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The Journey to Wilding the Garden
April 2024

The sober, dismal skies continue and we are beginning to wonder if we will ever remove our coats again. The air smells of winter still. The Met Office has recorded spring (March to May) rainfall as having reached 96% of its long-term average already. In the first week, storm Katherine brought buffeting winds, bringing down some of the beautifully constructed storks’ nests from the oaks in the Southern Block of the rewilding project. It’s only the second time since the naming of storms began in 2015 that the letter K has been reached.

But the garden is a refuge – it rewards us by bringing forth a new flowering every day despite the weather. Honesty (Lunaria annua) is in full swing in the Kitchen Garden, white or purple flower clusters waving above the lash-like deep-blue whorls of perennial cornflowers (Centaurea montana). The Cappadocian navelwort (Omphalodes cappadocica ‘Cherry Ingram’) in the shadier side of the Rewilded Garden has really bulked up now and creates great swathes of the most intense azure, like waves cresting on the mounds of sand and crushed concrete. This is the first year when some of the early flowering clematis, Clematis macropetalla ‘Lagoon’ and C. alpina ‘Frances Rives’, planted back in the winter of 2021 have become established enough to produce large splashes of periwinkle-blue, nodding flowerheads along the south facing red-brick wall. Despite the first being native to northwest China, Mongolia and Siberia, it attracts many native bees and other pollinators, providing nectar and pollen early in the season, and nesting material for birds from the powder-puff seed heads that follow.

Some of the more uncommon plantings are getting in their stride this year, like golden drop (Onosma taurica), a member of the borage family found in rocky areas of Europe and western Asia. And new plants are adding their nuance to the colours of the Rewilded Garden – the tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca), reminiscent of honeysuckle, has been used as a poison, medicine and food in its native range from Bolivia to Brazil for millennia, the nicotine element in the leaves used both as an insecticide and poultice to reduce inflammation.

Golden drop (Onosma taurica) and tree tobacco (Nicotiana glauca) in the Rewilded Garden

With the amount of rain the garden has seen, a few plants have, inevitably, been gaining dominance over others. In the Kitchen Garden, it is the stately Norwegian angelica (Angelica archangelica) and English marjoram (Origanum vulgare). The former boasts spherical lime-green flower heads the size of melons towering on wrist-thick stems up to 2m tall, has a fantastic range of edible uses, and is a pollinator magnet. The liquorice-flavoured leaves can be added to salads and used to sweeten tart fruits; the young stems can be used like celery, made into jam or crystallised for sweets and as cake decorations; the seeds and roots can be made into teas; and an essential oil can be extracted for flavourings. In the absence of an army to feed or, indeed, medicate – since its medicinal properties are many and varied, too – we have assumed our role as herbivores and rooted out hundreds of seedlings, reducing the mature plants to four.

Apart from the obvious culinary use of oregano, their small pale-pink flower clusters are favoured by short-tongue bumblebees and honeybees, several solitary bees, and many butterflies and moths. They also contain a naturally-occurring compound called ‘thymol’ which has antimicrobial attributes – something these insects will be using to help protect themselves against disease. Again, it is weighing up the benefits that this particular plant provides for wildlife – and us – against the decrease in plant diversity it can cause in the garden. Oregano self-seeds readily in any growing medium and its habit of quickly smothering slower-growing or more delicate plants around it, and causing woodier plants to rot by depriving them of light and air, is clearly an unfavourable trait in gardening terms. Our approach is to clear oregano plants from around the base of other species where they threaten to overwhelm, but also to use them as place holders or ground cover where it’s possible to leave them. It’s easy, then, to – remove clumps of oregano when annual edible seedlings – such as celtuce (stem lettuce), kale and red-veined sorrel, various basils and tomatoes – are ready for planting. The oregano cuttings are shared with the Wilding Kitchen and the roots added to our hot compost, and we feel we’ve learnt how to value this plant in different ways.

Norwegian angelica (Angelica archangelica) in the Kitchen Garden

In the Rewilded Garden it’s the familiar clovers and annual grasses that we continuously edit around establishing plants. This spring, some of the species that have thrived in the two years since they were planted in the sand and crushed concrete mix have distributed a profusion of seeds and are threatening to outcompete other plants. One is the fabulous magenta-flowered Carthusian pink (Dianthus carthusianorum). We noticed, while we were rootling them out, that many had been repeatedly browsed by our large resident population of voles, their grass-like leaves having been clipped as if by miniature mowers. What is really interesting to us is how much longer and sturdier the roots of the browsed plants are compared to those that have been left uneaten.

The root of the vole-browsed Carthusian pink (Dianthus Carthusianorum)

We often find ourselves discussing the role of root diversity in herbaceous plants in a garden setting and our observations of the vole-grazed Carthusian pinks chimes with the findings in Nancy Burrell’s paper, published this year, regarding ‘current carbon storage assessment methods for rewilding’. In it, she explores the contribution from smaller non-forestry woody species and how their carbon storage may be stimulated and enhanced by the browsing action of free-roaming herbivores. With their roots intact, they unearthed 39 trees across five species from Knepp’s rewilded Southern Block, measuring the biomass and tree dimensions. Comparing their findings with the standard i-Tree Eco model used in forestry and urban settings, they discovered that trees under browsing pressure adapt by investing more resources into root growth, increasing their carbon storage capacity. This not only informs the role of rewilding in conservation and climate change mitigation but also how we manage the plants in the garden, particularly the woody shrubs and small trees.

Since we’ve excluded browsing and grazing animals from garden settings we’ve forgotten the ecoservices their actions provide. The pruning and cutting back that gardeners do with their shears and secateurs, is, in effect, mimicking the natural processes of herbivores, contributing to increased root growth and carbon storage in the garden. It also prolongs the life of plants. Keeping roots in the ground is one of the most important things we can do as gardeners. We are fleeting custodians of our green spaces, but the greater our understanding of our ecosystems and their natural processes, the better we can support them. Gardeners are both curators and creators of habitats that can mitigate the effects of climate change and help nature recovery.

Moy Fierheller   Deputy Head Gardener   April 2024

Photos courtesy of Karen Finley, 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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