Gardening is a political act… Don’t do it in a bubble.

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Garden,  April 2017

Henk Gerrritsen was a brilliant garden designer who never got to see his full potential. His gardens are about the battle between man and nature; a battle that man should enjoy losing. In his gardens he lets weeds takeover: Hogweed; Bindweed and Hemlock… because their beauty and their terrifying triphid-like features mesmerized him …I would have loved to meet him… A bold, brave man who was ahead of his time.

The other day I attended a gardening course taught by a well-known old skool gardening guru… I knew she wasn’t organic or eco… but nothing quite prepared me for the utter ignorance and exclusion of all things environmental. This was gardening in a bubble and, to my horror; the middle class and middle-aged audience were lapping it up. I felt as if I was in some sickening seventies time warp as a woman with a variegated Cornus that was suffering on the edge of a riverbank (that often flooded) was told to give it a “good feed…some meat and two veg… Nothing organic… Lots of nitrogen.”…My inner “swampy’ took up arms and wailed like a banshee demanding a justice my British politeness was unable to dispense.

So, I bunked off the rest of the class and walked back to the car through the churchyard….IMG_1528

Once my blood pressure was restored by the primroses I spent the rest of the journey home having imaginary out-quipping conversations.

Here’s a breakdown of my argument:

A Cornus is a dogwood – a native shrub that grows by riverbeds and in our hedgerows, it is often grown for its colourful stems. Firstly, I have a problem with variegation. Variegation is an anomaly in a plant, it normally occurs because the plant has genetically mutated and then the nursery trade grows it on as a cultivar…. Variegation immediately puts stress onto a plant as its leaves have less green chlorophyll to photosynthesize and get energy with. By keeping a variegated leaved plant you will always be fighting nature’s instinct to revert back AND you will have to feed it (AND it looks wrong). –What’s the point?

Nitrogen is needed by all plants in order to grow and thrive. It is very soluble, and so, when crop yield is low or an area of land has poor soil or has been flooded, it is normally the nitrogen that has gone from the soil. But what makes nitrogen “work” is the bacteria in the soil that process or “fix” atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, which plants need in order to grow. Fertilizers used by the agricultural and horticultural industries tend to be liquid feeds containing Nitrogen. The problem is that we try and make every bit of soil “work’ and we are all using too much fertilizer and nitrogen (often because we aren’t giving our bacteria a fighting chance in the soil to produce more)… Because the nitrogen is soluble, the excess is running off the land into our watercourses causing huge amounts of devastating pollution and contributing greatly to climate change.

Of course, one woman feeding or not feeding Growmore to her Cornus isn’t going to change the world, but, I am desperate that she and all the gardeners like her understand the consequences of what they are doing when they ’manage’ their land or “break” the ecosystem by intervention. We are all responsible for our own little plots in this great beautiful planet of ours…. And that means educating ourselves on what is within them and what reactions your actions will create…

I don’t pretend to have all the answers… or to be an eco-paragon of virtue. What I would like to do is make you raise your head from your herbaceous border and vegetable bed and look around you… what you do and how you do it has consequences… good and bad and indifferent… what if you could make your garden a living metaphor for how the earth could be if we respected it? How much more beautiful would it be then?

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Garden,  April 2017 (first year after completion)

The gardened meadow

IMG_2360This is the Walnut meadow and the Blossom bank.

IMG_2358A mass of cornfield annuals: oxeye daisy; poppy; corn cockle; corn marigold and corn chamomile.

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These are a one-hit wonder: they won’t be here next year and they’ll only last about a month.

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The cornfield annuals are what are traditionally thought of as “meadow flowers”… But they aren’t… They are plants of the cornfield, they need for the surface of the ground to be disturbed (ploughed/tilled) and clear of vegetation in order to grow. They can grow on fertile ground; unlike many other meadow mixes.

Meadows are different. Dame Miriam Rothschild believes that a meadow only really comes into “being” when its about 15 years old… and even then it is not really “established”. Strictly speaking, meadows are areas of land that are man-managed, but, have their own unique grassland ecosystems.

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Railway meadow, July 2015.

My “meadows” are not “farmed” or large fields of land, so, I have to manage them differently and in many ways they function differently… These are extended areas of the garden and I am learning as I go how to create and maintain small areas of wildflowers and long grass within a garden. And, because they are part of a garden, they need to be decorative and sit within that setting while still being a meadow rather than a flower border.

The railway meadow is about 100 metres by about 12 metres and is now in its third year…. It is cut at the end of July and all the hay is cleared and piled on the railway bank for the animals (mostly badgers) to use as nesting material. It is as near to a conventional meadow as I have.

The Walnut meadow is a “stylized” bit of long grass. This area is close to the house and I wanted to make sure that it looked like a deliberate feature rather than a bit of unmown lawn….So, it has nearly 600 bulbs planted within it so that it always has some colour.

Narcissus “Thalia” and Anemone Nemerosa in April

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April 2016

Camassia Lechtlinii in May

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Allium “Purple Sensation” in June

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I sowed this area and the bank behind in October last year. The topsoil and the turf were scraped off and the subsoil was then raked and sown with a meadow mix for chalk soil and cornfield annuals (as a nurse crop).

The greatest difficulties I have found with meadows are:

  1. Most people want a cornfield not a meadow and are disappointed when the showier annuals don’t come back the next year. This is why I am experimenting with bulbs and introducing vigorous perennials (like aquilegia) in my meadows…. To see if I can get to something that could become a garden-worthy “meadow”.
  2. Perennial weeds. There is a pernicious perennial weed bank at the farm… Bramble, Bindweed, Hogweed, Thistle, Rosebay Willow Herb and Hemlock come back and back and back… having stripped and disturbed the soil we have brought these weeds back to the surface and it has been back breaking work weeding them out of large tracts of land. – Meadows are perceived to be “low maintenance”, but, I can assure you that this year we have worked harder on the meadows than the borders. My hope is that once the perennial grasses and flowers are established the weeding will reduce to spot weeding.

The Walnut meadow and Blossom bank will be cut in July. It will be strimmed (as I can’t scythe – need an extra from Poldark!) and the hay will be raked into a pile and (after a few days) removed.

I have sown the same “chalk” mix on my south-facing limestone bank…. However, the mix has been slower to establish here and the weeding has been incessant…. Literally thousands of Rapeseed, Hemlock and Thistle seedlings.

IMG_0771I have another mini-meadow bank (6m x3m) outside the Potting Shed. Here I have Primroses and Celandines and Pheasants eye daffodils, followed by cow parsley annuals (Ammi Majus, Anthriscus Sylvestris, and Ammi Visnaga) …. After these have set seed this area will be mown until the following Spring. This is an area of reasonably fertile soil (as in many gardens) and I am trying to get the meadow “effect” with vigorous garden plants within the grass.

And then I have my entrance “matrix bed”: a Piet Oudolf inspired planting that is designed to look like a meadow/ naturalistic planting, but, uses cultivated garden plants and grasses to mimic the naturalistic wafting transparency of a meadow in June…..

Are these all meadows, or pale imitations of them? Gardening really is the subtle chemistry of nature and man’s management of it. How far you go is a question of taste rather than horticulture.