And what do we start with? Why, sheep of course!
I know what I said in my last blog post, but this is what we in Britain once used to be very good at, namely, compromise. I contacted two neighbouring farmers, who we have known for a long time and are old friends, and we came to a deal whereby they rent some of our land for grazing their ewes and lambs and in return we feed and look after them. Admittedly, they provide the feed, straw and silage, but we gain something intangible, and worth far more than mere money: we are woken by lambs bleating in the paddock outside our bedroom window every morning. I get to see green woodpeckers feeding at the ant-hills while lambs leap around them, completely unconcerned. And best of all, we can look on as a ewe feeds her twin lambs, while contentedly chewing the cud. Makes you glad to be alive.
The first picture showed the initial batch of ten ewes and lambs who were housed in our small barn, to give them a few days to bond together and get used to their new surroundings. Almost a week later, a second batch of ten ewes and lambs had arrived, but by then I had turned the first batch out onto the rich spring grazing of the meadow. In the second picture the new batch of ewes can just be seen behind the plate hurdles in the small barn. By now the original ewes and lambs are looking very healthy: it’s worth remembering that early lamb growth is as much about exercise as nutrition. Currently we’ve got around 35 ewes and their lambs on our farm – almost like the old days!
Normally the garden takes a back seat in March and April, simply because ewes and lambs, straw, hay, feed and late nights tend to dominate our lives. We would manage to take short walks in the garden, usually while exercising the dogs, but with certain important exceptions (like planting potatoes in late March), the garden took second place to the farm. It was holiday time for the weeds, which would produce a wonderful display of flowers in late April, as a reward. But now that the late nights have gone and my sheep work is so much lighter, we’ve been able to get out and enjoy the early spring flowers – and what a great year it has been (so far). Our heavy, moisture retentive, silty-clay soil favours plants such as the Summer Snowflake (Leucojeum aestivum), which I don’t think has ever looked so good. This picture shows them flowering along the base of a low wall. These are examples of the slightly improved variety, Gravetye Giant (named after the garden at Gravetye Manor, West Sussex, home to the famous Victorian gardener William Robinson).
By and large, plants that look good in borders and in formal plantings rarely suit less structured surroundings, but this Leucojeum and its earlier-flowering cousin Leucojeum vernum (Winter Snowflake) can look stunning in a wood or shrubbery.
As that last photo showed, our garden tends to be a bit informal. And there are some reasons for this (aside from the expense of employing several full-time gardeners). For a start, English gardens have always reacted against the stricter formality seen on the Continent, in gardens in the Flemish, French and Italian traditions. Admittedly we English can do such styles very well when we want to, but in our heart-of-hearts I think we prefer a more natural (I almost said laissez faire) approach. Wildlife comes a close second to informality – and the two go well together.
Before we planted our garden, the Fen around us was something of an ecological desert: an intensively-farmed grain plain. Twenty-five years later things have greatly improved and I am convinced that quite a big factor in this improvement has been the availability of winter feed and shelter. So we don’t clear out our borders every autumn, as most of the textbooks preach – in the name of neatness and tidiness. Instead, we leave the asters and other flowers to form seed-heads and dry off. Then, every day in January and February the borders and shrubberies are alive with sparrows, blackbirds, gold finches and long-tailed tits. Our pond is populated with toads and newts who hibernate beneath the collapsed reeds around the edge. In theory, we should clear all this debris away, to make the pond nice and neat, but we don’t. It might get done in the run-up to summer, but not always. And besides, I think the clumps of Leucojeums look great against the brown background. Incidentally, each one of those clumps was a single bulb about 15 years ago; today there must be fifty or sixty – maybe more.
I think there’s a danger that people who manage their gardens for wildlife are somehow ashamed of the fact that they don’t always look neat. This paranoia (and we suffer from it ourselves, sometimes) is a direct result of the post-war obsession with tidiness. I don’t know whether this in turn was a reaction to overgrown bomb-sites (I recall their magnificent stands of Buddleia davidii) in cities like London and Coventry, or whether it was the natural result of the suburbanization of Britain. If you have to live cheek-by-jowel with the families on either side of you, it makes sense if your garden is at least under control: the last thing any gardener wants is an invasion by his neighbour’s Japanese Knotweed or creeping Ground Elder. And by and large, a neat garden is a controlled garden. But having said that, a seeding, uncut-back border in late winter or early spring has a charm of its own. It also provides a wonderful contrast with the neatened-up stands of perennials, rose bushes and shrubs that come into their own so magnificently in high summer – from June onwards. Here’s our Long Border in late March, shortly before we began to clear it out – a process that takes 2-3 weeks, depending on the weather. You can’t clear borders if the soil’s wet – compaction can become a big problem if the summer turns hot and dry.
Sadly, there’s a down-side to wildlife, but it’s just something you have to live with. You can’t combat it without being cruel, and besides, that would be defeating the point of the entire exercise. Quite simply, it’s this: animals don’t always eat what you want them to take. Deer, such as muntjac, will strip the bark from young trees and shrubs; hares nibble growing shoots and various animals graze on emerging leaves, such as the bluebells at the foot of this Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia glyptostroboides – my favourite Latin name: once you’ve learnt it, it trips of the tongue wonderfully).
In late March and early April you also get glimpses of the forthcoming summer garden, such as the emerging golden-green leaves of the delightful miniature willow, Salix Golden Sunshine. We planted this young tree at the main crossing point of the Long Border and it has proved a huge success. It’ll be even better in a few years’ time. And that’s another great thing about gardening: you’re always planning for the future. It helps you take your mind off the political horrors of the present.