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Storm Ciaran opened the skies in the first week of November, generous to a fault, a watery world returning to the bowl of the ephemeral pond in the Rewilded Garden. It quickly gathered a depth of 60cm within days and, for the first time, algae formed at the margins. Our attention was drawn to this by the curious presence of not one but two biochemical architects visiting the garden at the exact same moment. Mick Pearce, an uncle of Charlie Burrell, Knepp’s owner, visiting from Harare, Zimbabwe; and Dr Brenda Parker, lecturer in bio-integrated design at University College London. She was accompanying Harry Watkins, Head Gardener at St Andrews Botanic Garden, where they have created a ‘bioscope pavilion’. This takes the form of a folly in the garden housing an experiment in blending nature and technology. Free-standing screens are infused with a diversity of microscopic species, including cyanobacteria, also known as blue green algae. There are over 5,000 species of freshwater algae in the UK. A fascinating morning was spent in their company, imagining all sorts of living structures to integrate into the garden in the future.
Despite its slightly bedraggled state, the Rewilded Garden is still pleasing, full of muted autumnal shades. With the flood waters around Knepp subsiding, there comes a brief moment of tranquillity –golden light picks out the tawny, russet and green tapestry. A host of diverse seedheads give texture and movement, and drawing all together is a riot of black full-stops suspended throughout – the dark bobbles of three species of coneflower (Echinacea pallida, E. paradoxa and E. tennesseensis).
The preparations for winter’s imminent arrival have begun. The greenhouse is washed down inside and out, to increase the light levels and reduce the populations of some of the overwintering insects such as aphids, whitefly and mealy bug. We’ve brought in some of the tender plants that have spent the summer outside, the aloes and orchids. There is the annual discussion of whether to allow the natural processes of harsh weather to dictate the plants that live and die and accept the cycle of boom and bust. We make exceptions for a few species. Some are providers of much-needed nectar for late foragers. The loud drone of buff-tailed bumblebees can still be heard on still days alighting on tender sages that are still flowering, such as Salvia confertiflora, S. ‘Phyllis’ Fancy’, S. ‘African Sky’, and S. ‘Amistad’. A few of the mature figs ripened very late this year due to the cold nights in May. We’ve seen honeybees, wasps, several fly species and red admiral butterflies feasting on the late season harvest.
The tree echiums (Echium pininana) are natives of the Canary Islands and will only flower in this country in the second or third year of growth. Their magnificent 2-metre spires are a towering cone of small blue flowers – a beacon for pollinators all summer. Before they reach maturity, their growing tips are prone to becoming a mush of cell collapse in the cold, and we lost all our specimens last year. We doubled down on the sages, taking cuttings and digging up and potting whole plants for a winter sojourn in the greenhouse. A few of the smaller echiums were dug up and joined them, but the majority of the garden echium specimens can fill a cubic metre each – too big to house. We decided to leave some to the perils of exposure and the cold of deep space, and to protect the rest with experimental coverings. Traditional horticulture would have us reaching for the bubble wrap and horticultural fleece – both are plastic, although some might last a few years, and it is possible to recycle bubble wrap at specialist centres. As we move towards more sustainable practices and materials that might also provide winter habitat we set about experimenting. We created hazel obelisks around the plants as supports for ‘roofs’ above the growing tips using different leaves and branches. We added protective pyramidal hats by tying together stems of evergreens such as magnolia leaves, pine fronds, mounds of ivy, laurel branches and dry bundles of grasses or bracken. We wait and see if they prove successful.
We have other ways of protecting the agaves (Agave parryi and A. ovatifolium). They are slow to reach maturity, so – as we did last year – we used the leathery leaves of the bull magnolia as frost protection, impaled on the ends of the spiny leaves like a letter spike. Many survived the harsh cold spells of last winter in this way and have thrown out what are known as ’pups’- miniature versions of the parent plant clustered like shy toddlers around the base. We took most of these to grow on indoors as insurance policies and to share with other gardens. A good lesson for us in holding our nerve and allowing natural processes to perform, however, came from the agaves that we had left in situ, that didn’t make it. The leaves and central stems had succumbed to the cold and rotted out, making a hidey-hole – a damp place of decomposing leaves for shelter and food for insects. And then, in late summer, we saw the roots pushing up new pups on the periphery, rising from the dead. Our impulse as gardeners to remove ‘failing’ plants is a strong one, but letting nature show us its resilience is part of the wonder of following the tenets of a rewilded garden.
The ‘pups’ of Agave ovatifolia rising from the frosted remains of the parent plant
Near the end of this very mild month, two hard frosts finally arrive in quick succession. It seems the forecast of wetter, warmer winters becoming the norm has played out this year. It’s strange to be pleased that these still, clear cold days have arrived, with jewels of water droplets hanging from spider webs and seedheads. We’re thankful for the nights when the full bright moon, whose light is strong enough to read by in the 4.30pm darkness, replaces the incessant rainy days and the temperature drops to -3°C. On the 26 November we’re treated to a spectacular lunar halo caused by high cirrus clouds releasing free-falling ice crystals. The crystals which create a white circle banding the full moon, reflecting its light, can signify an approaching storm. The opening of the 28th Climate Change Conference, COP28 in Dubai, UAE is just getting underway. Let’s hope the outcomes are less turbulent than this year’s global climate extremes.
Moy Fierheller Deputy Head Gardener November 2023
Photos courtesy of Karen Finley
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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.