By Karen Pierson and Jan Brink
Two days before the British-American alliance of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in May, fourteen Cape-Cod-based gardeners, mostly master gardeners, arrived in London for an experts’ tour of iconic English gardens. Head gardeners, estate managers, Kew botanical researchers, Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) associates and passionate landowners revealed ecological lessons more pertinent to our fragile peninsula than classic garden design. Scorning chemicals (including fertilizer), minimizing resource use by composting and recycling, rethinking lawns, diversifying plantings, encouraging beneficial insects, and being water-wise underscored each of the 16 gardens we saw over nine days.
The day of The Wedding, we toured the RHS Wisley display gardens, one of several UK properties testing scientific and practical improvements. Front and center was an experimental plot showcasing alternatives to grass lawns. Swathes of native plant borders, ponds newly buffered by deeply planted filtering edges and imperfect lawns (weeds obvious) bridged stunning compositions of plant communities. New borders by Piet Oudolf celebrated eco-gardening trends.
The lawn at Prince Charles’ Highgrove estate, purchased in 1980 as a blank canvas to test organic approaches to gardening land, was a gardener’s dream – just with different standards. Although neither cameras nor cellphones were allowed, photos would have shown green basal roots of dandelions, moss, random weeds and sparse grass. Only rainwater irrigates. Fallen trees become fencing, columns, snags for nesting birds, fern-planters in The Stumpery, and a tree-house for young princes. Reed beds filter all wastewater, solar panels heat. Beyond the walled gardens within view of every window is a recreated “lost habitat” – meadows of 30 different native plant species where dandelions danced fearlessly!
We saw unmowed, meadowed “lawns” in most garden estates, especially around trees, including the grand gardens of Kew, Bowood and Stourhead. Sometimes a shape – triangle, crescent – was left unmowed. Mulch was rare, reflecting recent US eco-designers advice – use layers of plants, not imported carbon-rich bark to shield soil from the light “weed seed banks” need to grow. The exquisite borders of Sissinghurst, Hidcote, and Barnsley used foliage like flowers, multi-layered like natural plant communities. They throbbed with insects and birds.
Great Dixter head gardener Fergus Garrett described designer Christopher Lloyd’s philosophy as “excellence not perfection,” vividly showing what happened when they stopped mowing the front lawn. Within two years, rare native plants, then ancient orchids returned. When he allowed cow parsley, a beautifully umbelliferous weed, to flourish, insects flocked to the gardens. Uncut perennials and seedheads feed birds through winter. Pruned branches tucked behind beds create shelter. Scientists now audit Great Dixter’s celebrated biodiversity to document returning species, not unlike meadow restorations on Cape Cod – work with, not against, Nature.
The New England universities guiding Master Gardeners ask us to teach sustainability; likewise, Old England gardeners demonstrate time-tested practices less harmful to waters. They know to feed the soil not the plants. These grand gardens (admittedly from the nation that originated lawns in the 1800s but then evolved beyond) reminded us how lawn-industry-created green monocultures disdain natural, random beauty, polluting waters and contributing nothing to ecosystems. England’s made mistakes – agricultural use of neonicotinoids led to its presence in recent samples at 77% of freshwater sites, and excessive use of manure has turned a moat or two rather green with algae. But national policy directives, a 2014 National Pollinator Strategy and the 2017 RHS Climate Strategy demand enviable eco-gardening, one garden at a time. These mirror sustainable landscaping practices taught by UMass, Barnstable Extension Office and APCC, among others. RHS even adds a fourth R to our Reduce-Reuse-Recycle chant – Reinvest by stimulating demand for recycling by buying recycled products.
Universal garden wisdom surpasses pretty flowers. Eco-gardeners can help Cape waters one yard at a time. So it’s no surprise that the leader of this tour group, Harwich Master Gardener Sharon Oudemool, is behind Harwich’s goal to become the second community in Massachusetts to be registered as a National Wildlife Federation community wildlife habitat. Change can happen one garden, or one town at a time. 656
Karen Pierson is a UConn Advanced Master Gardener and OPC Secretary. Jan Brink, former Nauset Garden Club President, is environmentally certified by the MA Garden Club Federation.
Lessons from Rock Stars (Eco-warriors?) of British Gardens:
- Ecosystems matter.
- Water is precious.
- Beneficial insects, birds and mammals are nature’s own pest control.
- Quick-fix chemicals contaminate – patient ways prove best.
- Accept messiness in gardens – nibbled leaves, overwintered garden debris, snagged trees, non-invasive weeds – as untamed edges supporting wildlife species.
- Protect all pollinators.
- Diversify monocultures for habitat.
- Redefine and eliminate traditional lawns (like ‘needy’ U.S. bluegrass)Add trees and native plants to filter and absorb pollutants from groundwater – trees also sequester CO2.
- Adopt “no till gardening” which preserves soil structure and minimizes escaping carbon.
- Use plants to green mulch, stop bark mulching.
- Feed soils naturally – chemical fertilizer addictions NOT allowed.
- And, by the way, single-use plastics are no longer welcome.
The lessons we took home are mantras that should resonate with Cape Codders balancing landscape, gardens, and fragile waters.