So today was our second day at RHS Rosemoor. We always like to split a new garden into at least two days, the first to get the lay of the land and the second to go back in more detail. In fact you’d need to go two days a week for a year to truly get the measure of the place. After my big worry yesterday I was able to relax and enjoy the gardens for what they are and, hardling surprisingly, we spent a lot of time revisiting the wild meadow areas. The first thing to say is that the RHS aren’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. These meadows are as ‘artificial’ as any of the other (equally beautiful) gardens. It’s we visitors who like to put labels like “wild” and “cultivated” on what are basically different styles of garden: this kind of “wildflower meadow” style is developed by sowing and planting, using any means that works, for instance some of the plants are developed in modules and planted out. There’s no purism in the selection of species; no absolute rule that only native plants or archaeophytes are allowed in, and a scientific mowing regime is applied to encourage self-seeding. Plants that don’t do well, or do too well and start choking the others out are dealt with by removal. This is a highly labour and resource intensive version of ‘natural’.
Imagine my sadness at reading in today’s Guardian that while many of us are working flat out to try to turn around this environmental and ecological catastrophy, our government are secretly eroding controls on harmful and cancer causing chemical insecticides that are absolutely banned in the EU but which may well be reintroduced by ministerial fiat if we leave. This is the greatest danger we’re facing today. While I absolutely applaud the environmental efforts of bodies like English Heritage, the National Trust, The RHS and other non governmental authorities, we can’t save the world by building a few nature reserves like insect zoos.
Today I had a long conversation with a woman from Wolverhampton who is (pretty much singlehandedly) trying to build a wildflower meadow on a piece of land next to a housing estate. Last year was a terrible year for her and most of her spring sown seeds died during the hot summer, but she’s not daunted and today she was in Devon, at Rosemoor, trying to find out how she can give things a better chance and develop the plot. Her budget was about £250, and I think she might just pull it off, but all her work could be undermined in the stroke of a pen by a minister in thrall to the agrichemical industry lobby. I’m not very big on organised religion these days but sometimes I long for a bit of smiting from a higher power. Just a small plague of boils would do, as long as it was targeted at the right people. Better avoid the flies and frogs, though, in case Bayer come up with some new and even more horrible chemical for dealing with plagues of flies and frogs. The only (and more sensible) alternative is to make a stand with those who are trying to end this madness, and change the way we think about our relationship with (and complete dependance on) the earth.
This is a white crab spider – I’ve never seen one before and neither had the gardener at Rosemoor who found it. I think it’s not so much rare as difficult to see, since it’s a bit of a pirate, ambushing its prey by sitting on a white flower and blending in until the unfortunate victim alights and gets more than it bargained for. If I’ve got the ID wrong blame me and not the gardener, I just googled “white UK spiders” and came up with this elegant assassin.
So our first day at Rosemoor was not nearly as wet as the forecast promised, although we kept our waterproofs on all day. Last night’s rain was prolonged and heavy so we weren’t taking any chances. Our main interest was in the vegetable gardens because I wanted to find someone who could help us to understand what happened to our onions this year. So I trailed around with the pictures on my mobile, accosting gardeners and largely discovering that they were no wiser than we were. Aphids were mentioned, as were all the usual suspects – flies, fungi and eelworm, but none quite fitted the bill. In the end Madame suggested that it could have been that the sets, which arrived early and had to be stored for ages, had simply deteriorated before we planted them out. The idea made sense to both of us, although it would mean that almost everyone else on the allotment site stored them badly as well. Anyway we’re getting an email address for a free ID service for members and I’ll send off the photos to see if there are any more suggestions.
As ever there were some wonderful things to look at – alliums were everywhere, as befits their recent ‘must have’ status; and as wide a range of plants as you could hope to see, but I’ll never be a gardener in the Gertrude Jekyll sense. Notwithstanding the efforts to make borders and beds look “natural”, there couldn’t be anything less natural than this kind of English garden, absolutely stuffed with non natives and hybrids it reminded me of the way the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford used to be, apart from the fact that the labelling is a lot better. Two large tulip trees were still in flower, the photo on the right above is pretty much real size, and very spectacular they are.
I think the biggest question I came away with centred on the idea of nature. I have to confess right now that I’m a bit of a fundamentalist, and it’s not something I feel particularly happy about but my default position is that the less human intervention there has been, the better I like it. I can see a million reasons why that’s an unhelpful mindset because if anything is dynamic and ever-changing it’s the natural world and there’s no point in railing against Himalayan balsam, for instance because it’s here for good.
Much of the area occupied by Rosemoor is a relatively recent (1989) addition to the older gardens and involved digging out 13,000 tons of heavy clay and redistributing it around the gardens to achieve level beds. That’s a lot of dirt being turned over and moved around, enough to keep a ‘no-digger’ awake for a week. So you just have to accept that this is a blank canvas garden of the kind beloved by hard landscape contractors, big flower shows and TV gardening programmes.
And I think I just have to accept that gardens like this are showcases where you can go and look at national collections of your favourite plants, and exquisite displays of plants from all over the world, and I’m sure that if I raised this with the RHS they would say ‘we’re not trying to recreate a natural landscape we’re creating a natural looking one’.
However, there came a moment when the dilemma became acute for me and that, ironically, was when the garden started to offer something I really wanted to see. There are now some quite large areas of wildflower meadow which I fell upon with joy. There were southern marsh orchids in flower, ragged robin, knapweed, oxeye daisies, umpteen grasses like crested dogs tail and so on, yellow rattle and an unexpected white flower that I don’t think I’ve noticed before which turned out to be Star of Bethlehem – Ornithogalum angustifolium . It was all too good to be true, surely? There, in a patch half the size of a football field, was a collection of plants I’d expect to find one at a time in a day’s search over a much wider range. All this in an area that had been turned over by earthmovers less than 30 years ago. It’s a wonder, a triumph of science and the gardener’s art. A horticultural Las Vegas in the depths of a Devon valley. I’ve never seen a better display of plants in a wildflower meadow; it exactly fits our current anxieties about biodiversity, and I don’t suppose the birds, the insects, moths and butterflies that flock to it will give a hoot whether it was there in 1930 . Compared with the usual miserable sowing of ‘wildflower mix’ that developers ususlly throw around their bleak gulags to persuade the planners that they really care about nature, this was xanadu. So why was I troubled? I think a large part of it was my stupid attachment to authenticity – whatever that means – and the truth is, starting from where we are (which is a pretty dreadful starting point) there’s no other show in town except the Las Vegas route, re-creating at great expense and with enormous skill, the flora and fauna of the environment we’ve allowed to decline to the point of no return. There’s no way back to the good old days before we lost nine tenths of our wildflower meadows, because simply abandoning a patch of ground to ‘nature’ can’t possibly succeed.
So my takeaway point is that there’s no cheap way of restoring these habitats. If we’re serious about restoring them, throwing around a handful of imported and non-native wildflower seed is a dangerous distraction. It will take time, skill and an abundance of resources. Notwithstanding my reservations, I think the RHS have cracked it, bless them.
And just one more little joy – they’re developing a new orchard here and it’s dedicated to one of Madame’s old bosses – George Gilbert, a delightful man who probably knew more about apples than anyone else alive. We also saw a plaque in his memory at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, commemorating his contribution to the gardens there. He died in 2007, and took with him a lifetime of experience. His students are a big part of the future if we’re ever to rediscover and recreate the lost varieties of apples, pears and soft fruit, lost to careless agricultural policy, and that’s another star for the RHS who do so much to train the next generation of gardeners with apprenticeships, courses and such like.