How can you rewild a garden? We have taken what we’ve learned from the rewilding project at Knepp to show you how.
The potential of our gardens to provide for wildlife and help reverse global biodiversity loss is enormous. At Knepp, our manicured lawns and weeded paths and borders were – ecologically speaking – similar to the groomed arable land that pre-dated our rewilding project on the rest of the Estate. As a result of rewilding, the wider landscape at Knepp is now a complex mosaic of habitats, teeming with wildlife. But can we achieve this in much smaller areas? Can we rewild an outdoor space that many of us consider an extension of our homes?
Our experiment within Knepp’s walled garden is a process of changing the conventional gardening mindset. To help us on the journey we’ve engaged some of the UK’s most imaginative garden minds: landscape designer Tom Stuart-Smith, James Hitchmough (professor of horticultural ecology at the University of Sheffield), Mick Crawley (emeritus professor of plant ecology at Imperial College, London) and Jekka McVicar (organic gardening expert).
We’ve taken what we’ve learnt from the wider rewilding project to spark a new way of thinking about how a garden can function as a dynamic ecosystem. It is about setting the stage, creating a new baseline, and then working with nature to create a complex mosaic of habitats to maximise opportunities for insects, birds and other life. As rewilding gardeners, we become the keystone species – a proxy for the larger animals in the landscape whose disturbance creates opportunities for everything else. This is not about ‘letting go’, allowing a garden to revert to brambles and trees. This is about thinking like a beaver, or a wild boar. It is about giving nature more space to evolve, intervening judiciously, always looking for greater complexity but trying not to dictate the outcomes.
The smaller Kitchen Garden shows how to create greater ecological complexity from the structure of an existing garden. Here we focus on edible and useful plants, and a spectrum of soil-productivity for sustainable fruit, salads and vegetables. Gravel paths, once kept weed-free, are now carpeted with drought-tolerant herbs.
The larger Rewilded Garden is more experimental, learning from our observations creating a greater diversity of habitats within the space. We’ve dumped tons of our own crushed building waste materials on the former croquet lawn to create a 3D surface of hump and hollows. The varying soil conditions and different aspects of this new landscape favour widely various plant communities. We’ve planted close to 900 species here, chosen with global warming and sustainability in mind, for their ability to thrive with minimum water and fertility. Our role initially is to give the plants their chance to establish. This means keeping an eye on the plants that dominate and, if necessary, thinning them out. But once the stage is set, we’ll step further back, allowing native plants to seed themselves and add to the complexity. As much as possible, we’ll let nature find its way, accepting the winners and losers, and embracing an open-ended, constantly evolving garden kaleidoscope.
To visit or learn more about the Walled Garden and surrounding orchards and meadows at Knepp, and how to apply similar principles in your own garden, join a Rewild Your Garden Safari.
You can also read about the journey so far, in the Rewilding the Garden Blog.
Meet our garden team: Charlie, Suzi and Moy.
Volunteering: if you are interested in learning more about gardening for biodiversity, join our wonderful team of garden volunteers. Note, at present we are not running regular volunteering days but welcome help with specific tasks within the Walled Garden that provide you with a useful, and hopefully exciting, learning experience. Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.