The wabi-sabi garden

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Low-cost, low-maintenance, environmentally friendly and supporting biodiversity – that’s what we were aiming for in creating a garden out of a field.

As busy downshifters, we always knew that creating a garden from a 1 hectare (2 acre) orchard was going to be a challenge. There would be two essential requirements – it couldn’t take up lots of our time and it had to be close to zero cost.

Contact: Steve Mansfield-Devine, photo@webvivant.com

We’re on top of a hill. Most of the garden consists of north-facing slopes. The land forms a trapezoid with the four sides averaging around 100m in length. The house, courtyard, stone barn and remains of the boulangerie (now reduced to a patio with chimney and bread oven) occupy the south-west corner. There’s another stone barn in the north-west corner. The bulk of the land slopes down to the north-east corner.

When we bought the property, there was next to nothing in the way of garden. The main part of the land was occupied by a handful of very old cherry, apple and (mostly) pear trees. (The picture on this page is one of the pears in blossom.) The apple trees soon blew down. They were just old. One of the pears was hit by lightning. And we lost another three large trees in Storm Lothar on Boxing Day 1999. That didn’t leave a lot.

Twice a year, our neighbour, Patrick, cut the grass for hay. After Storm Lothar, though, he had trouble getting the tractor around the land. All the fallen trees are still in situ (we’ve grown roses over most of them.) So we had to start cutting the grass ourselves.

Using a petrol-powered push-mower took three days to do a quarter of the land. We were given a sit-on mower, but it was – not to put too fine a point on it – a heap of crap. It was so under-powered that when going uphill, I had to get off and walk alongside it. Fortunately, all the safety cut-outs had been disabled to allow me to do that. Finally, the steering went – it would only make right-hand turns, which made careful planning of the mowing pattern essential. We bought a new sit-on mower with a double cutting disc.

Even with the new mower, cutting the grass was a 7-hour job. And given that low maintenance is one of the characteristics we were seeking from the garden, we needed to do something about that.

What we did was very simple, but ties in with the ethos of the garden.

Over time, we selected a number of areas (I can’t really call them ‘beds’). In each we’d plant shrubs and maybe one or two trees, mostly around the edge of the selected area. But the rest would be left to grow wild. Mostly, that meant grass, but we’d also allow patches of nettles and other so-called weeds. The shrubs and trees we planted would just have to compete. Mowing became a matter of tidying up the bits between these areas.

Each year, we’d also designate areas that had no planting but where I wouldn’t mow – the grass would be left to grow long. We moved these areas from year to year.

We also adopted the policy of protecting any tree seedlings we saw emerging. At first, we figured that these walnuts, oaks and cherries wouldn’t amount to much – that in our lifetime they’d become, at best, shrub-like. We were wrong. We now have some very sizeable trees thanks to this policy. And the big cherry tree has now created a dense area of woodland around itself with self-seeded offspring.

The result is lots of natural habitat for wildlife, minimal maintenance and none of that carefully manicured prissiness that so many gardeners seem to like. Our aim is to create an environment that looks as though it was once the grand garden of a château but which has long since fallen into ruin. The concept is barely managed chaos that can be enjoyed by us and the animals, birds and insects with whom we share this space.

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