The once upon a time of our wildlife garden; happily ever after continues.
My studio rests within the bounds of the two and a half acres surrounding our property: ‘Madrigal’, beyond which there is no visual boundary to the wide-open countryside beyond.
Madrigal became our home in 2001. An assuming modern property set in the British countryside, on the Dorset/Wiltshire border, flanked by farmland on three sides. Land managed more sympathetically for Nature to the south. Our acreage, tucked into the terrain like a giants pocket handkerchief. Once intensively cultivated to grow maize and pasture grass, on purchase, it had been re-designated garden.
The ground close to the house was unloved, perfunctorily mown grass; lawn for want of a better word. There were no borders; no plants or flowers to speak of, cultivated or wild, save a few daisies and dandelions. Stalwarts though they are, even they were struggling, the mow too low to enable them to thrive and grow. The price of our property included a shiny, red sit on mower, clearly this turf was its legacy. The best features of our new found habitat, besides its view and location, were a mature Copper beech, two Oaks, some Sycamore and a Birch, standing in queue along a ghost hedge line, 200 meters in from the current wayside. Other mature trees stood along the southern boundary. A mature hedge marked the bottom edge. Best of all however was the potential of the land itself, our intention to restore it to Nature; to re-wild, as it is now fashionable to say.
Initially, with Neil still working full time in the corporate world, and house improvements taking precedence, we simply embraced the prospect of what Nature had to offer, given scope, or, in other words, gentle neglect. We switched to slow mow, waiting on what may flourish. We let those lawn daisies and dandelions grow. Briefly, as this is a précis, not a novel; hopefully, in time that ambition may also flourish, very little did, flourish that is.
A field of sun-bright creeping buttercup in flower, is not a joyless wonder. Neither so, the soft mauve light of creeping thistle, hazing the field in late summer. Even the docks presented with their own tenacious charm, baking to the richest nut brown, their foxy tails of seeds wagging proud and tall towards the fall. But that was pretty much it: creeping buttercup, creeping thistle and docks. Oh, and nettles, lots of nettles, not to mention the bindweed; there, I just did.
This was pretty much the status quo for a year or so. Neil did fire up that shiny sit on mower, riding it like a weed wrangler, the kids in tow, enjoying trailer trips around the Ponderosa. A local farmer topped it for a few years in a row, but in time, disdainfully dismissed it as ‘rubbish’; or words to that effect: too much pernicious weed, not enough grass. Of course this was bound to result from stopping use of the chemical fertilisers, weed killers and pesticides with which our land had previously been mistreated. Ultimately nothing good can grow from such an agricultural cocktail. More aggravation, than agriculture; year on year, persisting with such aggressive land management, wares many a good farmer down
Over to Neil the weed wrangler, and his trusty steed, the mower, for the next few years. Once, when the sit on shut down, he cut the whole field with a hover mower, but that’s another story. We did once rake all the prickly cuttings into ‘hay cocks’; again, another story and I did promise to keep this brief, in the interests of which, I’ll reel forward to 2007 when we met Andrew George.
Andrew, where to begin! Wild at heart, Andrew is a celebrated fine artist; where his passion for wild landscape began? Perhaps more of an existential question. Its expression both on canvas and through his landscape design, proof of the man. Not only does he lay down the beauty of the natural world as a painter, he lays down the landscape itself, landscaping the earth as a sculptor fashions form, painting with planting.
He creates beautifully rich wildlife habitat, both within the context of gardens and wider nature reserves. Just so, with the tenacity of a trowel and the sashay of a wizards wand, he helped us to transform Madrigal, a decommissioned farmers field, into our heartland, brimful of love for wildlife. I say trowel, read: digger, dumper, tractor, plough. I say wizards wand, read a wizard wide knowledge of wildflowers, butterflies, birds and other wild kin.
My great love, my artistic muse, as I often describe it, is the butterfly. Ostensibly then, Andrew designed and helped us to build a butterfly garden. His comprehensive knowledge is shared in his book: “The Butterfly Friendly Garden”; available from here on my website (via the shop page) or, alternatively through naviho.com
How Andrew helped us to create a butterfly friendly garden, and how we built an abiding friendship, began with an artists impression; of course it did! Oh, and a story, Andrew is also an exemplary story teller. A wise soul.
Initially Andrew paced up and down, around and around, Neil and I following on; picture the Pied Piper of Hamelin, in the famous German fairy tail, the children in attendance. As we wandered our wilds we came across our, then very apparently, resident Hare. ‘Our Jill’, habitually asleep on a small mound, Neil had hefted into shape in the corner of the field. Much of the gardens story formed around her, lying there that day in her grassy form.
Cutting a long and glorious story short, Andrew swiftly established that much of the ‘agriculturally improved’ top soil had to go! What wasn’t removed would be used to create barrows and mounds, which would, in turn be buried alive with a layer of the substrate, necessarily dug down to in the process of removing the top soil. A large area would then be deep ploughed and re-sown with a mixture of cornfield annuals and perennial wildflowers. Then, there would be an orchard. Old fashioned varieties of apple trees, planted on shallow mounds, which would in themselves become micro habitats, ideal for establishing some our our beloved butterflies preferred food and nectar plants; kidney vetch, wild thyme, marjoram and so on. There would be a special den for Neil and I to hunker down in when the weather was gloomy or cold. A place for quaffing coffee and snuggling under blankets. There would be trees, and dips and hollows; hiding places for us and for our wild kin.
There it all began. Tonnes of topsoil were indeed removed, hundreds of tonnes, over the course of a couple of months. The landscaping began; in fits and starts it would continue for years. At this early stage, a flat terrace, close to the house, replacing the lawn, was established. Furthest from the house, the Narrow Way, a steeply banked hidden path, was formed. The den site, to become the Sidhe or Fairy House was excavated, and construction begun. The mounds for the apple trees were made, and the trees planted; thirty six in total. Oh, and a far grander mound for Jill, now known as The Knoll was built. So too, we began establishing a long barrow; Buddleia Barrow, and several wildlife ponds were dug and lined. And most importantly, the meadow, to become known as The Stray was deep ploughed and sown with a wildflower mix.
Phew, some précis! In real time, I would estimate our Heartland took at least seven years to truly dance to Natures beat; to the Pipers tune. But simply in beginning, our human hearts began to sing and dance; the whole process, a wild labour of love, rewarded with limitless joy.
I am going to allow the pictures to tell the story now; from early days to present day; reaffirming that promise, to write to longline in time. To tell the whole love story, cover to cover.
*Images of early landscaping, and present flourishing. Image of Andrews legend/map
If you would be interested in reading more about our heartland; our love story with the wild, do please leave a comment. I’ll be sure to recount and whisper it to our wilds.