Féidhlim Harty tracks the principle of succession in a wild garden.
We bought our house in 2008, just as the housing bubble was at its most inflated. I’d never really wanted to move, but it had been on the cards and now it was time. We got the keys in April. I don’t think there was a single day that summer without rain. The back kitchen door opened south onto grey skies and a growing puddle that swelled to a broad shallow pond as the days lengthened and then shortened again. I dug a drain and created a new patio of local stone flags, but for all my love of water and wetlands, I wasn’t my best self that year.
The house was dry and airy, which was a novelty, having spent the previous decade in a leaky but beautiful cottage. At half an acre, the garden was spacious for a town site, but abundant with rushes and a brace of dark looming conifers. After planting a twin row of coloured willows for a future tunnel and for screening from the road, we decided to minimise the mowing and wait to see what would emerge. Our new patch of lawn, located on the north side of Ennis town, on the outskirts of Burren geology, did not disappoint.
That first damp summer was a tad rushy, but soon rich purple heads of self-heal poked through the deep green thatch and, to my delight, three spotted orchids emerged under the western boundary hedge, all bright and pink and welcoming. I’d planted about a hundred trees around the edge of the garden: a mix of willow, alder, hazel, ash (back when ash was still on the planting lists) and an assortment of cultivated fruit and nut trees. I worried that the willows would shoot up and crowd out the fledgling orchids, smothering out any chance they had for light and space. On the contrary, as the willows climbed skyward, the orchids seemed to take great pride in spreading out horizontally, slowly but steadily taking up ever greater territory on the damp lawn. They are still spreading, year on year, beautiful delicate exotic blooms through the mix of grasses and other flowers.
In a darker patch amongst the perimeter trees, a couple of common twayblade plants appeared. Whoever named these small green flowers missed a trick. They’d happily sport the name ‘greenfly orchids’ given their shape and colour.
I had expected the self heal to spread, but watched with wonder as year after year the species composition in the main lawn shifted and changed. If this was due to changing weather patterns or natural successional processes I do not know, but it has provided us with a living kaleidoscope of colour, shape and form for each spring and summer that we have lived here.
Self-heal gave way to golden tufts of birdsfoot trefoil. Lady’s smock has crept in through the grasses, more in some years, less in others. Dandelion provides early nectar for the bees and its leaves combine with Sorrel and plantain for green breakfast smoothies, along with kale from the veg beds, haw leaves from the hedge, fennel and sweet Cicely from the herb beds and an apple for sweetness.
Clovers, red and white; figwort; a purple vetch clinging to what remains of the conifer stand; daisies crowding into the shorter mown areas of pathways; primroses spreading beneath a hedge. Every year something new, something fresh, appears.
The crown jewel, though, is the unassumingly named knapweed. The wonderful rich purple flowers are much loved by bumblebees. In the autumn the round heads of fat seeds attract the red, black and yellow wing-flash of the goldfinch. The stalks bend almost to the ground as the birds dine in luxury on the ripe seeds.
The trees are perhaps the most magnificent volunteers on the un-mown lawn. Plenty of sallies have sprung up. They’re probably grey or goat and, as a willow system designer, I’m sure I should know the difference! A scatter of hazels, from nuts dropped under taller trees by a distracted bird perhaps, and a handful of birch trees, windblown from some neighbouring garden. The tallest of these must be ten inches in diameter at the base and no less than twenty feet high, with wonderful silver stripe-mottled skin, peeling in delicate layers, revealing ever paler colours beneath.
We dug a pond with some WWOOFers (World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in the early years. Partly for habitat, partly for keeping wetland plants wet en-route to reed bed customers. Lilac coloured water mint, daffodil-yellow Iris and long seed-filled heads of pendulate sedge all crowd the margins. The pond changes a bit more dramatically than the lawn as it gets raided for some planting contract when I run low on stock and it takes a while to recover. It’s always a source of interest to me, to the water boatmen, and to the occasional newt.
Even with veg beds and a tunnel, pears, apples, a suite of soft fruit and now the first crop of cultivated cob nuts, sweet chestnuts and walnuts – it is the ever changing canvas of the wild lawn that brings me the most joy. With an annual mow in the autumn, and semi-regular summer forays along more-or-less fixed pathways, it provides an abundance of colour and interest, inviting bees, butterflies and birds to join the display. Bats, too, come for night dwelling insects, flitting about on leather wings at twilight. A reminder of the unending activity that any rich habitat will invite into its confines and confidences.
A mini woodland has developed beneath a willow tree near the pond. A small weeping willow, neglected of pruning in my early tenure as garden steward, sprouted some tall osier branches and snuck up before I noticed what was happening. As in much of the rest of the garden we sat back to see what would unfold. It has supported a number of swings, been a climbing frame and a hammock post, survived a heavy storm and is now one of the more mature trees in our garden. It has also been a lesson in woodland succession. Birds have clearly visited it to rest after feasting on haws and wild cherries. A thicket has emerged through the sparse grass beneath. I’ve tried to dig them up to transplant the saplings, but to no avail. The roots are too well protected by the larger willow roots around them. The tallest cherries are over ten feet tall and are slowly making their way up towards the sky.
I debate whether to trim the willow branches judiciously, to assist their stretch towards the light, or to sit back and watch the interplay between species that know one another and their habits far better than I do. Is it an innate human trait to interfere? I’m not sure, but every year or so I succumb and remove a willow bough to let in some sunshine. I justify myself by thinking that the tree shouldn’t grow too tall and keel towards the house, as it did in the last big storm, and that in two years the firewood will have lost its store of moisture and will warm the stove.
What would happen if quiet, unneeded corners of gardens and farms and green spaces were given similar space? Space to breathe and pause and dance with the pollinating insects and visiting birds and simply be self-willed for a few years, maybe ten, maybe longer. What wonders, what beauty, would emerge? Unexpected, unasked for, unpredictable. Perhaps it’s not just green garden corners that need space and time to patiently unfold, perhaps we all do.
PERMACULTURE PRINCIPLE: SUCCESSION
In permaculture design, the principle of Succession serves as a reminder that gardens or other design projects will shift and change over time. How will our walnut trees look in 20 or 100 years? What temporary planting can go between them, that will then be removed as the larger trees mature? How do we phase planting and planning to create supportive systems that will develop and evolve to support us and our unfolding design into the future?
While permaculture design endeavours to make best use of our knowledge of the garden or other system we are working with, rewilding approaches the successional process with curiosity rather than a fixed expectation of a set outcome. Permaculture and rewilding intersect when the goal is the creation of a self-supporting habitat for the benefit of nature.✽
Féidhlim Harty is an environmental consultant and writer. His most recent book Towards Zero Waste – How To Live A Circular Life is available at his website: wetlandsystems.ie