Rewilding a Historic Garden

The Capability Brown gardens at Devon Sculpture Park have been going through a multi-year restoration programme. Since the Letts family bought this old Mamhead estate, the centuries old cascade gardens have been transformed from a tired, overgrown traditional English garden to a model for wildlife gardening and biodiversity.

The idea was simple. Take the principles of rewilding and apply them to a garden. Human endeavour replaces the work of herbivores but the ecosystem design is similar – areas of woodland, open scrub and wild grassland with waterways meandering through. Some man made, some natural.

Plants, shrubs and trees are allowed to go to seed so they can regenerate naturally. The offspring develop in situ until they are big enough to be transplanted, or to remain in place. If transplanted they are established in new spaces.

To enable the transformation to happen thousands of new plants were brought in. These plants having been established now parent the new plants, bushes and trees which are naturally bred in the gardens.

The ancient streams off Haldon Hill, on the outskirts of Exeter, have been restored so they can flow across the gardens, feed its lakes and ponds, and descend over the bog gardens and wetland areas. These aquatic meanderings support water plants, invertebrate and an abundance of bird life.

The two hundred metre long horseshoe shaped flower bed that wraps around the Robert Adam Orangery has been transformed into an oasis of flowering shrubs and small trees, which are packed with a year round wave of flowering from plants that support pollinators. The plantings and the beds have been designed to naturally improve the soil, to store carbon and to provide cover and perches for small mammals and birds. Hedges, bushes and trees surround the gardens perimeter.

The sweeping lawns have become large areas of wild grasses and wildflower. Paths are carefully cut through them. This wild, ungrazed, open grassland provides abundant insects for the extraordinary collection of bats that roam the place. Twelve of the seventeen species of bats in the UK have been monitored at Devon Sculpture Park – including some of the rarest.

The stunning collection of ancient deciduous and coniferous trees have been restored and the old wood cuttings scattered around the gardens to provide shelter and nesting, while at the same time bugs breed in the underbelly and cracks of the logs. New trees are planted in copses of the same family. Trees grow up as a family, like us, so we should plant them together. Pine trees together, oaks as a unit and maple trees in the same place.

Now that the new ecosystem is in place across the gardens and the rhythm of sustainable biodiversity has been established, the soil is improving, the wildlife is moving in and plants are naturally developing. The ecosystem can work to clean our air, our waters and store carbon under the ground.

It has been a painstaking process at times, but now that these historic gardens have been effectively rewilded, they can become a model for garden rewilding, wildlife gardening techniques and biodiversity at scale. After all, there are over a billion gardens worldwide.

If you would like to learn more about wildlife gardening and how to rewild your garden pre-book a Garden Safari or sign up for DSP’s Wildlife Gardening Workshop. Alternatively learn from the comfort of your home – subscribe to DSP Online.

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