The Walled Garden at Knepp

Sue Marsh reports on our visit to Knepp in May 2024.

The Walled Garden

The walled garden at Knepp was a revelation – as Charlie Harpur, the Head Gardener, once said, “We are gardening hearts and minds as well”.  And they are.

Moy Fierheller, Assistant Head Gardener, delivered a superb illustrated talk not only on the development of the re-wilded garden, but also on the wider Knepp estate so that we understood how we, with our fork and spade, our secateurs, are “rootling”, shaping trees and moving seed just as much as do the longhorn cattle, the Tamworth pigs (and piglets!) and the Exmoor ponies. We are, in other words, all in this together.

There was a wonderful moment when Moy, leading us round the garden, picked up a palmful of soil and told us there would be as many as 100 seeds and other precious components in her hand as in any expensive bag of “compost”.

Charles Burrell and Isabella Tree had called in Tom Stuart-Smith (garnering his ninth Chelsea gold medal that morning!), James Hitchmough, Mick Crawley and Jekka McVicar, the great propagator of herbs, to advise on this life-changing scheme and it was fascinating to compare James’s hillock created from the crushed concrete of a collapsed farm building and sand with Tom’s south-facing and rather more fertile sweep of land, while Moy’s slide showing Exmoor ponies cantering through the garden emphasised Professor Crawley’s exhortation “Not to worry”!!

Similarly, we were told that where James had asked the gardeners to throw the seeds and plants and leave them where they landed, Tom had been more particular about where the plants were to be planted. The result in the middle of May is a calmly beautiful sweep of, inter alia, blue iris, yellow broom, wondrous bushy clematis integrifolia and delicate linum narbonense punctuated by crimson field poppies and the dark purple of dianthus carthusianorum.  Walking along the path below James’s hillock one could look through the grasses and plants much as an animal might, while Tom’s more considered planting soothed the palate.

The whole is peppered with pencil pines and we could be anywhere along the Mediterranean shore!   Importantly, though, the plants are all British and, where endemic elsewhere, part of a British plant family; Nepeta being a case in point since its relative here is the humble mint.

In the kitchen garden the other side of the internal garden wall we were shown a hedge and told that Tom, taking a (virtual) blue pen, had painted wavy lines along its careful shape to indicate how it should now be cut, while the gardener who had been in charge for the last 40 years felt his blood running cold!  Tom’s waves, though, had created shifting dark and light spaces the length of the hedge and made a happy home for insects and birds. And then there were the yews – here Tom took up his shears and cut great masses of foliage in the way that the cattle roaming in the great estate might chew at a tree to find the perfect mix of green!

Where the garden had largely been a croquet lawn, the soil in the kitchen garden had been more carefully managed and, in order to attract a wider group of wildlife, Tom has created “dirty paths”, a liminal space in which Jekka’s herbs were planted and smaller creatures now thrive.

It was all a revelation, and a deeply calming one, so that even a perfectly ordinary self-seeded plantain now appeared elegant and in its right place!