Tuesday 24 September 2013

Sticky Wicket

Sat 22nd June
Weather: Blustery, rainy, grey.

Sticky Wicket is the garden & meadows of Pam Lewis who she initially created with her husband Peter Lewis when they moved there in 1986. Pam and Peter had bought the place to run as a smallholding. Both were familiar with working on the land - Peter Lewis was an ex-farmer & Pam a gardener.

Unhappy with the way conventional agricultural practices destroyed natural habitats, they wanted to create a wildlife haven as well as a garden. Pam also saw it as a outlet for her creativity, using plants as her medium to play with colour. The garden ended up becoming their main focus and was opened up to the public.

When Peter died in 2004 it was a shock for Pam. She carried on trying to maintain the garden as it was, but after breaking her back from falling off a horse two years later, she decided to change her approach on how she managed the garden & meadows, and loosened her control on it. She described it as 'firefighting, ungarden, editing & orchestrating, self seeds & self destructs'.  It was the result of this that we had come to see, and it is only this year she has reopened her garden but only as tours to groups of no less than 10 people.

The journey took 3 hours each way, but we were keen. After an interesting journey of first train to Dorchester and then taxi - where the taxi driver was a local man, who told me about the prestige of having sheep fleece on bike saddles and to beware of local fete and dodgy cakes baked by old ladies who can't see properly, I arrived and met the others from Dixter, who had come by car.

Instead of bird tables she had willow ball structures, different sizes for different birds to access and feed, so that more varieties would be attracted to her garden and that she wouldn't just have a bird table dominated by pigeons. She had a live willow wendy house for her grandchildren also.

Living Salix wendy house. 

She had green corridors of diverse shrubs & hedges and woodlandy edge areas of things like Stephanandra sp., Rubus phoenicolasius (Japanese Wineberry) and Crataegus monogyna (common British hawthorn). In these she would stick offcuts of spiky things like bramble and roses so that wildlife had some protection and would be able to settle in there. She had her own and wilder take on of a 'white garden' made up of plants like Prunus avium (wild cherry), Cotoneaster bullatus, Hippothae sp. (sea buckthorn) and Prunus spinosa (blackthorn). As she pointed out, a lot of wild fruiting plants have white flowers.

Letting go doesn't mean no work, but a different way of management - Buddleia are cut late in mind that they will just come back later, teasels are chelsea chopped. Keeping Hedera sp. under control is cutting away the biggest stems. They have 'weed of the week' and concentrate on extracting those for a bit.  Some & some is the ultimate conservation saying.

It was interesting to hear how they first started their meadows, Clive Farrow her 'butterfly man' was her mentor. To first prepare their land, they scraped the top surface of the soil off with a turf cutter. The scraped soil was then used to create a hill which her goats really like as well as the nettle patches, these are cut down in June for fresh growth, leaving some old ones . The soil before the substrate is 'chalk capped' like the pattern of black & white Friesian cows. Which was good for inducing Onobrychis (Sainfoin) to grow - a pea family plant that is great for grazing. The best things seeds into where the paths through the meadows, so to encourage diversity, they cut a new one every year when they cut the meadows and let the former one rest for couple of years.

The turf scraped hill.

The goats

Stachys officinalis (Betony)

Near her 'vegetable' garden (which had more flowers than veg) I witnessed the best looked after compost system I have seen, which they don't turn but precisely layer up with grass cuttings & cardboard, started off with poultry manure first, and methodically maintained with potatoes & squashes grown on them in between. Weld grew in her polytunnel, and she had special propagation experiments happening in sandbags, plants grown through these and grids of pot holders. She is the only person I have met so far, actively experimenting growing Centauria nigra (gnapweed) and picking out the pinkest.

Compost - cardboard & grass cuttings layers.

Growing potatoes as part of compost rotation.

It might explain why her hen cage was the biggest and lushest I have ever seen - another section of a world/ garden in itself. Initially to try and grow plants that chickens liked she would try and grow them in between plants that they didn't. It is satisfying to hear that eventually they were defeated by Persicaria hydropiper (water pepper).

What was once the formal part of the garden was now a wonderful and delicate intermingling of wild and more cultivated plants Geranium phaeum, Cirsium heterophyllum, Thalictrum vulgare, Valeriana officinalis, Viola labradorica, Hordeum jubatum (squirrel tail barley grass), and Lobelia syphilitica. There were thug beds (like Christopher Lloyd experiments) - Epilobium cultivars fighting it out with a Persicaria sp., keeping each other in check. A Sedum seating area. I have never seen a bush of vetch seemingly gently clipped & tousled. Flower borders and meadows blurred here, Rhinanthus threaded through more ornamental types of grasses. What was once a Matricaria chamomilla (chamomile) lawn & paths through and around the beds built on gravel to keep its shape, is now a more varied mix of Prunella vulgaris (self-heal), Rhinanthus & Trifolium sp. clover. This is one part that does get cut regularly (every three weeks) and it is interesting how the flowers were in a shorter minature form. It was the first time for me to see how a more mixed lawn can remain functional.

Thug plant Persicaria sp

In the gloomy light of the day the geraniums shone pale & colourful even more, and the whole place still hummed with bees and insects. Coming from a garden that is a riotous explosion of colours, it was strongly noticeable that there are no hot colours here (except in her veg garden area), it was a more purpley, bluey pink pallette, - a different feeling - more soothing & tranquil, whilst Dixter is a place of stimulations that makes your pupils dilate and your heart palpitate, here was a place that was more associated with the word serene. Pam Lewis is an artist, it is obvious that she has a strong sensibility for colour and even through letting go it still remains. In fact it is almost she has mastered the artistry of being so on the brink of wild but with skillfully held back remnants of cultivation.


  1. Appreciated the details about this garden. Her experimentation sounds fun and productive.

  2. Thanks! I am very interested in meadows and was very inspired by her work. I love looking at your blog too and your inspirations :)

  3. I wanted to thank you for this great read!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you post. dan holzmann wikipedia


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