Wildlife friendly gardening has been gaining interest for some time now, and this year seems to have attained a status close to dominance if RHS Chelsea was anything to go by. More numerous perhaps even than the stylised show-gardens were those on a natural theme; wildflowers were everywhere, although many were in bloom well before their wild counterparts suggesting that these were some of the most well-tended ‘weeds’ in the country. Meadow planting figured strongly in a number of gardens and retail stands seemed to follow the trend, with pots of ragged robin and buttercup adding colour and context to their products.
Easton Walled Gardens, by all accounts, was developing this theme before it was quite so fashionable and a visit illustrates the ease with which aesthetically pleasing displays can incorporate or even comprise, wild flowers and communities.
I have only visited the gardens once before, in snowdrop week in February, and was determined to pay another visit to what looked to be a fascinating project. Sweet pea week (running now until Sunday 8th July) seemed a good excuse to do this – if anybody has only visited for the spring bulbs, I would strongly recommend you see in the summertime too.
The use of wild meadows within the gardens is varied and original. The swathes of long grass beneath the trees within the woodland area is perhaps unsurprising, but their use on the terraces down to the stream is quite unique. Here, the sloping banks are unmown, allowing a mist of Arrhenatherum to form with wildflowers such as scabious and poppy adding instances of colour beneath. Trefoil creeps from the wild areas into the flat walkways which, alternating in strips, are mown short allowing you to walk between the banks of grassland without so much as brushing your legs upon the soft seed heads, nor interrupting the bumblebees which attend the meadows in their masses. These terraces stretch out on either side of the stone steps which descend between topiary shrubs to the plateau before the stream. It is perhaps this novel interpretation of a traditional formal landscaping design which makes the effect so successful.
From these steps, you can see the lie of the remainder of the garden. Over the stream is a superb herbaceous border which would take pride of place in any National Trust formal gardens and beyond, behind the border, is the deep, dark archway of an old yew avenue. Upon either side of this, complementing the heavy shade of the evergreens are light ephemeral meadows arrayed with glorious roses which seem to fizz and overflow from somewhere below the gossamer swell of grasses. One of the key concerns when incorporating nature into gardens is to display intent and these ebullient features, coupled with cut-grass paths which allow you to move through the medley, leave you in no doubt that this is design.
These are not yet species-rich meadows and the range of wildflowers is limited, but perhaps counter to common sense, a wildflower meadow takes time and care, or at least appropriate management, to establish. But it is beginning. The terraces were cleared of trees which had developed for fifty years before they were removed and this long-established habitat would have built up a good organic layer of soil, full of nutrients. Where nutrients are high, grasses will almost always out-compete the smaller, slower wildflowers, towering above and shading them out before they have much of a chance to get started, and those which do are the less aesthetically desirable ‘ruderals’ – species which specialise in quickly springing up and setting seed, moving between transient opportunities. Easton have a programme of removing these ruderals – thistles and ragwort specifically, before they have chance to flower with the eventual aim of reducing their presence within the sward. As for the dominance of grasses; this can be dealt with by reducing the fertility of the soil through cutting and removing the grasses throughout the season (taking the clippings away takes the nutrients with them) or, more drastically, stripping the topsoil to reach the more nutrient poor soil horizons. This occurs naturally when the meadows are grazed by livestock. Another trick is to sow yellow rattle – you can see this flourishing in Easton’s meadows – which actually parasitises the grasses, tapping into their roots and thereby reducing their vigour.
Walking back across the lawn, between swallows which skate across the grass as though on ice, the path takes you to the left into the vegetable garden and the delightfully named ‘pickery’ which is designed for just that – cut flowers abound. Right now, the centrepiece of this garden is the sweet pea collection – over sixty varieties on display and the opportunity to pick your own to take away. As well as the taxonomic arrays there are famous sweetpea’s from history, showing the development of this flower which as been so bred and refined. It is amusing to watch the bees visiting the peas indiscriminately and pollinating at will showing a callous carelessness for the years of linear selection which have created the unique lines, I wonder quite what cross-breeds would grow from the subsequent seeds!
Our visit was completed with tea and cake which are a highly recommended finale to any trip. And I should add, this brief description has concentrated on the meadows and wildlife; this is to say nothing of the giraffes grazing beside the cedar, the countless other plants and flowers of interest such as the collection of hostas and ferns in the shaded archway as you enter the garden, the developing orchard, the swing which was rarely un-occupied or the other myriad thoughts and touches which show the time which has gone into this garden. It is only 11 years into its restoration from its abandoned state and I look forward to returning to see how it continues to develop.
For more details on location and opening hours, take a look at their homepage here.