The gardeners of Gilbert White’s House continue to uphold the legacy of the pioneering naturalist, by caring and managing the landscape and gardens he loved using the traditional 18th Century methods wherever possible.
Traditional handtools can perform garden jobs as well if not better than power tools once skills are learned. Some areas of the estate are cut with scythes rather than powered machinery. Our scythes are lightweight Austrian models which cut efficiently as long as the blade is kept razor sharp and the right technique is used. Many of the other handtools used in the garden are traditional designs and are often several decades old but still doing good service.
Ideally the garden would be fully maintained using handtools as it was in the 18th century but in order to make the best use of the resources available to us we have to use powered machinery for some jobs such as hedgecutting. We are now using alkylate petrol in small machines such as hedgetrimmers to reduce the harmful effects of using powered machinery on the environment.
To promote the growth of wildflowers, the meadow is grazed for two months over the Winter by 98 ewes and 2 rams. Cutting down the vegetation helps to maintain a low nutrient environment in the soil that is preferred by the wildflowers. Spring gleams with the yellow of cowslips, buttercups and dandelions, that are useful early flowering plants for pollinators. Then in late Spring rare white helleborines emerge (the species is confined to the southern part of England and classes as vulnerable in the UK), followed by common spotted and pyramidal orchids.
To further aid the pollination of the meadow there is an apiary onsite, and the honey produced by the bees is sold in the museum shop. The blackthorn hedge growing in the Ewell field is also regularly cut to encourage the brown hairstreak butterfly to lay its eggs. This butterfly is unique in almost exclusively laying its eggs on two to three year old blackthorn.
The meadow margins are left to grow for the majority of the year to provide habitat for small voles and shrews. Their presence in turn attracts predators such as kestrels and barn owls. To preserve older trees onsite and still allow the public to admire them from a safe distance, there is a dead hedge (from garden cuttings) that the gardeners have installed around the old beech tree. The dead hedge also promotes wildlife as a habitat for insects. With such a wealth of insects in and around the meadow this then encourages Selborne’s most charismatic species, the swallow.
Wherever possible plant material from the garden is composted in our compost bins situated in the gardener’s area. There are three large bins and each one is left to rot for two years, by which time the compost should be well rotted. We aim to get a good mix of materials into the bins as they are filled with grass cuttings being mixed with other plant material to ensure good decomposition. The compost in the bins is not generally turned because of the physical effort required to move such a mass of material.
Much of the produce grown in the kitchen garden and orchards goes to the cafe kitchen, keeping food miles to a minimum. Jams are made, and botanicals are sent off to be Winchester Distillery to processed into Gilbert White's Gin. Hops are also grown and in the Summer this is used for brewing in the 17th Century onsite brewhouse.
We are now moving over to peat free composts for our plant production for plant sales and the garden and are also investigating alternatives to the tradition plastic plant pots. Seeds from the garden are also sold in the shop.
July 7th 1759 ’ Finished my Hay-rick in most excellent order. The weather has been so perfectly hot, & bright for these five days past that my Hay was all cut, & made in that time.’