Before you can really care for anything you need to understand it. Before you can do that, you need to know what you actually have. Without that developed knowledge you could end up with an assemblage of good intentions, but never realising your full potential.
Though I’ve had a bit of time away from penning thoughts in this format I’ve certainly not been away from the garden. Despite the initial strain of dealing with a huge garden with very few team members remaining, amongst the stresses and down days I can generally say that six months later I’ve never been more in touch with the garden than I am now. I don’t know if that’s a sad thing or not. Should it really take an event of this sort of extremity to connect a Head Gardener with their garden? Would I have ever managed to separate myself from the daily goings on of a busy property enough to have the time to take in all the subtle nuances of life in the garden? Ultimately whether it does or doesn’t is by the by, this is where we are, and it’s really shone a light on the possibilities for the future.
Whilst the destination remains the same the journey has to change (insert image of some kittens or a sunrise over the ocean here, classic motivational poster). It may sound silly, but it’s true. The ambition for the garden has always been about restoring its Edwardian blueprint overlaid with a plant collection that would have delighted former owner and horticultural enthusiast Reginald Cory. This will involve renovating existing parts of the garden and bringing back to life features that have been lost over time. The change though, must be a deeper consideration of the choices that we make whilst organising this sort of major piece of work and the far-reaching impact that we can have when broadening our horizons. The main focus for this consideration is biodiversity in the garden and the idea of the Garden Nature Reserve.
‘The gardens have been teeming with life this year’ he says, clearly not having paid enough attention in previous years. Though in my defence it has been a lot more noticeable recently, or rather I’ve had more time to take notice. But the wildlife hasn’t moved in because people moved out for a few months. It has always been here and has been gradually increasing based on a few practical management changes and the increasing abundance of flowering plants across the garden. This is anecdotal of course. Though we have been keeping an eye on things and been delighted at observing something new in the garden, we have never made a concerted effort to properly survey and record the wonderful abundance of life that calls the gardens home. And it is important to recognise that the gardens are a big part of the reason that this life is here with its flowering plants that provide forage for pollinators throughout the year, its clean waterbodies that provide hunting and breeding grounds for a variety of invertebrates, amphibians and birds as well as the abundant trees, shrubs and ground flora that provide overwintering and nesting habitat for birds and mammals.
I know what you’re thinking and you’re right, it was indeed the presence of mining bees that sparked this epiphany. We observed several species of mining bee having been active on a fairly exposed slope near the café. An area that at the time was devoid of human life and had little vegetation covering it. The bees seemed delighted. Fast forward a few months and in preparing to re-open the area was roped off and signage arose to protect the site for the bees. The ropes have remained, and the grass has grown up covering much of the previously close mown, patchily covered slope. It’s a perfect example of managing with good intentions and it was only after reading the Great Dixter Biodiversity report and the mention of species that thrive on bare ground that it occurred to me that I had never bothered to check what the ideal habitat for these species was, I’d just barriered it off to protect them. Was it the right thing to do? Should I have mown it late in the evening to maintain the short vegetation and bare patches of earth? Really, I didn’t know, and I didn’t think about it, because I didn’t understand exactly what was there and more importantly why it was there. This is why we’re hoping to launch a major study soon to really understand what we have so we can manage in a more informed way in the future.
The most important thing about the idea of the garden nature reserve is that it exists because of the garden. The abundance of native and exotic flowers, shrubberies, mixed tree canopies, garden buildings, bare earth, compost heaps, water features, lawns and meadows are what makes it so valuable. These are features that are found in most gardens and that is why the idea is easily transferable to most sites, regardless of the time period or style that the garden represents. Just a bit more understanding and adjustment of a few practices will vastly improve the value of our gardens and ensure that we, as gardeners, play our part in supporting the rich biodiversity that exists all around us.