The early blossom has almost finished its grand flourish, great snow flurries litter the ground beneath the ornamental pears in the garden. It has been a textbook spring of sunshine and showers and now the heat of the sun can be felt at bone-depth when it shines. The garden responds in unison and from the crushed concrete and sand of the Rewilded Garden, more than twenty species burst into flower within a week. Among them, the perfect, scented white blooms of the smooth leaved magnolia (Magnolia laevifolia) and the delicate stars of the UK native bulb from the asparagus family, confusingly named the star of Bethlehem (Ornithogalum umbellatum). Folklore tells of its origin as growing from fragments of the biblical star, and its bulbs have been recorded as edible for more than 2000 years despite a natural toxicity. The bulb of the intense, deep-blue bristle of Portuguese squill (Scilla peruviana) was only planted last November and is a strange and striking sight as it first emerges. The erroneous Latin name is said to originate from a 16th Century botanist, Carolus Clusius mistaking the name of the ship on which it arrived as its country of origin. The common name is a more accurate description of its Mediterranean heritage.
From left to right: Polished leaved magnolia against the old peach house wall, star of Bethlehem, and Portuguese squill in the Rewilded Garden.
The weather continues its kindness and the orchard and terrace lawns respond with gusto. Bernard knocks back the larger patches of nettles in the orchard. When we catch them before flowering we use the cut on the compost heap as an accelerator, their speedy decomposition heating the mound. A path is mown for safari visitors and the resident rabbits take care of the rest of the land management, creating plant diversity with their selective grazing. Clovers, speedwell, scarlet pimpernel and plantains claim their territories. A visitor from Natural England spotted a female larvae-form glow worm on one of the pear trees. Not in fact a worm at all, but a beetle, only the male emerges in this form after three years of living hidden under rocks and tussocky grass. Active for a few weeks in late June and early July, the flightless females climb to the top of long grass stems, advertising their availability to the passing winged males with their bioluminescent abdomens. Another good reason to leave some grassy areas undisturbed.
A flightless female glow worm found on a pear tree by the Old Apple Store and an image showing both the male beetle form and the female.
A few common spotted orchids have bloomed again this year in the ha-ha meadow, a consequence of allowing parts of the once uniformly-mowed lawn to grow. Our collecting and spreading of the seed of the semi-parasitic yellow rattle plant (Rhinanthus minor) last autumn has also paid off – their suppression of the vigour of competing grasses has created large areas where a greater diversity of broad-leaved wildflowers have become established. We take advantage of the warm and wet, adding annual edible seedlings to the Kitchen Garden, cheek by jowl with more ornamental culinary plants. Into any available space we plant sunflowers, narrow leaf lupins (the seed is cooked in the same ways as a bean) and Bolivian coriander (Porophyllum ruderale), sometimes known as quillquiña. It is used in Mexican cooking, often in salsas and tacos and we look forward to experimenting with it. From around the base of the hazel obelisks we had placed last month among the rhubarbs, catmints and asparagus, the tips of five different climbing beans are beginning to emerge. ‘Blue Lake’ and ‘Cobra’ are for cropping to eat in the summer, so were lodged nearer the path, while ‘Tamila’, ‘District Nurse’ and ‘Borlotti’ will be left to dry on their stems and the beans harvested and stored for winter stews. Positioned deeper into the beds, they provide another layer of structural complexity that was missing between the irregular-shaped, three-metre topiarised yews and the perennials beneath.
The Kitchen Garden is full of purple orbs of allium heads hovering over yellow froths of wode (Isatis tinctoria), the intense blue flowers of Italian bugloss (Anchusa azurea ‘Dropmore’), the mauve and creams of the delicate aquilegias and the paper-white and magenta, perfumed blooms of Rosa rugosa ‘Alba’ and ‘Roseraie de l‘Hay.’ In the rewilded pool garden, the irises have taken the stage, spires of sky blue, midnight purples and cobalt, pairing up with the acid yellow heads of euphorbias, with the candy pinks of garden storksbill (Erodium manescavii) and Carthusian pink (Dianthus carthusianorum) romping through the lower levels beneath. All is verdant and in full sail in a week of sun leading up to the National Garden Scheme open day.
Although the overwhelming majority of responses from the visitors were positive, with repeated commendations including ‘beautiful’, ‘inspiring’, and ‘fascinating’, there were a few opinions that concerned themselves with ‘weeds’. What were we going to ‘do’ with them? Interestingly, the previous day, while selectively grazing the tenacious swags of cleavers (Gallium aparine) that have colonised the rhubarb beds, we were debating the same question. Lewis Trevor, an apprentice at Fulham Palace who has spent the week with us in the garden, commented that his professor at Capel Manor horticultural college advocated “weeds should be pulled and left on the ground.” Kate Bradbury, an author and wildlife gardening presenter who had conducted her first ‘How to Survey your Garden’ safaris at Knepp this week, had also discussed those plants considered unwanted in an orderly garden. She mentioned cleavers, willow herb and fuchsias as important food sources for elephant hawk-moths. Many native moth species are more likely to feed as caterpillars on those plants that might be found on uncut verges and hedgerows. Cleavers are part of the bedstraw family and we have planted in the garden woodruff (Gallium odoratum) and lady’s bedstraw (Gallium verum), so the debate was, should we be pulling the cleavers out? Their tiny white flowers swell to green barbed balls that act like Velcro, attaching themselves to any passing animal or clothing, with an incredible success rate in ensuring their propagation spreads far and wide. This is my concern – balancing their distribution becoming a suffocating monoculture, inhibiting diversity (and the man-hours consumed in removing them) or allowing the insect food source to remain. Suzi proposes we take away the bulk of the biomass but leave the roots to feed the soil biome and slow down a possible regrowth. We agree it seems a sensible pathway and hope to spot the beautiful pink and olive-green moth in future.
The end of the month saw a three-year study published by Cambridge University, prompted by the now widely recognised trend of no-mow May, looking at whether there was a notable increase in biodiversity in lawns left to grow. The results were published in the journal Ecological Solutions and Evidence and found the non-mown area to host three times more species of plants, spiders and bugs than the close-cut lawn.
It is just this sort of small movement towards a change of mindset about our outdoor spaces that can be the acorn that grows into the mighty oak.
Moy Fierheller Deputy Head Gardener May 2023
Photos courtesy of Charlie Harpur, Moy Fierheller
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