The sun is easing back into our hemisphere, urgent green shoots impale the air at alarming rates and the greenhouse is once again overrun with seedlings. Vegetables for the no-dig productive beds, annuals, and perennials for building flower complexity in the Walled Garden and supplying the cut flower beds at Knepp’s Market Garden, now in its second year. In both the rewilded and the kitchen garden self-seeders have enthusiastically over-subscribed on bare ground, some welcome, some…. not so much. Stone parsley (Sison amomum) is a biennial common in chalk hedge banks and verges and despite the entire plant smelling unpleasantly of petrol it is, in fact, edible. The roots can be used as a celery substitute and the seed as a condiment and, since it belongs to the Apiaceae family, it also has white umbels of delicate flowers on upright stems around a metre long. What’s not to like? We have lived to regret allowing this incomer to self-seed, not only because it is both prolific and successful, but it rapidly sends a parsnip-like root into the soil which is energetic, difficult to dislodge and whose basal rosette of leaves smothers any nearby emerging plants. Allowed to rampage it will quickly make the kitchen garden a monoculture, and we spent many hours in selective herbivory, rootling out a veritable carpet of young plants to maintain diversity.
The natural bee-kind hive in the kitchen garden, made and installed by Matt Somerville out of a hollowed-out section of tree-trunk on a tripod of three stag-oak limbs back in 2020, is currently uninhabited. We took the opportunity before a swarm comes across this high-end accommodation to take out some of the lower combs, to allow more space and reduce weight. Charlie and Suzi cut out several sizeable slices, still filled with honey. They rubbed the inside wall with pounded lemon grass, the Chanel No. 5 of the honeybee world, and left some of the empty combs below the hive, signalling its ‘To Let’ status. Since we don’t ‘farm’ the hive, new queens are not controlled, so colonies arrive, grow and swarm all through the year. Their behaviour is fascinating, finely tuned to air pressure and temperature, and gives us invaluable guidance in what are our best plants for pollinators in the garden.
A spell of fine weather over Easter sets the primroses, tulips and daffodils in full swing. Our ‘lasagne’ pots (layers of bulbs that flower in succession) on the formal terrace of the house have proved successful. Three layers of bulbs of narcissus ‘Toto’ and early and late flowering tulip ‘Purissima’ and ‘White Triumphator’ were planted back in late November and are now bursting into life. The greenhouse is bulging and many of the seeds sown at the end of March are now spilling out of their confines. It is a gamble to plant out the half-hardy annuals at this time of year, the threat of frost always a possibility, but several trays of sweet peas sown for cut flowers are almost a foot tall, despite having been repeatedly pinched out. Since we had the luxury and visual delight of nine hazel obelisks made with the Knepp volunteer group last month, we took the plunge and placed the structures out and planted the sweet peas beneath. If a late frost comes, we’ll cover them with the leathery leaves of magnolia grandiflora which, as an evergreen, sheds its sturdy, two-tone leaves all year round and are always in plentiful supply. Suzi wants to maximise the space in the no-dig vegetable beds this season, so we added more of the obelisks to the two large rhubarb beds to support climbing beans. We want to increase both the diversity and structural complexity in these two kitchen garden beds that are dominated by repeated clusters of artichoke, catmint, sage, alliums, white willow herb and rhubarb.
A week of rain and sun comes to our rescue, establishing the sweet peas and other plantings outgrowing their plug trays. The rosy-green fingers of asparagus suddenly appear, but as the crowns are newly planted last year we restrain our desire to pick and allow them to set down roots and photosynthesise to their hearts content. Luckily, Solomon’s seal (Polygonatum x hybridum) is sending up its own succulent spears and a basket is sent up to the house with some tender sea kale (Crambe maritima). Suzi had forced several plants by excluding the light with straw-filled terracotta pots placed over them at the beginning of March. Some olive oil, lemon and salt are all they need – as good as (or even better than) asparagus!.
A basket of Soloman’s seal tips; Charlies sketch for the tulip and daffodil bulb ‘lasagne’ pots; the ‘lasagne’ pot in full bloom on the terrace.
We’ve also brought in some more mature plants to add to the edible range in the kitchen garden – three honeyberries (Lonicera caerulea). They hail from woodlands in the Siberian peninsula of Kamchatka and their blueberry-like fruits are packed with vitamin C and antioxidants. Ripening in May, they will be the first berries of the year. In the rewilded pool garden, to add to the honeysuckles, we have added a two-metre high, vividly healthy, seven-son flower tree (Heptacodium miconioides). Now protected in its native country of China due to habitat loss it is a fast grower, reaching a height of three metres in five years and can withstand low temperatures of up to -35°C – particularly important given the ravages of last winter. We look forward to its clusters of star-shaped, white flowers that are said to be attractive for butterflies and bees. With the garden still relatively young the majority of plants are of a similar age. In demographic terms, we have many more babies and toddlers than teenagers and adults; grandparents are a scarcity. There are some trees that transitioned from the old design – two bull bays (Magnolia grandiflora), a large smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria ‘Grace’), some groups of lofty pencil cypresses and a pair of ornamental pears, amongst a few others. Adding some small trees fills that mid-level in the garden, giving more structural complexity and shorter ‘hopping-off’ distances for smaller birds and more nesting opportunities.
There can often be a sense of desperation that lingers through April – for winter to be done with, its evidence swept away and put behind us. But this is the very time for us to hold our nerve, to look carefully before digging out ‘dead’ shrubs, cutting down brown stems, clearing curled and lifeless leaves. From the base of the large Pasteur spurge in the Rewilded Garden, presumed dead and shaped to act as a sculptural support for two newly planted hops, we noticed new shoots emerging from the base. Eight horned spurges (Euphorbia ceratocarpa) in the kitchen garden sent up multiple green fingers beneath their lifeless woody stems. Wrapped and sheltered within the desiccated, grey leaves of common sage (Salvia officionalis), a four-spot ladybird. A pile of the same fallen leaves beneath protects a newt, a devil’s coach horse beetle instar and a juvenile frog. Under a mound of last year’s catmint cuttings, left to protect the half-hardy Vietnamese coriander, a perfect egg-filled nest.
A four-spot ladybird sheltering in a sage leaf; a common newt; a devil’s coach horse instar; a ground nest of eggs hiding under a mound of last year’s catmint cuttings.
To give ourselves time to look carefully and learn to love a little untidiness is all part of rewilding our minds and playing with the tenets of traditional horticultural aesthetics. We’re looking at it all from the point of view of a wonder-full form of exercise, stretching our imagination in this garden of experimentation.
Moy Fierheller Deputy Head Gardener April 2023
Photos courtesy of Suzi Turner, Charlie Harpur, Moy Fierheller
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