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Cabbages & Kings was the East Sussex garden of the late designer Ryl Nowell - birds, she admits were not a high priority, but they came anyway!

Unwitting Hosts

Cabbages & Kings gardenIn the late 80's, when I was planning the Cabbages and Kings garden, my mind was juggling with a host of problems but not, I have to admit, the design of the garden to attract birds. 12 years on I am amazed and delighted that the birds I rudely ignored turned the other cheek and moved in. My quest to provide a series of richly planted sheltered spaces for humans had unwittingly provided equally appealing places for wildlife.

An area of outstanding natural beauty, The High Weald boasts steep hills, abundant oak woods, copious natural water in streams, ponds, springs and artificially created hammer ponds. Modern farming struggles on the poor soils and the forest is encroaching over the vacated open spaces. By enriching the soil with several tons of farmyard manure and mulching each season with mushroom compost, the garden teeming with organisms has become a focus of interest for birdlife from miles around.

We are also a focus of interest for visitors from all over the world and have for several years hosted special design events for the RHS. The garden has provided work for a team of garden designers who share my philosophy namely that a garden is required to develop in tune with the people who own and maintain it, the place in which it is situated and in harmony with it's position in the landscape at large. This approach is described as the three Ps on our web site (see below).

Perhaps it has been the quest to link the garden with the landscape which has provided the natural link with the birds. Native or closely related species of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and grasses are positioned close to the perimeter. We cherish the seed heads and frosted skeletal forms of the decaying vegetation and leave pruning until early March exposing the constructed bones of the garden neatly laid out for our Easter opening. The berried plants we included for decorative effect have attracted both photographers and birds.

This year a mallard nested in a holly hedge inches away from secauteurs and visitors trampling feet. From the holly it was a short hop to the swimming pool and pleasurable time was spent moving the chlorinated ducklings to a nearby hammer pond where they thrived.

The birds love the natural water features in the garden, in particular a wall fountain which is well off the beaten track, and an ornamental pond fringed by giant rhubarb (Rheum palmatum atropurpurea) and irises (Iris Sibirica Tropic Night). We have used a minimal spray policy for many years, replacing slug susceptible plants and growing roses which are naturally disease resistant such as the old shrub roses Bonica and Buff Beauty, and climbers such as Phyllis Bide and Madam Alfred Carrier.

Lawn mowings are left in situ and large areas of longer grass are left unmown to encourage wild flowers and grass seed. These areas are cut after our July fair and then again late in the season.

Perhaps next season would be a good time to start our own Cabbages and Kings bird count. People love writing in our visitors book and I am sure we will get plenty of good advice about ways to improve our habitat. If you come to the garden do please share your expertise. We look forward to your visit.

Ryl Nowell

Ryl Nowell was a leading garden designer and a gold medal winner at the Millennium Chelsea Flower Show. She died in 2005. The Cabbages & Kings garden in East Sussex is currently being restored.


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