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The Journey to Wilding the Garden
March 2024

The wild cherry blossom wanes, daffodils are all in trumpeting ranks of yellow clamour and the stone-white blur of blackthorn flowers take hold in the hedgerows. Despite a never-ending daily dose of rain, the runaway train of spring is beginning to pick up speed. In the garden, vernal green leaf buds are fattening, the ornamental pear blossom is already open, heavy with queen bumblebees and sweet scents when the sun makes a brief appearance. The tulips ‘Lilac Wonder’ have opened their pink and yellow petals flat like starfish in the sand and crushed concrete of the Rewilded Garden. White storks wheel over the garden, sticks purloined from our brash hedges clamped in their beaks – construction engineers busy at their one-ton nests. A crow and kite caw and yowl their territories above us in flapping altercations – a sure sign the search for mates and the cycle of new life is well underway. 

Tulip ‘Lilac Wonder’ in the Rewilded Garden

The month has been one of frenzied activity of sowing seed, planting and preparing the garden for the fast-approaching season of visitors and guests. The seedlings in the greenhouse are an incredible array of colours, leaf shapes and sizes, some racing to display their first true leaves to the world, others shy to move beyond their cotyledons – those fragile leaves that have been created within the seed and are the first to show their faces to the light. 

This year, our attention is focused on fleshing out the edible range in the Kitchen Garden now that the Rewilded Garden on the other side of the wall is settling in to its third spring.  We’ve spent some time in the two large rhubarb beds reorganising.  Grouping together some of the existing isolated plantings like catmint and Russian sage helps with ease of cropping, and we’ve added some woody plants to give the beds more structural complexity and vary the crop succession: a plum and almond (‘Early Rivers Prolific’ and ‘Robijn’), both give lovely blossom and fruits and nuts; a few each of jostaberry, Worcesterberry and pinkcurrant ‘Gloire de Sabon’ bushes and a quince tree ‘Serbian Gold’, plus a Cornelian cherry and a cobnut ‘Cosford Cob’. We’ve sowed seed of Caucasian spinach (Hablitzia tamnoides), a perennial climber that can be used as a spinach alternative, which will also add height and structure for wildlife to perch on or hide in. There’s perennial Korean celery (Dystaenia takesimana) and Dents de Kyoto (Elatostema umbellatum). The green shoots of the former can be harvested all winter and have a flavour between celery and lovage. They also produce large and beautiful white flower umbels that pollinators love, and, as the name suggests, the latter has non-stinging, nettle-like leaves and is used in Japanese dishes. For late-season interest, we have sowed over a hundred sunflowers to fill gaps left by fading alliums and day lilies, and some interesting kale varieties – Thousand Headed Kale, Paul and Becky’s Asturian Tree Cabbage and East Friesian Palm Kale. This last is an ancient variety that has been grown for thousands of years in Ostfriesland in North Germany whose seeds are rare but, if we can grow it successfully, it will provide us with kale throughout the winter. With any luck, late July and August will see both beds still full, colourful and productive. 

Some of the fruiting tree and bush species added to the Kitchen Garden

Just outside the walls of the garden, underneath three majestic oaks, we have expanded the plant range by digging out some elderly and failing Japanese skimmia (Skimmia japonica) and creating a stumpery. Although this style of displaying ferns in the niches of an up-ended tree stump reached its height in the Victorian era, the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh sites the earliest reference to ferneries was in Jane Loudon’s book ‘The Ladies Companion to the Flower Garden in 1841. An English author, known for her Gothic fiction and fantasy, she was also the first to create popular gardening manuals aimed at women. The craze for fern collecting at the turn of the 20th  century was known as ‘pteridomania and became so widespread as to cause one species, the oblong woodsia (Woodsia ilvensis), to suffer irreversible decline by over-collection. It is still an endangered species today. We planted eight species of ferns (Hart’s tongue, deer, Japanese holly, male, Wallich’s wood, ostrich, sensitive and soft shield) together with some shade-loving woodland species including barrenwort (Epimedium x versicolor ‘Sulphureum) and witch hazel (Hamamelis x intermedia ‘Jelena’). 

This time last year, we were lucky to have the Knepp volunteers help us fashion garden supports for climbing plants from hazel we’d coppiced from the wider estate. This year we knew we needed some additional help from an expert, not only to create some more sturdy and longer lasting obelisks, but also to address the issue of amphibians in the Rewilded Garden and the swimming pool. Frogs, toads, newts and lizards are all capable swimmers but the 10cm of poolside is vertical and makes it impossible for them to climb out. Most conventional frog-ramp products are plastic, and we wanted to try and produce our own custom-designed exit ramps made from a biodegradable material that can be positioned in front of the filters where the current is drawn. Sarah Gardner, a gardener herself, also runs willow weaving classes. 

We spent a rare morning of sunshine with her, learning the basics and producing some incredibly pleasing works: two obelisks and two ramps. The following week we were able to share our newly-found skills with the Knepp volunteers to replace last year’s supports, most of them having succumbed to a winter of strong winds and incessant wet conditions. 

Charlie works on an escape ramp, Sarah Gardener shows Suzi how to finish the obelisk, the finished ramp and obelisks by the potting shed. 

Squeezed in between all the growing and planting is the daily graze and slow clearance of the winter. There’s more material than last year so the ‘browns to greens’ ratio is leaning more toward the ‘brown’ but we are careful to hold our nerve. The temptation to dominate the landscape is strong – to take down all the dead matter and make a tidy, clean, neat, organised vista, declaring the hand of man is in charge. But our decisions are driven by nature’s cues, selective grazing and remembering that every change brings a new opportunity or habitat. Wholesale change rarely allows for diversity. It’s a pleasure to spend a little more time watching the emerging stems and respond to them, all new hope, promise and beauty wrapped in green shoots for now, soon to change and grow. 

 

Moy Fierheller   Deputy Head Gardener     March 2024 

Photos courtesy of Karen Finley, Charlie Harpur, Moy Fierheller 

Our 12+ Policy

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.

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