Sometimes in life, you just have to wait for the right person to turn up. So it was with our Wild North Garden.
This area of about 16000 square metres (or 4 acres for oldies and Americans) used to be called the cow paddock, on account of it being the paddock where Mark’s dad Felix kept his house cow for many years. Around 1990 – goodness that is thirty years ago – Mark started on the area. First, he milled the old pine trees planted there by his great grandfather 100 years previously, most of which were dead or dying. The purpose was to get timber to build the very large shed we continue to refer to as ‘the packing shed’ because the purpose at the time was to accommodate our mailorder nursery. While there was heavy machinery on site, Mark had them dig out ponds and waterways which are supplied by springs at the lowest point and a not-quite-stream that flows from the neighbours.
He started planting, mostly trees and shrubs. Most of the plant material is unnamed seedlings from his breeding programme so there are quite a few magnolias, michelias and rhododendrons. He also added specimens of the woody trees and shrubs we were selling through the nursery, just to make sure we had them represented somewhere in the garden. The result is an eclectic mix. There is also a beautiful, if wayward grove of giant bamboo.
Over the intervening years, the trees and shrubs have grown and the plans to develop the area have been put on hold year by year. We were just too busy with the rest of the garden and with earning a living. From time to time we would add a bit more. Mark planted the Louisiana iris while I added the Higo iris.
The area had minimal maintenance only – a bit of seasonal mowing in grassy areas and Mark would battle his way in to deal with seedling prunus and other invasive weeds. Come spring, we would venture down to enjoy the ambience of pretty, if wild, spring scenes but it was becoming something resembling Sleeping Beauty’s forest.
Enter Zach, the newest member of our team – the right person to bring fresh energies to this wild area, to tame and shape it to a wild garden rather than an overgrown wilderness. He turned up as a garden visitor last November and happened to have both the right skill set and the ability to share our vision of how the area could look. Sometimes gardening can be positively exciting and it really is a thrill to see this area being brought into shape. It is like the final frontier. This is the last major addition to the garden. The boundary fences with the neighbours mean there is no more room for expansion.
I wrote a few weeks ago that “There is a fine line between a wild garden and an unkempt wilderness”. Canadian gardener, Pat Webster commented on that post: “Wild gardens take an enormous level of skill and attention to detail. I visited one in England some years ago that was designed with ‘wild’ in mind. In its heyday, it may have been superb but when I saw it, the balance had tipped and it was simply too overgrown for me.” This is a new learning curve for us but we have come to grips with meadows and summer perennials over the last decade; we can get our heads around wild gardening.
At this point, the focus is on opening the area up, finding space and light, preserving the plant framework that is already well established while culling the unwanted incursions and removing wayward branches and dead plants. “It has become a woodland,” declared Mark as we stood and looked at the newfound space. Note, dear reader, forests and jungles are dark and dense, vegetated from top to bottom. Woodlands are open and airy with some high canopy but enough light getting through to allow woodland plants below to establish and flower.
Lesson number one on wild gardens has already been determined: never, ever, ever plant climbers like wisteria and honeysuckle, even when it is a very good honeysuckle with much larger flowers that was given to us by the then-curator at Eastwoodhill Arboretum. Rampant climbers need to be in tended, cultivated garden areas. In wild gardens, they simply rampage far and wide and cause no end of problems.
The clumps of what we call cutty grass in this country have been kept as sculptural features. With more light they will fill out further. Is it Carex germinata? Or maybe Gahnia lacera? This is not our area of expertise at all. It is one of our native grasses commonly referred to as cutty grass because it will cut all the skin on your hands if you make the mistake of grabbing it with bare skin. It gave me the idea that I could relocate my surplus plants of the festooning Carex comans ‘Red’ which is more honey brown than red and which just arrived here of its own accord – red tussock. I really like it but it has settled in so happily in the two places I have used it that I need to remove half the plants to allow the others room to let their natural form star. I think I will have enough to feature on the sunny side of the margins in the North Garden.
Mark has bigger plans. His mind is ticking over that now there may be space to explore a large, free-form Oudolf-inspired meadow. Maybe. At least starting with the surplus Miscanthus ‘Morning Light’ I must cull from the new Court Garden – there should be enough to plant close to a few hundred square metres. That might pack some visual oomph.
Whatever happens, we must keep this area as low maintenance and distinctly different to any other area of the garden. It will walk on the wild side and be free from most hard landscaping. There are just a few bridges to build and we are waiting for Lloyd to come back from holiday to start on those.