Gardening is a paradoxical activity. We talk of gardening bringing us closer to nature yet leave Nature in charge and a garden soon becomes a thicket of botanical thugs. Gardening is all about keeping nature in the place we define for it. At one extreme, say a classic French potager, there’s no doubt that the gardener has the upper hand. Towards the other end of the garden spectrum are the relaxed (and highly fashionable) borders of billowing grasses and drifting perennials which offer a picture of nature enhanced. Picture perfect wildflower meadows may be a happy accident of local soil, seed and haymaking or they may be laboriously created by stripping off excessively rich topsoil, digging, raking, seeding and weeding. Is the first of these more natural than the second?
The wildflowers which naturally colonise the rich soil of our Berwick garden are big, bold and sometimes beautiful. There’s no room for them in our plans for the flat ground near the house or the gentle slope of the orchard but the hill is their garden. Backlit by morning sun the strongly ribbed leaves of hogweed are just as dramatic as an exotic Gunnera or Rogersia.
In early summer the broad umbels of white hogweed flowers are busy with bees, hoverflies and beetles. The seed heads which follow make dramatic silhouettes on the skyline and attract chattering parties of colourful goldfinches.
From the human point of view, tall spikes of rosebay willow herb are the perfect contrast to the flat hogweed heads (if you’re not worrying about their seedlings colonising your flower beds).
Great hairy willow herb is a close cousin with a very different style. Where the rosebay has stiff purple stems and smooth dark leaves everything about the great hairy willowherb is soft and downy. Close up, the flowers of the two species may be a similar colour but seen from a distance one plant is a brightly colourful statement while the other is a pink-tinged cloud.
There are less assertive wild plants on the hill too, feathery leaved yarrow in shades of cream and palest pink, juicy wild sorrel (which make a perfect sauce for fish), ferns half hidden in shady corners and purple vetches scrambling through tall grass stems.
Grasses make up the fabric through which all the colourful strands of wildflowers are threaded and these grasses come big and bold too. Over the years cocksfoot and tall meadow grass layer new stems on old, forming solid tussocks which smother out lower growing grasses. Down at ground level there are patches of bare earth under and between the tussocks, offering a network of hidden passages to voles, hedgehogs and rabbits. The tussocks make ankle turning obstacles for big footed humans and it takes a season of regular cutting to make a path of soft, walkable grass.
So where’s the gardening in all this? The present mix of grasses and wildflowers developed its uneasy equilibrium over decades of grazing by horses and goats. Since the grazing was left to rabbits alone brambles have been creeping down the hill and tree seedlings from the neighbouring wood have started to put down roots. It might be interesting to simply watch the natural progression from grassland to scrub to woodland but trees high up on the hill would cast unwelcome shade on the garden down below. We could fence off the upper part of the hill and get a couple of goats. (Some members of the wider family think that’s a good idea but they won’t be around to keep the goats out of the vegetable garden).
Instead I’m planning to garden the hill with a light touch, a scythe and a mattock. I’m gradually cutting and leveling paths through the vegetation, editing plant groups to favour interesting wildflowers over too many docks and nettles. We have plans for a sitting area on top of the hill and a dell leveled out of the slope lower down. In years to come there will still be plenty of tussocks to hide small mammals but there may be more colourful wildflowers. There will be berries for birds, wild roses for the bees and a pond for frogs and newts. This will be a garden but definitely a wild one. Future visitors may be fooled into thinking Nature did it all herself.