It is six years to the very day since we closed the garden to the public. And that means it is six years since we started to experiment with turning the park into a meadow. Up until that point, we mowed it all year – no easy task because it is undulating terrain across about four acres filled with specimen trees and shrubs and a stream. The areas that could not be mown – the stream banks and steepest gradients – were kept short with what we call a weedeater in New Zealand but many others know as a strimmer. It seemed important to maintain a similar level of control to that seen in public parks, even though this is a private garden.
Six years on, how do we feel? We love it. It often makes my heart sing in ways in which the previous tight control of grass growth did not. It is a different mind-set altogether.
We weren’t at all sure how it was going to work out. This is good dairying country which means we have verdant grass growth all year round, unchecked by summer droughts and winter cold. We have to mow grass twelve months of the year to keep it under control. And decades of gardening predicated on very tight weed control is hard to overcome. The love of meadows is inextricably linked to a higher tolerance for what are commonly called weeds. Buttercups, daisies, dandelions and Yorkshire fog, we have in abundance.
We were inspired to experiment with a softer edged, more romantic approach to gardening by our trips to the UK in particular, allied to growing concern that our approach to gardening carried a carbon input that was closer to a heavy hoof-print than a foot-print. We haven’t set about systematically measuring any increase in wildlife but we like to think that the changed approach is far kinder to nature. And as we age, we are also considering the labour input to the garden, given the fact that we have no plans to move off the property to a more suitable retirement home. We’d rather spend our energies on more constructive gardening activities than endlessly beating grass into obedient submission.
It is not a gardening style that will appeal to everybody. It is not neat and tidy. It does not show off man – and woman’s – ability to control nature to make it conform to the tight standards of suburban gardening. Some may look at it and think that it is uncontrolled, allowing the place to ‘go back’, although that is far from the truth. Meadows in the garden need management. It is not a question of just stepping back and letting it go. We still take out certain weeds, we mow paths, we manage the growth by mowing twice a year (in January and July), plant to enhance the richness of the meadow mix, we keep certain plants free from the rampant growth – so we keep an eye on it but with a much lighter hand.
There is a problem with the frequent floods bringing unwanted weeds down from upstream which can then get established in the long grass before we have even spotted them. The war against wandering jew (Tradescantia fluminensis) and montbretia (Crocosmia x crocosmiiflora) will be without end unless upstream residents eliminate them. I am not keen on the docks and there is a nasty carex I dig out. But that is a smaller price to pay than trying to control every plant escape except paddock grass.
The next issue for us is to decide what to do with the two big ponds Mark put in back in the early 1990s. Our son raked them out last time he was home a couple of years ago but they are now congested with water weeds again. I have gone through every few years and raked the weeds out of the stream but it is heavy work and my back no longer appreciates it. All three of us here nurse our backs and wrists these days. I am now thinking that we live with what nature gives us. The stream flows well all year round so maybe we should just let it determine its own path and allow the ponds to silt up and return to bog or swamp. The irises, lysichitons and primulas are happy in bog conditions so maybe we are better to just concentrate of enriching the natural bog gardens rather than trying to keep a larger body of water visible. The stream is high in nutrients from dairy farm run-off (we can tell this by the particularly bright green shades of the weeds growing beneath the surface, as a water ecologist pointed out to us) so the water weeds will continue to thrive.
In another six years time, we may well have mega bog gardens but time will tell.