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The Journey to Wilding the Garden ~ October 2022

Winds come. Yellowing leaves tumble and tear across racing clouds like children chasing butterflies. The larger pencil cypresses in the rewilded pool garden bend with the weight of their tightly furled cones, arms akimbo in scarecrow fashion. Bernard braves the twelve-foot ladders to trim off some of their bulk, reinstating the architectural lines that give the garden structure and height. 

In defiance of the frenetic gusts, we decided to go ahead with scarifying and seeding the walled paddock by the old apple store. Heavy machinery laying pipes in the spring had turned the soil, and the meadow grasses had become overrun with nettles, and whilst we will never clear them entirely, we would like the flowering season to be as diverse as possible, with no one species dominant. After strimming, Bernard wrestled the scarifier over the bumpy terrain, avoiding ant hills, scraping off the thatch and exposing patches of bare soil. Suzi and I broadcast seed by hand from the left-over wildflower mix used to edge the new market garden, often receiving a reciprocal dusting as the wind eddied and tussled. A good raking in, while Suzi’s dog Kite looked on unperturbed at our panting and puffing and, shortly after, we were gratified to feel rain beginning to set in, saving the job of watering in the seed. 

Bernard strips the turf in the old apple store paddock with a scarifier.
Suzi broadcasts wildflower mix seed by hand.
Kite oversees Suzi raking in the seed.

Despite having only been set up in April this year the new market garden has been producing a fabulous array of vegetables all season. In defiance of wire worm, rabbits and pigeons Roseanna and Signa have completely transformed the compacted clay of the former pony paddock. Charlie has designed a herb garden to run alongside the entrance, so some concentrated sessions of propagating from cuttings got underway, as well as seed collecting from the plentiful selection in both the rewilded and the kitchen garden. We hope to reduce the carbon footprint of the planting by producing our own stock on site. Charlie had visited the garden and nursery of the designer Peter Korn, Klinta Trädgård in Sweden, and we wanted to try out some of his methods. Korn takes his queues from the natural environment, familiarising himself with plants in their natural habitat, creating low maintenance and high diversity designs by growing in sand. All his cuttings are propagated in sand beds, which reduces the use of plastic pots or trays, and saves on transport costs when the plants are ready to use in a project. He lifts them straight into large sacks and can load a thousand plants into the back of an estate car. Whilst our climate differs from that of southern Sweden, (it has short, cold winters and longer hours of daylight in summer) the plants we are propagating are mostly Mediterranean: lavender, rosemary, myrtle, common sage – plants that favour free-draining, nutrient-poor soils, so we’re fairly confident the cuttings will be happy to root. One of the maintenance team kindly constructed 8ft x 6ft frame from used scaffolding boards and we filled it with the remaining sand heap we had used in the rewilded garden. Spring will reveal success or failure, but it is certainly a less costly and time-consuming process than purchasing compost in trays with plastic lids that also take up space in the greenhouse.

North American beard grass in the rewilded pool garden

By mid-month the temperatures have begun to lessen, cold clear mornings setting the dew shimmering along the blades of North American beard grass (Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Ha Ha Tonka’). Transparent beads cling to spider threads strung between leafless stems of Carthusian pinks (Dianthus carthusianorum), incredibly still in flower since May, heralding the coming ghostly tones of All Hallows’ Eve. A perfect setting to plant 7,000 bulbs in the rewilded garden, the final phase of Tom Stuart Smith’s design. We were planting a mix of alliums, tulips, daffodils, crocus and iris among others, as well as some more unusual plants like society garlic (Tulbaghia violacea), Californian brodiaea (Brodiaea californica) Siberian lily (Ixiolirion tataricum) and the wonderfully named firecracker flower (Dichelostemma ida maia). Their native habitats range from mountain scree to moist woodland edges and meadows. The planting should emerge in successional waves from mid-winter to early summer and we plan to add late summer-flowering species like Guernsey lily and white Powell lily (Nerine bowdenii and Crinum x powellii ‘Album’) in the spring. It all adds to the complexity of species and extends the food source season for insects and birds as far into the dark days of winter as possible, filling the hungry gaps.

   The garden volunteers planting bulbs in the rewilded pool garden

A company of ten fantastic garden volunteers followed Charlie, Suzi and myself as we scattered or placed bulbs in drifts and clumps through the gaps between plants onto the sand and crushed concrete mixes in the rewilded garden. Some bulbs or corms resemble misshapen dog biscuits or small dark stones. Some, like the Persian lily (Fritillaria persica), are as big as a fist. The day was punctuated by cries of “We’ve found some more!” or “How could we miss these, they’re huge!” from the industrious planters, a few stones being carefully buried in the process. In the stony ridge designed by James Hitchmough where the digging is tougher and trickier, there is already a large degree of complexity with plants crammed together. Many of them have grown from December-sown seed into a decent size, jostling with the November-planted specimens that in some cases have tripled in size, and it’s a job to get the bulbs in without disturbing a neighbouring plant.

Careful of the surrounding plants in James Hitchmoughs complex design, a small hole is dug for one of the large bulbs of the Persian lily (Fritillaria persica).

Stories and email addresses were swapped over some hot soup and apple cake at lunch. Although sombre grey clouds had threatened rain for most of the day, the first drops only began to patter our hoods in the late afternoon. By then a thoroughly enjoyable day had been had by all, and 6000 bulbs and an additional 300 plants in 9cm pots had been added to the 877 taxa now living in the garden.

Bushy pink aster (Aster ericoides ‘Pink Star’) with the seedheads of fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Cassians Choice’).

Although we’re approaching the end of the growing season there is still a profusion of colour, the tall bushy pink aster (Aster ericoides ‘Pink Star’) buzzing with late foragers and giving structure to the garden. Sages, coneflowers, evening primroses and the prickly, thistle-leaved purple burkheya add blues, yellows and magenta to the scene. Knepp’s ecologists Penny and Josie continue to monitor the garden, Josie discovering a September thorn moth, amongst spectacularly named others – lunar underwing, brindled green, rush veneer and beaded chestnut.

September thorn moth from the kitchen garden moth trap

Monitoring the garden fauna with regularity – recording invertebrates, birds, mammals and amphibians – will help us build up an ecological picture. It is the only way to really see if this ‘box of experimentation,’ as Tom Stuart Smith describes his design, will help encourage biodiversity and show how gardens can contribute to a movement for change – for all of us and all of nature.

 

Moy Fierheller Deputy Head Gardener       October 2022

 

 What we’re reading this month:

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

Enter Sandman: The High Diversity Plantings of Peter Korn – The New Perennialist

Moths of the season: Autumn – BirdGuides

European Rewilding Network mini-webinars now open to all | Rewilding Europe

Nigel Dunnett (@nigel.dunnett) • Instagram photos and videos

Biodiversity Credits | Operation Wallacea (opwall.com)

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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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