Dark, turbulent clouds gather and longed-for, pelting bursts of rain break over the garden. The heat has built to bring a tropical air of low pressure and sharp showers that pass through as if late for an appointment. In the Rewilded Garden some species have found their stride and are declaiming their territory at eye-height. The generous arching panicles of the golden oatgrass seedheads (Stipa gigantea) vie with the small-flowered spires of white sweetclover (Melilotus albus) amongst the bobbing, suspended, magenta–purple heads of Argentinian vervain (Verbena bonariensis). Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) stands in front of the bleached white fronds of Peruvian feather grass (Jarava ichu) and the popping bright orange of butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa). Native to eastern and southwestern North America, it produces generous amounts of nectar and seems as popular with bees as butterflies.
In the Kitchen Garden the Mediterranean herbs that run all through the beds and ‘dirty paths’ – where their roots tap into the trapped moisture of soil and gravel beneath a compacted gravel cap, are vibrant with bees. Jekka McVicar, organic gardening expert, author and member of the garden’s Advisory Board, paid us a visit. Although many of the plants came from her family–run herb farm in South Gloucestershire, Covid and other commitments meant this was her first chance to see how they are progressing in situ. It was also a great opportunity for us to garner some insider tips about how she uses various herbs. She finds the Spanish native lavender-leaved sage (Salvia lavandulifolia) the best for cooking, and highly recommends blending the pungent leaves of lesser catmint (Calaminthe nepeta) with mushrooms. Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum pilosum) starts flowering around this time and forms a gorgeous, buzzing display covered in an array of insects, rubbing shoulders with Chinese chives (Allium tuberosum). Jekka finds the leaves make a particularly good tea. She also picked out the silky, filigree-leaved dwarf silvermound (Artemesia schmidtiana nana) – a variety of wormwood, the principal ingredient in absinthe. It is a popular choice at her nursery and in its native Japan was used on wounds in the same way moss was used for bandages in WW1. Many of the herbs are her own creations, bred from cross–fertilising two species from the same genus. She was thrilled to see a generous purple carpet of thyme (Thymus ‘Jekka’s Purple Haze’) exclaiming “There I am looking rampant! Aren’t I beautiful! Very good.” We couldn’t agree more. Not only is it joyful but it is also incredibly popular with bees and, as Jekka pointed out, its essential oils, like many herbs, have antibacterial properties that provide the bees with a defence against parasitic mites.
Thymus ‘Jekka’s Purple Haze’, mountain mint and lavender–leaved sage from Jekka McVicar’s nursery.
After speaking at the Festival of the Garden at nearby Charleston, Cassian Schmidt dropped in on his way back to Germany. A professor of planting design and landscape architect, he has 25 years’ experience of using natural plant combinations of perennials and grasses and developing sustainable, low maintenance gardens. It was interesting to sound out his opinions on the planting in the crushed concrete and sand mixes of the Rewilded Garden. Enthusiastic about the project, he expressed concern about the potential for incoming legumes (those not planted by us) to become a monoculture – many are pioneer species that can outpace the growth of other species. Lesser trefoil, black medick, and white and red clovers are all in the running. We already have a policy of ‘grazing’ out clovers that are inhibiting the growth of planted species. We are compiling a list of incomers and their ecological functions. As with many ‘uninvited’ wildflowers we need to strike a balance between their place in the ecosystem and managing numbers. Black medic, for example, is the primary food of the common blue and silver–studded blue butterflies.
The silver–studded blue butterfly and its primary food, black medick
We have guided 56 safaris and tours so far this season and our visitors constantly intensify the conversation around the question of how to rewild a garden. “What will you do when the PH of the crushed concrete and sand changes over time with the build-up of dead material?” “How will you stop the quamash (Camassia quamash) from colonising the entire rewilded garden?” Holding our nerve, allowing natural processes to play out, and intervening in sometimes radical ways – such as mimicking the rootling of the Tamworth pigs over a wide area – may well be our response. Some questions crystalize ideas discussed months ago – “how do you manage dead stems in the winter?” Our approach is always based on maintaining complexity. We may snap and clear some stems, and leave others standing, or take dead leaves and stems from several plants and make mounds or ‘nests’ in the spaces. “Do you agree between yourselves beforehand which plants you will choose and what you will do with them?” “No!” “But what if someone comes behind you and does something different?” “It doesn’t matter. It’s the same as the Exmoor ponies following on from where the longhorn cattle have been trampling and browsing. They will produce different outcomes, different opportunities, different habitats. It’s just as important that we are diverse in the way we approach tasks.” Our ‘limits of acceptable change’ introduce alternate parameters, our aesthetics divergent. This way, dynamism will exist, outcomes will not be wholly predictable, and we gardeners will not dominate over a single fixed picture.
The month continued cooler than average, with a higher-than-average rainfall verging on autumnal at times. The garden flourished, sunflowers and cosmos upstanding in soldierly fashion without the need for staking. While the jet stream moved south of the UK, the consequences for the rest of southern Europe and the Americas proved dire. The Copernicus Climate Change Service confirmed that the global surface air temperature in July was the highest on record for any month going back to 1940. Most of the Mediterranean basin experienced extreme drought, wildfires and temperatures that endangered life. However much we would like to hold on to old ways, adaptation and embracing new ideas will inevitably be the only options left to us. Our 43 million gardens and the way we manage them have the potential to effect change – by mitigating urban heat islands, locking in carbon and capturing rainwater. Better yet, to provide all these ecological services and still be a place of refuge and beauty for wildlife, and ourselves.
Moy Fierheller Deputy Head Gardener July 2023
Photos courtesy of Karen Finley
What we are reading;