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Unwilding

HUGE congratulations to local garden designers Urquhart and Hunt, who won Best of Show at Chelsea this year - and at their first attempt! What fantastic work and skill to create such a well crafted and thoughtful display. We've been involved in several show gardens over the years, and I can well imagine the stress and difficulty of it all.  

The judge's choice was controversial, as you'd expect from a design called "A Rewilding Britain Landscape". Monty Don asked "was Chelsea flower show winner a 'real garden'" in the Telegraph, for example. Some comments were less measured! The design was a complete contrast to "the people's choice", Richard Mier's garden, an elegant formal design which only won a Silver.

Chelsea judges court controversy, of course. It's great for the show, and it's great for the sponsors of the winning garden. The judges have also been known to jump on a bandwagon - it shows how in touch the RHS is (ahem!). In this case, it has been fabulous for the cause of rewilding. 

For the record, I think Monty is right. I don't think Adam and Lulu's display was a garden. It was a carefully observed and beautifully executed living diorama. This isn't something beavers could have created themselves (and like wild boar, I'm not sure I'd want them in my garden anyway!). They are a really important keystone species and fabulous habitat engineers, but...

I have a dread of people trying to copy such an incredibly tricky thing on their own; they will be doomed to a failure involving lots of nettles and scrub. We'll be fielding even more phone calls from frustrated wannabe "rewilders". 

Recreating an attractive and biodiverse "natural" landscape is difficult. One of my passions - wildflower meadows - are a good illustration of the potential happy combination of man and nature.They need time and effort. These kind of landscape features need planning, design and management - not things most would associate with "rewilding". It's one of the reasons I'm uneasy with the idea. 

We've massively increased the biodiversity in our 2 acre patch of Somerset since we moved here in 2011. We've done this by intervention. This might seem odd to some, given that when we moved here most of it was pretty "wild". You might even say we "unwilded" it. There was a small and unkempt piece of formal garden without much in it. Most of the site was a field of agricultural grasses, which was mown once a year or so.  

The kind of thing we've done?

  • Created wildflower meadows and a wood meadow area, including a range of fruit trees, native and ornamental species (see photo above). 
  • Left some less managed scrubby areas and tussocky grass margins.
  • Planted new native hedges.
  • Hedges laid, and cut in three year rotation.
  • Made a wildlife pond and created wetland areas.
  • Put a green roof on the house.
  • Not used peat or pesticides.
  • Selected pollinator friendly ornamental cultivars for the formal garden element, and combined them with native wildflowers like Red campion, mallow, Vipers bugloss and honeysuckle.
  • Used companion planting in veg area.
  • Created small orchard and espaliered fruit trees in formal garden area.
  • Used hard landscaping (e.g. gabions) to create habitat.
  • Ensured diverse floral resources available for pollinators all year round. Global warming means they need non-native ornamentals. 

Green roof this year - lots of chives!

Most of this has been very simple and straightforward. It has meant we've created a diverse mosaic of attractive habitats. I wouldn't think of any of it as "rewilding", apart from the small area of scrub we have. I wasn't a slave to it either; I'm a peony and pelargonium fan, and I wasn't going to have a garden without them. A big part of what we wanted to do was to encourage as much wildlife as we could, though. I guess it's worth mentioning we're not talking about beavers! Birds (like the barn owls at the bottom of the garden) and dormice are the biggest animals we actively think about. 

I spent a day at Chelsea this year helping out at the Bumblebee Conservation Trust stand in the main pavilion. Their message is pretty similar to mine. Gardens large and small can be - are - a vital habitat for bumblebees and other pollinators and wildlife. They don't have to look like the Rewilding Britain garden - ours certainly doesn't!

We should learn to maximise their value, and to take pleasure in the archipelagos of biodiversity we can create. 

Nature friendly gardening has come a long way since I was at the show in 2011. I was on the Hilliers* stand, promoting wildflower meadow seed packets we had produced to raise funds for charity. The reaction from some of the public was actually pretty hostile.

We're still in a world where people put down plastic lawns, though. In this context the kind of publicity generated by Rewilding Britain this week is more than welcome. 

 

*What lovely people, by the way, and what amazing horticulturalists!