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  • Jill Andrews

'Rewilding' Knepp's Walled Garden

By Jill Andrews, DHHS Secretary

23 members and friends of DHHS were lucky enough to visit the walled gardens of the Knepp Castle Estate on 21st May.

Charlie Burrell and Isabella Tree, the owners of the 3,500 acre estate near Horsham on heavy Low Weald clay began rewilding in 2002. The experiment in nature restoration at Knepp is now well established and renowned, with David Attenborough filming some of his new series ‘Wild Isles’ here.

Between 2020-2022 the 1.5 acre walled gardens were also turned over to rewilding. Two distinct areas - a traditional kitchen garden with raised beds and a pool garden with a flat croquet lawn have been transformed.

The weather was perfect when we arrived. We were met by Charlie Harpur the Head Gardener who began with an introductory talk before guiding us through the gardens, explaining the concepts, the development and the evolution of the plantings.

The first walled garden, previously a national-standard croquet lawn, is now a beautiful undulating landscape. Crushed concrete from the estate and sand were used to simulate a natural well drained downland environment. A variety of soil conditions and micro-climates have been created to support 900 species of plants. A shallow pond area which fills in winter and is dry in summer is stocked with plants which thrive in both wet and dry conditions. The garden is a constantly evolving experiment monitored by gardeners, botanists, zoologists, soil scientists and ecologists.

The kitchen garden has retained some fruit trees and shrubs. Two crab apple trees provide abundant nectar for bees and fruit for birds. Mistletoe was grown successfully from seed on these trees also proving popular with birds, a particular favourite of the mistle thrush. An existing beech hedge has been trimmed into waves to change the air flow along one walled corridor. Plants have reacted to this change, some have thrived, and some have died back. A bee hive for wild honey bees has been installed and habitats created for bumble bees and solitary bees, the best pollinators, assisted by abundant angelica to encourage pollinators and other insects. Vegetables are grown to eat in season. Many are planted together with companion plants. Allium were planted around the raised beds to discourage pigeons who have notoriously bad eye sight and are easily confused by the waving tall flowers.

Charlie explained how the principles that have been developed at Knepp can also be applied to our own gardens. He described a nature friendly approach which can make a massive impact on the biodiversity of our country.

87% of houses in the UK have gardens which comprise an area greater than the combined area of Exmoor, Dartmoor, Lake District National Parks and the Norfolk Broads. Rewilding a garden is not abandoning it but about increasing the diversity of plants, choosing plants which support insects and birds, fixing nitrogen in the soil and working with rather than against nature. It involves less weeding and pest control, clearing of fallen leaves or dead wood, excess mowing and strimming. Natural compost rather than synthetic fertilizers are part of the drive to go chemical-free. Illuminating our gardens at night has proven to have an adverse effect on wildlife and plants. Reducing patios and hard surfaces by replacing them with natural materials improves drainage. Garden ponds support wild life.

It is not easy for us to change the gardening habits of a life time but a gradual change of mind set will allow our gardens to become wild life havens, supporting the insects and birds and micro-organisms around us.

You can follow them on their website and read about the whole Knepp project in their newly published book: The Book of Rewilding by Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell (including Chapter 11. Rewilding your garden).

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