No mow May and more: Notes from a wild, crazy and wonderful trip to England

May isn’t usually a month I’d leave my garden - but this year I took off to visit gardens in England with my three sisters - a decade birthday trip planned before Covid hit. It took us three years to get there, but it was worth waiting for.

It was an unforgettable trip on many levels - you can see more of our adventures on my Facebook page, but I wanted to share some of my horticultural observations here.

Traipsing around the countryside and gardens was a real education. I was truly impressed with the ecologically conscious Brits and their practices. Their gardening style is much more relaxed than ours, they manage, rather than control. I could go on and on about this, but I’ll start with no mow May.

No Mow May Is Over The Top:

Wild, crazy and wonderful! As this concept originated in the UK, I guess it’s no surprise they take it to another level. I was struck by the seamless blending and balance of wild and cultivated areas I saw everywhere I went.

Even the small backyard gardens were breathtaking. Here’s a photo taken in the backyard of my B@B in a small village near Northiam. The owner wanted to practice the no mow concept but didn’t like the lack of definition around his perennial beds. The solution was to mow a path around the edges. I thought it was very thoughtfully done and enjoyed meandering around on paths he had mowed through the lawn. Not mowing encourages prolific wildflowers and encourages birds and butterflies. Masses of buttercups, cow parsley and dandelions dominate the unmowed sections.

Here’s a shot taken from another little nook on the property. You can see there is an intentional level of care that doesn’t look sloppy. I like the way the unmowed section blends into the borders.

Here is the same concept on a much larger scale at Great Dixter. Many of the self seeding wildflowers make their way into the cultivated beds. I loved that - plants running amuck all over the place and not a bare inch of ground to be seen. I didn’t see any gardeners here, but I’m guessing a fair amount of editing must take place. I’d rather do that than weed.

I thought the juxtaposition of the formally clipped hedges and informal borders was very interesting. A variety of grasses and sedges dominate the meadows along with the flowers - they don’t seem to have as many invasive plants as I see here in the northeast. Or at least, I wasn’t aware of them.

Onward to Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed. They don’t mess around here. Miles of meadows surround the place. I felt like I should jump on a horse and ride out with Lady Mary. Absolutely poetic swaths of Camassia, Alium and daffodil bulbs line mowed paths that lead to the house.

I snapped the photo below in Kensington Gardens , a royal (and very large) park in the middle of London. There is a lot to explore there - acres of mowed and wild areas and several formal gardens. I was intrigued with the treatment around the trees. I did not see a single tree with a mulch mound here or anywhere else. It seems much more sensible to allow the grass to grow up around the trunks rather than mowing it. Part of the impetus of no mow May is a big concern over the loss of songbirds. It must be working - I heard birds singing incessantly. You’d never guess you’re in the heart of a big city.

Self Seeding Mania:

I don’t know if there are more self seeding plants around because of no mow May or because they are being seeded on purpose. Probably both. All I can say is that I gained a whole new appreciation for poppies, forget me nots, buttercups and cow parsley.

British horticulturist Monty Don (Gardeners World) commented on the merits of self seeders in an interview - according to him, “it’s what’s between the gaps that makes the garden.” That sure made me rethink the spaces in between. See how the wildflowers crept into the this border? How glorious!

Even the most conventional flower borders were stuffed with self seeding plants. In the above photo taken at Scotney Castle, forget me nots, poppies and columbine romp around the beds.

I would kill for one of those wonderful stone walls…..all covered with a variety of plants that seed into the cracks.

Staking inspiration:

As far as I’m concerned, staking is a work of art in this country. I took these photos in the Chelsea Physic Garden in London. Gardener’s in the UK have access to Hazel trees. Their branches are bendable, durable and lend themselves to building attractive supports like this.

I caught this guy in the act of building a row of structures for sweet peas. He measured each one so they would be exactly the same size. I gotta say, I was pretty impressed.

These were built for beans to climb on, I think they used the same wood. They keep a big stash of branches piled up in the work area. I’m green with envy.

Container craziness:

If some is good, more is better. They aren’t chintzy with containers here, and I love the ways they are used.

Here’s how to make a grand entrance even better. Artfully arranged containers adorn both sides of the front door at Great Dixter. I couldn’t begin to keep track of the number of pots in this display. I was dazzled.

Taken at Great Dixter.

They sure know how to dress up a door at Sissinghurst Castle. Who wouldn’t want to sit in that chair? I had to wait a long time to get a shot with no one in it. I was constantly accused of sauntering by my two younger siblings.

Containers embellish the entrances of small village houses too. These were taken in Rye, a dear little town near the coast.

This was just there…. passed by it as I was (haha) sauntering along behind my sisters. Verbena bonariensis has seeded around those lavender filled containers. Looks so effortless.

The big urn is the focal point in the white garden at Sissinghurst, but it has plenty of company around it.

Totally over the top here in this huge display at Great Dixter. The screaming red flowers are poppies, which I love but often have difficulty seeding directly in the garden.

Here’s how they do it - seed them in pots. I almost fell down the stairs when I saw this grouping. I resolved to start more seeds in pots and display them in an artistic manner like they’ve done here. It killed me to not be able to buy plants here (they had some great things for sale) - but trust me, I stocked up on poppy seeds!

I came home feeling excited about all the things I wanted to try, but honestly, I dreaded facing my garden after being away. To my surprise, I took it all in with new eyes. Sure, it was a little out of hand. The lawn was shaggy, the shrubs a bit wild, and weeds were creeping in, but I kind of liked the less uptight look.

My biggest take away from this trip - let it flow, loosen up and allow wildness. Mind the gaps! And sorry girls, I plan to saunter more.

A corner of my garden after returning home - embracing the wild look.


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