I was lucky enough to be invited back to visit Perchill by my best friend in the whole wide world Sarah Raven. We hadn’t seen in each other in such a long time (the press event last year but she is a very busy lady) and I know we were both looking forward to the catch up.
Sadly Sarah was rushed off her feet with cooking, flowering and chatting biodiversity in the garden. I managed a big wave across the tables and I think she felt calmed by the presence of her best friend, even if she couldn’t quite see me.
This year Sarah was focusing on the role of sustainability and biodiversity in gardening. Sarah has always propounded natural and earth friendly practices in her garden, even making a television series back in 2012 about protecting nature’s “Bees butterflies and blooms” which is where she met biodiversity expert Dr Steve Head. Steve came to grade her garden for biodiversity and awarded her a 5/10. She was utterly furious and they have worked together ever since to create a more harmonious and diverse garden!
The day began with a trio of legends. Sarah opened the talk with her ten top ways to create biodiversity in the garden which I have shared at the end of this article. Her passion for creating a harmonious garden shone through and it struck home that she has been quietly pioneering for change and good garden practice for decades. Not just a pretty Dahlia grower!
Her husband Adam Nicolson took to the floor to talk about his love for British garden birds and how to protect them. He referred to the extraordinary project in Bedfordshire which is now home to the most “phenomenal woodland, complete with over 30 nightingale territories, 350 different warbler territories. The farmer achieved this repopulation by doing nothing at all”. Adam explained that the woodland, left to regenerate and rewild, has become an incredible ecosystem that supports all types of birds. Once I had recovered from the shock of listening to the 5th Baron Carnock (he doesn’t use the title) and writer of a gazillion wonderful books on nature and history and grandson of Vita Sackville-West and Sir Harold Nicholson, I was able to listen to this unbelievably knowledgeable and charming man (of course my best friend Sarah Raven would be married to someone extremely clever and delicious).
After some truly wonderful banter and heckling from husband and wife, the unassuming professor who studied Zoology and Geology at Cambridge University; and taught zoology, marine science, ecology, and physiology at Oxford University, the University of the West Indies in Jamaica, and Sultan Qaboos University in Oman, where he became Assistant Dean of Science Dr Steve Head quietly stood up.
Dr Steve took us through a series of slides but this was the one that really stood out.
Dr Steve began to talk about the currently controversial topic of “Rewilding”, “Ah yes”, I smiled smugly, sitting back in my chair because we have pioneeringly allowed areas of our garden to ‘rewild’. We will often sit in the evenings alfresco with friends, drinking glasses of champagne and laughing merrily saying “yes, we are a friend to nature, we are very conscious of giving over areas to Wilding“ (we’re simply lazy and can’t cope with what we have managed to tame). This is generally accompanied by tinkling bourgeois laughter as we clink glasses and stare dismally into the undergrowth of doom.
There have been enormous rumblings between figure head gardeners Monty Don (“puritanical nonsense”) and Alan Titchmarsh stating that (“The rewilding craze is an “ill-considered trend” loaded with “misleading propaganda” that will “deplete our gardens of their botanical riches” and be “catastrophic” for wildlife.)
Steve’s graph beautifully illustrates that doing nothing will be harmful to our gardens. Rewilding a garden doesn’t mean doing nothing, or “letting nature take over”. Nasty pioneer plants take over and, eventually, colonising trees shade out the light for other plants. Lack of plant diversity leads to lack of insect diversity and abundance of other life. A garden is only complex and species-rich because of the interventions of the gardener.
This is exactly what has happened to our garden in the ten years that we have been here. The areas that we have left to run wild are now bramble and nettle (we do get a lot of delicious blackberries and happy Cabbage white butterflies but I suspect Dr Steve might demand a bit more for his “diverse” requirements. The smile was wiped from my face and I began to nod urgently and emphatically at definitely not ever just letting your garden go to wild for good. Ever.
Dr Steve blinded us with science (ok some very simple slides that were very clear) and then led us a merry dance through Sarah’s garden exploring tester pots placed in different spots to monitor insects and garden life.
We actually didn’t find very much and my heart went out to Dr Steve, he was brilliantly excited about a small beetle (“which one? Was it Ringo?” which is my husband’s favouritest joke ever. We found a dead ant and then joy of joys, Steve’s day was made with the arrival of a tiny field mouse. I wondered if I should offer my cottage for research purposes, just that morning I had been met by a scuttling beetle in the bathroom (I hailed Ringo and bypassed a bath), mice pop in and out to say hello and steal food from the larder, a shrew is currently playing hide and seek with our dog Dottie around the brickwork of our cottage and the ant invasions this summer have been overwhelming. “Hurray!” I thought, our garden may be a failure but our cottage is overwhelmingly diverse.
Lunch was served in the stunning greenhouse where Sarah gave a wonderful demonstration on making a truly delicious Greek dish Paximadi with barley rusks, black olives feta and a variety of home grown tomatoes “I always knew where to find the children when we were late for school: I would head to the greenhouse to discover them munching their way through all the tomatoes”!
After lunch we were invited back to the barn where Sarah talked us through the fascinating process of Dahlia breeding.
Over 30 thousand varieties of Dahlia are grown in these fields, Sarah and her team pick a selection and then grow twenty plants from each, testing for durability, longevity and tuber strength as well as shape colour and pollination count (this is done brilliantly scientifically by watching to see where the bees land!). The new breed can then be released once there are over 1000 available. It is rather a long process!
Apart from reeling with joy at meeting so many extraordinary people – I also met Andrea Childs who is as beautiful and kind and friendly as her magazine is glorious (she is the editor for one of my favourite ever magazines – Country Homes and Interiors ), Kel of @dirtygardenhoeuk who gave up her career to retrain with the RHS who was utterly gorgeous and equally in awe of La Raven and the lovely Adam from @viewfromthepottingbench who has a fantastic podcast as well as starting a super exciting new houseplant project.
My takeaways from this unbelievable day of joy were two things (apart from some fab new recipes and a goodie bag of garden joy): I am definitely best friends with Sarah Raven because she said how lovely it was to see me again and Steve’s final words (he didn’t die – it was just his summary) “Bio receptivity – make a frame and life will come”.
Thank you for reading, I am afraid I got a little bit over excited. I am off to create more areas of water in the garden and leave you with a few more pretty snaps of one of the most magical places in the world and my best girls top ten ways to encourage biodiversity into your garden.
Sarah’s top 10 lessons in biodiversity
If you’re yet to venture onto the path of sustainability, these are my recommended steps that all gardeners should take. Make sure you are doing four or five of these steps right now and aim to add one or two every six months or so. If you really want to make an impact, go the whole hog straight away and adopt all ten.
- STOP USING CHEMICALS
Try to avoid using chemicals to mitigate pests and weeds. As we all know, insecticides are there to kill, and it’s unwise to use herbicides and fungicides as these heavy chemicals will wipe out microorganisms below ground.
At Perch Hill, we use physical barriers against slugs and snails in a wet year and have found they work well. Strulch (a form of rough-cut straw), a moat of wool pellets, or a good 15cm zone of enclosing grit makes the world of difference when reducing damage from slugs and snails.
Companion planting is also an effective way to manage pests. We underplant tomatoes with basil, roses with small-leaved salvias, summer savory under broad beans, and our lupins grow through a sea of tagetes which deters the aphids, so they don’t then overwinter to feast the following spring.
- EMBRACE PEAT-FREE GROWING MEDIA
Peat is a valuable carbon sink in the wild, and peat-based compost destroys that sink and adds additional carbon to the atmosphere, so it’s important to steer clear. More and more successful alternatives are in production, including composted bark that has less of a carbon footprint than coir.
To learn more about sustainability and our environmental policy visit sarahraven.com/environmental-policy
- THINK ABOUT WATER
Now is a great time to get ahead and implement water storage solutions to keep your garden hydrated and happy throughout next summer.
Providing sources of shallow water for bees and birds is also invaluable. I love to sit and watch our water feature, an old, repurposed animal water trough with a 10cm flattened edge.
Different bird varieties use it to wash and drink, and bees, wasps, and butterflies fill the edges in a hot day, drinking away.
If you’ve got room for a pond, add one. There’s almost nothing better for biodiversity than having a shallow-edged pond, and you’ll have frogs and toads that will munch away happily on your slug population. There’s nothing they love more.
- FORGET IMMACULATE GARDENING
Now is the time to rethink your traditional manicured garden look and allow your borders, plants,
and hedges to become looser and free flowing. This will enable more wildlife to live there, with you,
and thrive. Link up with your neighbours and encourage them to create wildlife corridors, linking garden to garden.
- FEED THE BIRDS
At Perch Hill, we grow plenty of seedy plants and use bird feeders, but only put out as much food at once as they can consume in a few days, and don’t forget to clean feeders before refilling. This simple step limits the spread of devastating parasitic diseases, that affect much-loved greenfinch, chaffinch, and garden tits.
- INTRODUCE EARLY FLOWERING PLANTS
In the UK, we’ve wiped out almost all our flowery meadows which have traditionally provided forage for birds, butterflies, and bees. gardening to replace those lost plants with varieties that will bloom
in February and March, will ensure birds and pollinators have access to food. Varieties such as iris reticulata, polyanthus are all good choices, followed by single dahlias and salvias, which flower later in the year. Why not create a chart to ensure you have a succession of flowering plants throughout the entire year.
- FRUITS AND SEEDS, YES PLEASE!
Providing garden birds with sustained meals couldn’t be easier. Adding roses that form hips is an excellent choice, along with planting a myrtle bush for dunnocks, bluetits, and gold finches to feast away. Instead of cutting back brambles and hedgerows, allow these to flower and fruit, and of course, hawthorn and crab apple are always firm favourites.
- CONSIDER A DIVERSE RANGE OF PLANTS
Wildlife thrives with a wide range of plants and structures – a tree, with a climber growing up it, a decent-sized shrub or two, perennial bulbs, and annuals, including grasses and grains.
It’s true that our native plants are valuable, but don’t worry too much about this. Insects and birds won’t avoid more exotic varieties if they have the right forage or protein-rich seed available. Like humans, pollinators also benefit from a varied diet.
To learn more about sustainability and our environmental policy visit sarahraven.com/environmental-policy
- REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE
Forget about purchasing brand-new things, and reuse what you already have. When applying this principle to the garden, it’s a lot more manageable than you might think.
At Perch Hill, we now put many of our old empty plastic pots and polystyrene plant trays into the bottom of our whopper pots rather than the bin. They fill about 1⁄4 to 1/3 the bottom of the pot, which we then cover with a layer of fleece, and then in goes the compost. This saves on the volume of compost required, plus it’s better for the environment and fine for the plants.
Make your own compost if you have the space, but if you’re short of room, what about a wormery or Japanese Bokashi kitchen composting system. Making your own compost is incredibly rewarding and excellent for soil health too.
To discover more about the sustainability and environmental policy at Sarah Raven, please visit the dedicated page on the website: sarahraven.com/environmental-policy