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  • Benjamin William Pope

The Lye of the Land

With the purchase of the five-and-a-half-acre field completing in April 2019, the first task (and one I relished with pride) was to replace the rusted old gate, so that livestock could be used to graze the pasture. However, the field was left unattended till late summer, allowing for a hay crop to be taken prior to the arrival of the sheep.

As the months rolled on, so did the ideas and thoughts about how best to utilise the land. Bamboo canes and markers were set out within the field to see how the plans on paper would translate to the site, experiencing how it would physically feel when walking around them. Slight alterations were made and then it was back to the drawing board as the masterplan design was refined.

Over eighteen months ago I realised a lifelong dream and purchased some land, an agricultural field that sits just north of the South Downs in West Sussex, England. My ambition is to create a market garden, a garden that works for the local community and environment. Last November I stopped dreaming and began the task of planting! Whilst digging the first hole, my gloves and boots quickly became caked in the heavy soil that lies beneath the pasture. Despite this, I was floating on a cloud of joy because as a gardener, the act of planting fills me with excitement! It’s such a fundamental task, setting in motion a natural process that given time should bear fruit. To quote the wonderful old proverb: ‘Great oaks from little acorns grow’.

In total I planted twelve trees: three River Birch (Betula nigra ‘Heritage’), eight Hazels (Corylus avellana) and a single Hawthorn (Crataegus phaenpyrum). Over the winter months the planting continued, allowing me to take advantage of bare root trees, that are both cheaper and more often quicker to establish than container grown plants. These trees will form the basis of an ornamental coppice, where I hope to grow other edge-of-woodland species, both native and non-native, productive and ornamental. In time, I’m hoping these plants will provide an attractive habitat and boundary, as well as some cutting material for the market garden.

The initial plants selected have to be tough and will form the beginnings of more complex plant communities. They are my ‘pioneer species’ and will cope with the relatively open site and heavy soil, which in places can sit quite wet through the winter. In particularly wet areas, I am planting on raised mounds that will aid the establishment of the young trees. I tread carefully though, reminding myself that I should work with what I have, rather than do battle with the existing growing conditions. Planting small, preserving the soil structure and resisting the urge to make any drastic changes too soon, should ensure steady progress. With time the site will become less exposed and the installation of swales, seasonal dew ponds and raised hillocks, should improve drainage and provide a range of conditions to increase biodiversity.

With so much looking towards the future, it is important to take stock of the present. This moment is a significant one in evolution of the project, where theoretical growth begins to manifest itself physically. But leading up to this point there’s been so much planning, and in my experience, you simply can’t rush it. Before making any changes, however great or small, ask yourself some key questions. In particular, how will it affect the surrounding environment or be received by the local community? Most importantly, keep sight of your end goal and ask, how can I ensure success? For small, temporary changes, such as container planting, the pressure to ‘get it right’ is relatively low. But when planning on a larger scale the consequences are greater, so the thought process should be given time to allow full exploration and refinement of ideas.

No doubt the future will be littered with many complications and challenges, which the optimist in me would describe as lessons. But one thing is definite, the first steps of this journey have been taken and they feel very positive and immensely satisfying.

Planting with an audience means that after each tree goes in the ground, protection has to be given to prevent browsing. A mix of simple stock fencing and wooden posts protects against sheep, whilst a plastic guard should deter rabbit and rodent damage at the base of the trunk.

Having moles in your garden is often seen as a problem. But in the field, I am using their industrious spoil to create planting mounds for young trees. These mounds ensure that as the trees establish, their young roots grow healthily and avoid sitting directly in the sodden winter soil.

Planting holes being inspected by the management team and subterranean experts; Geoff and Mavis.


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