Gold’) with its deep buttery-yellow, plate-like flowers, has been in bloom since June and seems completely comfortable, hailing from central Asia. Tall tickseed (Coreopsis tripteris) waves its yellow star flowers cheerily above its neighbours.

Fern leaf yarrow (Achillia filipendula ‘Coronation Gold’)

Tall tickseed (Coreopsis tripteris)

Neat mounds of scentless mayweed (Tripleurospermum inodorum), an agricultural ‘weed’ in this country and native to Eurasia and North Africa, has dotted itself all through the rewilded garden. They give an unexpected and pleasing repeated structural accent of white daisy-flowered domes.  They also serve as nursery plants, much like the thorny scrub in the rewilding project that protects emerging oak saplings from herbivores and extremes of weather. The mayweed casts shade and creates humidity, shielding smaller plants and insects from the ravages of the midday sun.

Scentless mayweed in the rewilded garden

This is one of the many exciting and revealing aspects of attempting to rewild our gardeners’ minds: will the act of releasing our dominance over the garden and allowing the mayweed to colonise the sand and crushed concrete cause an uncontrollable explosion of their offspring next season? Clovers have crept in, but they are fixing nitrogen into the nutrient-poor substrate and their flowers are covered in bees. Will we be able to halt a spreading monoculture? If the longhorn cattle were to slip through the gate those clovers would be devoured in minutes like children let lose in a sweetshop. It is this reframing of our perspective, to become part of the landscape that can be most joyful. And yes, we can become those landscape engineers and run amok pulling out clovers, but perhaps, leave a little for the bees.

Moy Fierheller     Deputy Head Gardener   August 2022

Photos by Karen Finley

What we’re reading:

Theory — Landscape Ecology, Perception, and Design Lab (joan-nassauer.com)

Joan Nassauer — Landscape Ecology, Perception, and Design Lab (joan-nassauer.com)

/www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7795586/ Plant Responses to Heat Stress: Physiology, Transcription, Noncoding RNAs, and Epigenetics

Shoots to Roots | Welcome to the Floodplain Meadows Partnership Website

Wicked Leeks Magazine (@wickedleeksmag) • Instagram photos and videos

www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/aug/17/ants-can-beat-pesticides-helping-farmers-grow-healthy-crops-study-aoe

The effects of ants on pest control: a meta-analysis | Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (royalsocietypublishing.org)

www.pan-uk.org/bees-pollinators/

www.pan-uk.org  Pesticide Action Network

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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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