The month was ushered in by clear skies and a fantastical ‘super blue moon’, rising with fairy tale magnitude and clarity. The blue refers to a full moon occurring twice in the same month, the ‘super’ to its proximity to earth – the closest it will be all year. It felt portentous – if weather gods exist, it summoned the one full of malign mischief. After an August that felt more autumnal than beach-ready, a heatwave hit. Kids and teachers returned to classrooms with disbelief, while we climbed into the cherry picker cage in 30°C and the stifling glare reflected from the castle walls. A little late, the annual wrangling – the cutting back and tying in of the 30-metre expanse of wisteria that cloaks much of the front of the castle – got underway. Surveying the lake from 14 metres up, the longhorn cattle amidst the oaks in the sun, we can stand a little dust and pungent wafts from the pigeon and jackdaw nests among the dense foliage. Clearing the overcrowded stems now, and curbing the wisteria’s relentless desire to ascend, will ensure a lilac explosion of hanging flower racemes in the spring.
We can just see into the walled garden from this vantage point, the bowl that surrounds the ephemeral pond beginning its autumn show. The asters are preparing to burst into profusions of pinks and violets and wow the swaying, mauve-flowered stands of Chinese silver grasses (Miscanthus sinensis ‘Ferner Osten’ and ‘Flamingo’) that rub shoulders with them. The bulbs of South African spire lilies (Galtonia candicans) we planted in spring have now emerged – their fragrant, pendulous, bell-shaped white flowers atop metre-tall leafless stems an arresting delight.
On ‘Hitchmough Ridge’ (the most nutrient-poor, free-draining combination of crushed concrete and sand on site) it is the repeated midnight purple of Italian aster (Aster amellus) that is really pulling focus, and the impossibly deep rose of stonecrop (Sedum ‘Red Cauli)’.
It was interesting to hear Tom Stuart-Smith (the garden’s designer) talk about his choice of plants for the Rewilded Garden when he visited for the Gardens Illustrated magazine readers’ day. He explained why he had specified that all the plants should be able to propagate themselves by setting seed. Cultivated plants, many of which are bred to have sterile seeds, can make the design of a garden very static. He recounted a trip to the garden of his long-standing friend Piet Oudolf, a pioneer of the New Perennial Movement, where grasses are naturalistically interspersed with perennial plants. Tom had picked up a laminated photograph of a stretch of Piet’s planting. Holding it up against the real thing, six years since the image was taken, the similarity was striking. He felt Knepp’s experimental design should be very different. A central tenet of ‘rewilding’ this garden is to allow it to evolve with dynamism and unpredictability. Embracing the natural process of self-seeding is essential.
Our management plan, at present, is to edit plants that are threatening to dominate. In the Rewilded Garden we continue to dig out white clover and black medic where they are romping through the crowns of other plants and setting down roots along their creeping stems. Although both these native wildflowers serve bees, butterfly larvae and small mammals, as well as help to fix nitrogen in the soil, they are prolific and we can never hope to remove them all. Nor would we want to. At this time of year, it’s important to keep bare ground between plants so that as broad a diversity of seeds as possible can find hospitable resting places. In the Kitchen Garden we are ‘grazing’ yarrow and marjoram. Again, both supply good ecological services but they are also partners-in-crime when it comes to vigorous colonisation.
The late season tug-of-war between the browns and the greens has begun as we weigh up how much to leave as winter habitat and pantry for wildlife, and how many browning stems we can live with aesthetically. The summer’s wet weather has thwarted our well-made plans for a late-season harvest and floral interest. The elephant-ear-sized artichoke leaves never arrived. Six packets of various climbing bean seeds pushed their heads into the world only to find themselves beheaded by slugs. Young tobacco plant seedlings succumbed to the same hearty banqueting. We’ve been spared this particular garden adversary in previous years, perhaps because we have plenty of frogs and toads that predate on slugs or because of the hot, dry springs and summers. It’s also inevitable as the planting matures and with all the ‘nests’ of cut-back foliage we’ve left through the beds, that there is more moist and shaded habitat for them. We’ve filled gaps left by the absent plants with logs and piles of bark – an alternative that gives structure and texture but also added habitat for slug-eaters. We may have to plant young seedlings in sand mulch next season to make the environment a little less accommodating for the mollusc tribe.
All too quickly the time has come around again for the apple and pear harvest in the orchard. Only half the trees are laden, the cold nights back in May having crisped the blossom or deterred insects from their pollination duties. Luckily, it is a successional orchard, and those varieties that flower a little later are now picture-perfect, hung all about with plump fruits in reds, greens and yellows. Bryn Thomas and his nonchalant little dog Ren arrived from the Brighton Permaculture Trust to help guide the picking with our fantastic volunteers. He takes the crop for juicing, pasteurising and bottling, ready to sell in Knepp’s newly opened Wilding Kitchen & Shop.
Coincidentally, a garden safari was scheduled at the same time, so Bryn squeezed in a short talk for the visitors about organic orchards and their importance as wildlife corridors and biodiversity hotspots. A simple but often overlooked reason for the ecological significance of orchards is the similarity between the cultivated apple tree and our native crab apple (Malus sylvestris). All 7,500 globally cultivated varieties of apples are descendants of the wild Kazakhstan apple tree Malus sieversii. The Kazakhstani apple’s evolutionary strategy was to produce a disproportionately large body of flesh surrounding its relatively small seeds. Bigger fruit attracted bigger animals. The larger the animal, the greater the distance from the parent tree the seed could be dispersed. Initially, bears were the primary carriers. Global success of the Kazakhstani apple came as early as 138 BC as the network of trade routes operating from China to Europe and North Africa known as the Silk Road became established with horses becoming the seed-hosts. While UK cultivars are not native, they are genetically similar to our crab apples, with nectaries and flower shapes that are compatible to our native insects. Where there are insects, there will be birds and bats; where there are fallen fruits, there will be small and large mammals.
As well as the Knepp volunteers we had invaluable help all month with short visits from people with a wide diversity of backgrounds – Dawn Grehan, gardener from Battersea Dog and Cats Home; Boe Hess, a botanical horticulturalist from Kew Gardens; Sophie Buckle, a student at RHS Harlow Carr; and Henny Tate, a graduate from the London School of Garden Design. Kat Evans, Associate Director of ADAS Natural Solutions, an organisation which helps businesses use nature and ecological services to solve challenges with climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss, also came with her long-standing friend Rosie Whicheloe, Biodiversity Net Gain Officer for Sutton Council. Sutton has the highest percentage of garden land of all the London boroughs. According to Kat and Rosie, while Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINCs) record their value for wildlife, gardens remain an enigma and are largely undocumented. Gardens are shrinking in size all the time, and losing them to garages, extensions and hardstanding not only deprives wildlife of habitat, it also disconnects the corridors that small mammals and even birds and insects use to move through urban landscapes.
We have been lucky this season to meet so many people who are passionately engaged in understanding and championing the ecological value of gardens. In this time of climate anxiety and uncertainty about the future it is a much-needed source of empowerment to be able to make real change in our towns and cities, whatever size our green space is.
Moy Fierheller Deputy Head Gardener September 2023
Photos courtesy of Karen Finley, and Moy Fierheller
What we’re reading:
The Great Naturalists edited by Robert Huxley