Can history inspire today's nature gardening?

Published: 21 October 2019

Last update: 21 October 2019

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This blog post is written by Rosie Fyles, Head Gardener, Ham House and Garden Rosie Fyles Head Gardener, Ham House and Garden
A mature apple tree in the historic kitchen garden at Ham House and Garden

A historic, formal garden - straight lines, topiary shapes, clipped hedges, repeated planting sequences - is not a place you would immediately associate with 'gardening for nature'. At Ham House and Garden near Richmond in Surrey, we're seeking to change this.

The historic garden at Ham has been lovingly restored to re-create what historically ‘might have been’.

From the formal flower borders, to the wilderness area and productive kitchen garden, many of the plants here today were originally grown by 17th-century residents the Duke and Duchess of Lauderdale.

At the same time, everything we do is with conservation in mind. 

As head gardener I have done a lot of research into the era of the garden's creation. Looking back reveals a historic landscape where nature and the garden worked as one.

" Period plants used in the formal areas dating from 1680s were often those gathered straight from the wild."
- Rosie Fyles, Head Gardener

Design by nature

In primary sources from the time, you can see that the period plants used in the formal areas dating from 1680s were often those gathered straight from the wild. They were self-designed for their own survival, totally reliant on how they interact with nature.

They do not have complex, adapted flowers, bred with human will applied that would send a potential pollinator off their flight path - they tend to be open for beneficial visitors like bees and butterflies.

Taking the historic precedent further, my gardening predecessors were not blessed with the machinery, chemical and synthetic options that we are now when planning maintenance. Their reliance was on tools made of wood and iron and their many, many hands to the job.

Nurturing wildness

The more I’ve learned about the garden's history, the more it has inspired me. Three years ago I inherited a garden run without lawn herbicides; today we are proud to say that the whole garden has been managed on organic principles for ten years. 

'Short grass' for a formal garden in the 17th-century-style, would have been 12-15cm at least and full of wildflowers (we might refer to them as weeds). With this in mind, we have changed the way we manage the formal lawns, allowing longer grass to play host to naturalised bulbs and wildflower meadows - perfect wildlife habitats.  

In the formal South Terrace and nearby Vine Border fiery crimson Canna Lilies take centre stage, along with golden yellow Rudbeckia. Popular imports from trade routes in the 17th century, they do a spectacular job today of extending the flowering season and providing food for insects. 

The South Border full of autumn colour at Ham House and Garden, London
The South Border full of autumn colour at Ham House and Garden, London
The South Border full of autumn colour at Ham House and Garden, London

Wildlife wins

What do these lessons from history mean for nature? We have rare wasps and even rarer beetles. We have a massive range of types of bees.

First thing in the morning, we see baby badger feet have been sliding down our polytunnel walls and badger families have been on overnight outings to pick step-over apples.

This year we hosted a new family of woodpeckers in our kitchen garden, right in front of the café  tables. Setting up home in a declining apple tree, the birds stayed with us, making increasing noise until the little ones were ready to leave.

Excitingly, we have observed diligent jackdaws stripping box hedges of their own stripping pests: local birds are feasting on box moth caterpillar.

As gardeners, we revel in these unique sights, sounds and moments where we feel part of nature. We also get excited formally monitoring for biodiversity when realising that the garden is moving in the right direction. Discoveries of harebells, poppies and cornflower unsown in our new wild turf are dainty reasons for small celebration.

Gardening at Ham is on a 25-acre scale but at home, in my suburban garden I apply the same approaches. Star plant for bees is Echinops ritro, prickling above the grasses in front with its pale blue spheres providing breakfast, lunch and tea in late summer sun.

I still get a kick out of a wood pigeon drinking water from my holiday-purchase terracotta serving bowl when it's the nearest drink to be found. And the self-sown sunflower, mown down once by my black Labrador Dilys, is a symbol of survival, thriving after emergency treatment with sticky tape to re-establish its stem.

" The more I’ve learned about the garden's history, the more it has inspired me."