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The Journey to Wilding the Garden ~ September 2022

Rain finally arrived in dense, sporadic bursts, the ephemeral pond in the rewilded Pool Garden quickly regaining its reflective surface. Despite months of drought and heat baking the low bowl, ‘pioneer’ species like plantain, dock, scarlet pimpernel and scentless mayweed had colonised the dry clay and thrived. The plant palette on the surrounding slopes hail from moist meadow habitats, like burnets (Sanguisorba ‘Cangshan Cranberry’ and S. officinalis ’Red Thunder’) and silver grass (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Ferne Osten’ and M. sinensis ‘Flamingo’). They have proved resilient, too, in the summer heat, the deep, coarse sand mulch preventing too much moisture loss from their roots.

Sanguisorba officinalis ‘Red Thunder’ and the Chinese silver grass seedheads (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Ferne Osten’) by the ephemeral pond

We had just managed to cut the long grass of the ha-ha meadow and the apple store paddock before the wet set in. It was important for us to try and keep intact the domes of industry that are the varying sizes of anthills dotted through the swathe. These meadow ant mounds protect the nest below the ground and add to the complexity in the grassland by creating small-scale micro-habitats. Plant roots reinforce the structure, and the diversity of the topography generates subtle changes in elements such as temperature and humidity, offering opportunities for different insects and plant species than those in the level turf.

The hand scythes were dusted off and used to clear the grass around the anthills and oak saplings that have sprung up from jay-planted acorns. Time and energy constraints dictated we finished the rest of the cut with a reciprocating scythe, navigating through the cleared islands. Raking the fallen hay into heaps, we collected up those that were grass-rich for the compost bays and strewed those low-diversity areas with the cut from the more established meadow section. This is abundant in yellow rattle seed, an important parasitic annual that restricts the vigour of grasses, allowing more opportunities for broadleaf species to compete for light, space, and moisture. It was a beautiful late summer day, and those aching arms will all prove worth it in next year’s burst of buzzing wildflowers.

Charlie hand-scything around the ant hills in the ha-ha meadow

Another joyous activity at this time of year is the harvest from the orchard. Our fabulous garden volunteers got amongst this year’s exceptional heavy crop of our early ripening apple varieties, Lord Lambourne, James Grieve and Kidd’s Orange Red. The warm, dry temperatures all through April and into May meant that blossom and buds developed without the dangers of damage from the late frosts or heavy rains that we experienced last spring. The heritage apple and pear varieties in the orchard are successional, so some can avoid these hazards, the flowering and fruiting times being spread out over a month or so. James Grieve is a dual-purpose apple raised in 1893, good for eating and cooking, but not ideal for storing since it bruises easily. Lord Lambourne is actually a cross between James Grieve and Worcester Pearmain, developed in 1907, and has the advantage of ripened fruits remaining on the tree for up to a month so picking can be delayed if needed. Kidd’s Orange Red, although bred in the twenties from a classic English variety, Cox’s Orange Pippin, was developed in New Zealand and did not arrive in the UK until 1932. It still has the classic Cox’s flavour only slightly sweeter and is good for storing. A few were held back for eating and volunteer scrumping, but most were taken, along with a second harvesting session’s crop a week later, to be juiced. Brighton Permaculture Trust worked their magic and processed a little over 3,000 bottles for the Knepp campsite shop.

From left to right, garden volunteers Sally, Jane, John, and Rita harvesting Kidd’s Orange Red and Lord Lambourne apples in the orchard

At the very beginning of the month, we followed with great interest two days of lectures and discussions entitled The Beth Chatto Symposium 2022, Rewilding the Mind hosted at Essex University. The emphasis was on the future of sustainable and ecological planting in horticulture, with a diversity of contributors from town planners to garden designers and conservationists. There were many perspectives debated that resonated with the concepts of our rewilded Pool Garden as well as some of the ideas we share in our garden safaris. Alastair Driver, who is the director of Rewilding Britain, talked about his own back garden and how he raised money to plant trees in a playing field behind it. He wanted to create a corridor connecting his own ecosystem with a wider green space.                               

He also emphasised how starting a rewilding project of any size should be a “marathon with a sprint start,” where initial upheaval and disturbance kickstart natural processes, with interventions gradually being reduced over time. Others talked about designing more sustainably in garden projects: Sarah Price works with site-specific plants and uses or repurposes existing on-site materials, as we have done using the crushed concrete taken from a demolished farm building on the Knepp estate. John Little notes the importance of UK brownfield sites as being biodiversity hotspots due to their complex structures. He recreates complexity in his designs using various aggregates as substrates, in the same way as we have varied our topography and materials through the garden. Ton Muller and Giacomo Guzzon spoke of the very real prospect of 60% of the UK being under threat of regular periods of drought. Their designs incorporate water storage and circular water systems. We saw how the concrete and sand mulches in the garden helped reduce water loss from plant roots in the hot dry spells in July and August. What was encouraging and uplifting about all these conversations was the atmosphere of positive change in attitudes towards gardens and people – recognising our part in nature’s decline and finding strategies to reverse both falling numbers in biodiversity, and our dominance over landscapes.

Autumn races towards us, night temperatures begin to fall and mists hover above the fields, peeking above the hedge line. Slanting sun gilds the crisping leaves and spikey spheres of horse chestnuts. A whiff of smoke from long-cold chimneys. In a world of seemingly endless unwelcome news, an updated Wildlife Comeback Report from Rewilding Europe has just been published, highlighting European species recovery in the last fifty years. It found that populations of species increase in numbers and range where humans take measures to live with them harmoniously and they are given space to recover. Success stories include Eurasian beaver, European bison, Eurasian brown bear, grey wolf, lynx and white-tailed eagle. Admittedly, none are likely to be sharing our own back gardens anytime soon, but all food chains begin with plants, and we can certainly all play our part with those.


Moy Fierheller   Deputy Head Gardener   September 2022

Photos: Karen Finley, Moy Fierheller

What we are reading:

Native by Patrick Laurie

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

Ants can be better than pesticides for growing healthy crops, study finds – CSENS

Species of Ant Found in the UK – British ants – Myrm’s Ant Nest

BBC Sounds – Blossom Trees and Burnt Out Cars, 6. How plants can tell us who we are

BBC iPlayer – Gardeners World – 2022: Episode 25

Fungi Festival October 2022 | National Trust

The Beth Chatto Symposium 2022 – Beth Chatto Gardens

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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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