An Eco-garden in Early April

An English Eco-garden in Early April

David Beeson

The garden at Forest Edge is around an acre or 0.4 hectares. It is longer than wide and ends on the very fringe of an ancient oak and hazel forest that has probably always been there. Our soil is clay-over-chalk and is sticky in winter and rock-solid in a dry summer. Yet, being in a gentle climate in Central Southern England is a great spot!

We have been here over 30 years, and very soon after arriving we decided on the eco-bias to the plot … but it is still very much a garden for us to enjoy and for the grandchildren to have fun in. Sometimes plants get trampled, although mostly it’s in enthusiastically fleeing a rampant grandfather, so no one complains.

[Our garden is visible on Google Earth, so look it up if you wish. Forest Edge, SP11 6LJ. Look for the solar panels and the near-circular conifer bed in the gravel patio.]

We have a mixture of garden areas – possibly one could call them Garden Rooms.

View from the more-open Spring Meadow

Near the house we have a gravel patio with exotic dwarf conifers that are nest sites to various birds in the spring. At any time, our diminutive shrews and wrens search beneath the plants for invertebrates and the zone looks great in winter when elsewhere is closed down.

The Main Lawn has never been fertilized or weed killed, indeed we sow wild seed and diminish the grass by cutting and removing the herbage. In High Summer it is left uncut to flower and feed the butterflies, now it has had a high cut to slow grass growth and smarten it up. A mole established a runway across the lawn before we arrived, and its motorway is still employed when transferring from one side of the garden to the other, its occasional soil heaps are soon spread. At least three orchid species have seeded themselves here – Greater Butterfly, Twayblade and Pyramidal and they flower in summer.

Our garden is a mixture of natives and exotic (non-native) plants

A circle of fairly conventional flower beds surrounds that lawn. These have been renovated during the Covid lockdown with plenty of biogas dregs and mulched wood added to lighten the soil. The insect-eating birds love to explore here. The blackbird especially explore beneath the surface layer, which is agressively thrown asunder to the amusement of human onlookers.

The ground was dug and humus added to lighten the soil. These plants are recycled from elsewhere, but new types are being grown from seed and some purchased by mail order.

While about 50% of the border’s flora is native, the rest are the plants you might find in any garden – Brunnera, daylily, scilla, astrantias and geraniums. While the non-natives may not feed the insect larvae, we do select plants that generate good nectar or pollen. For example, Ammi majus will flow through much of the area this year.

Around half-way down the garden are our two 100+ year old walnut trees. These have yet to show blossom or leaf, however the area beneath them is a mass of colour – part of our uncut Spring Meadow. This grassland has gone from the white of snowdrops to the purple of crocus blooms; yellow wild daffodils are now waning but anemones, white giant hyacinths and blue grape hyacinths are fighting with the yellow of Tulipa sylvestris for dominance. Cowslips and a mass of meadow saxifrage are imminent. Orchids are showing their leaves, although this area is cut before they flower. The final hurrah will be a yellow sea of bulbous buttercups in May. These coat the ground to the delight of wood pigeons who will descend in late May to gorge on their seeds … and trample it down. The area is cut in June (shade and lack of moisture inhibit most plants) and we spend the summer under the shade of the trees!

Ground ivy is a nightmare in the borders but we are content for it to flourish beneath the walnut trees.
White and blue violets cling to the areas adjacent to the walnut trunks.

Non-natives join the locals under the trees. Anemone blanda.

A second, more open and moist Spring Meadow is beyond. It has similar flora but remains uncut for longer because we have our only green-winged orchids here. Twayblade and pyramidal orchids flourish and tall members of the dandelion family attract the late spring insects in their droves.

Tulips flower in a border with Spring Meadow wild daffodils beyond.

Human activity is directed to cut pathways through all the meadow areas, and these give a sculptural feel to the grasslands. The grandchildren have a maze of routes to run or cycle along.

The final zone is the Summer Meadow, surrounded by native hedges. This area is mostly quiescent now, with just the initial rush of cowslips in the well-lighted open areas and primroses dominate in the shade. Snake’s head fritillaries are spreading from around the pond and into the meadow.

Summer Meadow deep in frost. You should spot just a few of our hundreds of wild daffodils, the wild pond, the forest’s fringe and the start of the cut pathways through the meadow.
The western edge of the Summer Meadow was not cut in the late autumn to give space for over-wintering insect larvae. Another patch will be left this year. We cut and remove most herbage to reduce the nutrient levels in the soil – that discourages grasses and gives more space for the diverse flora. The daffodils are Tenby types, originally thought to be a natural wild variety. Most daffodils are of the true wild-type that are found in one secret spot in the woodland. This longer grass is the current site of the long-tailed voles’ nest.

The frogs’ spawn has hatched, and the tadpoles are being chased by palmate newts and dragonfly nymphs. Water boatmen stalk prey beneath the surface and whirligig beetles and pond skaters patrol the top. An unusual alga(Chara) and Spirogyra dominate the water, with float grass and Canadian pondweed also present. Around the edge, in the damp zone, are the emerging leaves of marsh orchids and spotted orchids.

It needs alert eyes, but more orchids have shown themselves in the patch nearest to the woodland – a soldier x monkey, lesser butterflies that both came from donated French seeds, naturally-seeded pyramidals by the thousand, twayblades and sometimes bee orchids enjoy this area. Their flowers are awhile off yet.

Yellow meadow-ant colonies* occur in this Summer (Hay) Meadow, and we have easily found nests of bank voles, while the field voles hide themselves more carefully. Rats rummage in our compost heaps, dormice, woodmice and yellow-necked mice inhabit our coppice. Tawny owls nest most years although we have no evidence yet. Slow worms are here too, with an occasional fox and stoat. Hedgehogs have now become rare visitors, as are rabbits and hares.

[*The ants, I understand, almost never appear above ground. They forage for food on plant roots.]

One of the problems of an eco-garden like ours is the flow of genes from non-natives to natives. Here a wild cowslip has picked up domestic primula genes. This is an issue yet more serious is the flow from Spanish bluebells to the native type as that occurs in both the garden and in the adjacent woodland. The Spanish bluebells came in as seed sold as native bluebell seed and the problem only showed itself several years later. Going back is near impossible.

The end hedge, adjacent to Harewood, has been ‘layered’ to thicken it, although there is little sign of vibrant new growth at this time. New shrub planting has occurred here too. With bird cherry, an uncommon native in our area, and wild dogwood added.

Forest Edge’s plot is garden, but with a strong eco-edge to its design and management. It is biologically diverse, and it is controlled with a light hand, yet occasionally plants change from benign occupant to become ‘weeds’ and they are controlled. We are not a pure nature reserve. We see the wild, native plants as garden plants just as much as tropical cannas that flower near the bungalow.

Our acre could have been a horse paddock – weed killed to remove anything except grass, fertilized to encourage only grass, trampled to a rocky surface and chemically treated to kill off any insect life. We enjoy the contrast.

Under the walnut trees
Vole nest that lies beneath a piece of tin. Slow worms will move in soon.
Interest moves down the garden as the year progresses. This meadow is often at its best in July.
Harewood from our garden. Wild bluebells just emerging.

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