We never realised wielding a rotivator would be so heavy. We took turns, and I realised as I struggled to keep my lines following hers – this is why they have ploughing competitions; it truly is a tough skill. We had to do it twice before we got rid of the front garden turf, tough as taffy and boring as fitted carpet.
We sprinkled yellow rattle in the autumn, hoping it would fulfil its promise to break up soil and rid leftover grass, allowing wildflowers in. It didn’t. Didn’t germinate, apart from three solitary plants which (amusingly) shot up in tree-formed pavement cracks outside our garden, on the kerbside, where the soil is poorer. An enquiry on Nextdoor brings helpful answers about local soil type and about the fact that all our composting has probably made our soil too rich for wildflowers. We took a bit more topsoil out and wheelebarrowed it round the back, before sprinkling all over the bare front garden a mix of ‘native’ wildlflowers and some poppies, edged with ‘naughty Marietta’ marigolds, because we’re still junkies for the gaudy – hooked on brilliant colours. Years of drooling over websites and catalogues full of wine-gum annuals have blunted our taste. We’re in recovery from bedding plants, and it’s going to take a while.
Watching Monty Don waxing lyrical about the froth of his white garden (inspired by Sissinghurst) we counted ourselves lucky that cow parsley was appearing so easily, without any work on our part. We hadn’t expected so much unusual grass to appear, but decided to embrace it as best we could and not fret about the cowslips and yellow tansy, the St John’s wort and toadlfax that we had purchased, scattered, and that had not come up. We’re in recovery, remember? We’re only now learning that a ‘pictorial meadow’ of annuals is a different thing from a true perennial meadow, and that we must learn to tone down our desire for design (just another word for control, when you think about it).
The recent Guardian article on the movement for turning grass verges into meadow – and full-on rewilding in some areas, with talk of beavers and woodpeckers and even wolves – shows that our own small impulse to change how we handle our tiny plot of land is now mainstream (albeit unevenly accepted by local councils, who continue to mow, and mow too early). Still, there’s talk – and hopes – of a ‘green spring‘.
Here in Worthing, we have a recent history of market gardening, and the Downs on our doorstep, and so it’s no surprise to find that we are home to folk who pioneered re-wilding.
Sarah works at the Forest School and decided when she moved here 13 years ago to shift her relationship with the land her house sits on.
We let the garden do its own thing. But if we have a project, the garden accommodates us. Basically, we pause before we intervene. It’s a 2-way relationship. So half our front garden is wild and half is infilled. It wasn’t conscious – just happened.
We’ve noticed an increase in diversity – we rarely come into the garden without discovering something new.
We’ve got bats, more varieties of butterflies – red admirals, fritillaries, tortoisehell, downham blue. Bats, sparrows, goldfinches, all the tits, robin, wren, jackdaws. Toads. So many interesting beetles.
Dare I ask about slugs? I do.
Ignore ’em! I go with Monty Don – if you have a garden that accomodates wildlife, they will take care of it. There will be balance. Leaving trays of water around helps. Our hosta is a little bit nibbled, but it still looks great. Leopard slugs are beautiful, actually. And slugs don’t over eat – our veg is all fine – look! She’s right. She’s got loads of fruit & veg. (By an accident of economy-drive, WoBy household didn’t do nematodes this year – and we’ve still had 90% of our salad and fruit).
Because we’ve got wildlife, including so many birds and hedgehogs, the slugs never take over. Same with bindweed – when it gets out of hand, we just rein it in a bit.
I’m starting to imagine my gardening budget shrinking. I ask – what about fertiliser? I do compost, but I also buy and scatter chicken shit, volcanic dust, liquid seaweed. Sarah leaps up to show me a bucket. Comfrey! She enthuses. We grow loads of it – for free! You cut it, soak it till it goes stinky, shove it on – it’s an amazing natural fertiliser, brilliant on the tomatoes.
Does Sarah agree with my observation, in my face daily since I moved to the suburbs, that people tend to see their garden as extensions of the home, which need to be kept clean and tidy – as domestic space rather than outdoor space?
Yes! It’s become all about lights, hot tubs, decking, outdoor ovens – you don’t need any of that. And ‘garden centres’ – that’s just another retail experience. You don’t need any of that stuff. You can just leave it, sit in it and enjoy it.
We mull over how this impulse is all part of a broader culture of control and taming. Sarah asks if I remember that poem, the satire on Capability Brown? (We can’t find or remember that specific poem, but we do turn up a few in similar mocking vein). Topiary – she muses. Topiary sums it up, really. It’s that historical thing of control. We sit for a moment among the tangled green and the garden’s hum, in refuge from and depressed by the twin torments of modernity and capitalism.
Sarah’s last hot tip for us novices? Relax. Don’t weed unless you have to. So, I weed the passage enough to get my bike through, but no more. Just enjoy being outside – you don’t need lots of labour or loads of kit
While ‘gardening’ is a modernist control activity, no doubt about it, the production and policing of a boundary between the domestic and the unruly ‘outside’ also connects in to what a sociologist might name as the ‘domestic fortress‘ phenomenon. This links it to acts of enclosure and territorial defence such as garden walls and fences (even flagpoles!) The garden enacts a form of banal nationalism. We’re rather good at that kind of thing in England.
But is a new desire for wildness emerging?
Last year, folks on our street were entertained by a self-seeded courgette plant which grew to flower-show beauty in a crack at the pavement corner. All the trees along the kerb on our street offer chances lately for interesting flowering, with variety enough for any plant collector. Fox and cubs make a change from yellow dandelion at the verges – and haven’t yet been declared ‘invasive‘ around here. Not seen any blue hearts in gardens around my own neighbourhood yet, but I am seeing plenty of wild patches.
Sarah explains to me that specifically evolved pollinators require specific habitats. And pathways between the habitats. She says that a few isolated wild patches is not enough: – just as hedgehogs need hedgehog highways and holes in fences, pollinators also need highways and resting stops, as they move from one patch to another. She suggests that we re-frame how we look: an unruly kerbside is not a ‘mess’, but a wildlife resting place which helps nurture biodiversity. She tells me that Thomas a Beckett school was a flagship for polli:nation work, and that the kids she teaches at the Forest School are really switched on and informed about how things work, much more educated and environmentally aware than us adults, mowing our sterile green turf.
But apparently not everyone shares the joy.
Opening the Inside Tarring Magazine for July, we read:
June was also a month of weeds in the streets. People are divided in their feelings on the subject, we need our insect and wild flower biodiversity, but we also prefer not to live in a mess. I was reliably informed that weed killer spraying will be taking place in Tarring throughout July
This leaves WoBy very puzzled. How we can be for biodiversity but also pro weedkiller spraying?
We need to speak to someone who understands what’s going on here. Big picture, not just the kerbs of Tarring.
Just popping out for another interview. More next week.