If there’s one thing more exciting than a week at Chelsea, it’s coming home to find broad-bodied chaser dragonflies have moved into your pond (with a bit of identification help from the ongoingly wonderful Pete the Pond).
The pond is one thing, but Paul and I can’t work out if we really do have a tenfold wider mix of flora and fauna in our garden this year. It just feels like a completely different place. Were we walking around with our eyes closed up until now? Perhaps as time goes on you notice more and more detail as you learn every inch of space.
But I think not. I think it really is different. I’d love to think it’s at least in part due to our actions, but maybe it’s just luck. I do hope our luck continues!
There is some logic to say we might have helped things along. When we moved in we had the big, old trees but no real understory to speak of. I studiously waited – as you are taught at ‘gardening school’ – to see what might come up over the first year, but it became quite clear that the enormous nettles were smothering anything that might be lurking underneath.
And as much as wild gardening articles love to tell you nettles are the best wildlife plant in the world, not only are they the last thing insects are going to struggle to find in the Oxfordshire countryside, but a monocrop of anything can’t be good for biodiversity.
So, before the year was up, I came to the realisation that it was me or the nettles around here. I could keep waiting, but actually nothing was going to magically arise from them in the twelfth month.
It was tempting to spray. Could I really hand-dig four acres of nettles in my lifetime? But something held me back. And I soon discovered that with one long heave, the thick yellow roots would come out in lengths up to a metre at a time, stopping only when they crossed the next root, handily raising it to the surface enabling me to continue. I didn’t need to dig at all and could strip large areas in a relatively short (and extremely satisfying) time, with minimal ground disturbance.
The wonder that avoiding wholesale stripping has brought, amazes me every day. It reminds me, in some obscure way, of an Etch A Sketch (now I’m feeling old). I think I must have had a cheap copy of this, as I remember swiping a plastic knob under the screen along its length in order to clear the picture and start again (which google tells me isn’t how an Etch A Sketch works). But that action of swiping away feels strangely similar. Swipe the nettles and have another go.
Only you don’t have to create your next picture in the garden. Nature does it for you. Take out the nettles and there, waiting in the ground are all manner of treasures, just waiting for light and space and off they go.
Sometimes the new picture nature creates is one of sticky weed. Not necessarily much of an improvement. But swipe once more and it might be foxgloves or poppies, bold Solomon’s seal or delicate herb-Robert. It feels like the sort of thing you look back on with rose-tinted glasses, remembering the odd pretty weed as something much bigger: a whole self-made garden. But it’s honestly happening, right here in front of me, in real time.
And, of course, everything that comes up is perfectly suited to the light, moisture and soil conditions; there is no watering, feeding and nurturing through the first wobbly year. It’s chosen to be there, it’s come along once its ready and it’s settled its roots long before it appears above surface, ready to take on the world with complete independence.
The variety of ultra-patient, previously dormant plants that have popped up is quite extraordinary. We have five types of geranium across the garden. Two I don’t like (flowers too small, foliage insipid) and three I adore. So, I leave in the latter and re-Etch A Sketch the former; wondering what might appear next. There is just enough repetition across the garden to bring unity, but a sufficient range of microclimates to bring real diversity and interest. And pretty much everything that comes up – whether it’s a keeper or an Etch A Sketcher – looks right. Intuitively you can feel that it’s in comfy, home territory.
I’ve literally bought a few shrubs to cover our one short fence line, a few bulbs, and a couple of perennials. And along with many, many tiny divisions my wonderful mum has worked super hard to save for me from her very modest-sized garden, that’s it. We’ve created a garden almost from nothing. Everything else has just happened.
And this month, for the first time, it really does start to feel like a garden. Before, it was more of a parkland, but now, with diversity and flowers, it’s beginning its transformation. I love that it’s such low touch, that the garden chooses so much of its evolution for itself. We’re not telling it it must grow this, or look like that, we’re simply taking out the bits we’re less keen on and seeing what happens.
Yesterday, I spotted what I thought was a really striking butterfly for the first time. With the help of google, I discovered it was a cinnabar moth. And cinnabar moths lay their eggs on ragwort. We have a few ragworts popping up in our new wildflower meadow. Pretty enough, but a quite literally toxic problem for our neighbouring sheep. And sure enough, as soon as the ragwort appear, the cinnabars come along to control it. Their red colour signals danger and toxicity to most predators…all but the cuckoo, who can safely process these chemicals. The cuckoo, which we heard for the very first time since we’ve lived here, just this weekend.
The garden is worryingly dry again this year; thank heavens we haven’t planted huge numbers of plants over the autumn and spring. The foxgloves on the higher, drier ground have significant aphid invasions, but guess what, the ladybirds are there having a feast.
I think that’s why the new baby roe in our garden, who also appeared upon our return from Chelsea, doesn’t feel a threat to my plants. He’s clearly growing like mad and eating vast quantities of vegetation, but when most of the plants were self-delivered and looked after themselves from the start, I don’t feel all that possessive. I haven’t spent hard-earned cash and laboured over their planting, watering, feeding and pruning for weeks on end. They just popped up. And if they are eaten something else, possibly even more wonderous, will pop up in their place. There’s no stress and control freakery about it.
How nature balances itself and seeks out new opportunities, with just the lightest bit of bully-taking-on help from us, is just extraordinary. To see it happening right in front of our eyes, at our home, feels the greatest privilege there could be.
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PS I’m never sure whether to keep the photo captions on the main page for ease of viewing, or put them in the background (one click away) to avoid interrupting the flow of text. Could you tell me which you prefer? Thank you!