Down an easily missed bend in a village near Bath is a garden grown from the ruins of industry. Its story is slow to unfold, behind clouds of twining white flowers and a wall of Virginia creeper about to blush.

Three hundred years ago, landscape consultant Jo McKerr’s garden was part of a railroad and canal – “this huge industrial beehive,” she says. “Lots of trains and barges come to collect coal. It would have been dirty and noisy. an important part of his character.

This chaos is also fundamental to the success of the garden. It is the last day of September and we stand in the gravel garden, among the elegantly swaying spiers of verbascum pods, tufts of marjoram and sweet Nassella tenuissima grass. It was once a turning point – before McKerr and his family ‘fell in love’ with the ‘decrepit’ plot a decade ago, its most recent goal was a farm – but it had been abandoned since the 1970s.

The crumbling 18th century barn and cottages had their charm, but the low nutrient post-industrial land they stood on also had their charm. McKerr, a wildflower fanatic, saw it as the breeding ground for biodiversity that only brownfields can provide.

The term “brownfield” may be familiar in an urban planning context, but for a growing group of conservationists, naturalists and gardeners, it also signifies a promising future. The worrying abandonment of post-industrial plots has inspired designers such as Sarah Price, who won a gold medal at the 2018 RHS Chelsea Flower Show after planting in sand, silt, gravel and clay; and Paul Hervey-Brookes, who deployed pioneer species – or plants capable of thriving in polluted land – in his Chelsea show garden in May.

Sarah Price’s gold-winning garden, planted on sand, loam, gravel and clay, 2018 Chelsea Flower Show © RHS/Neil Hepworth

The Jardin du Tiers Paysage by Gilles Clément in Saint-Nazaire, Brittany, a former submarine base

Jardin du Tiers Paysage by Gilles Clément in Saint-Nazaire, Brittany, a former submarine base © LucasD, Wikimedia Commons

French designer and entomologist Gilles Clément ushered in an eerie, fertile beauty of a former submarine base with Le Jardin du Tiers Paysage in Saint-Nazaire, while Piet Oudolf’s ongoing work on the High Line in New York is without arguably one of the most famous examples in the world. garden inspired by industrial wastelands: a cultivated landscape on top of an abandoned railway line.

As the naturalist writer Richard Mabey has shown with The unofficial campaign in 1973 (and, 30 years earlier, naturalist RSR Fitter found in the remains of the London Blitz), wildlife returns to places humans have used, abused and left. Now gardeners are realizing the potential and necessity of deploying the same principles of land disturbance and cultivation to create unexpected results.

“We can’t create an old forest in five years, but we can certainly create the complications and chaos of a brownfield in a new landscape. And if we do that, we’ll get the biodiversity of a brownfield,” says John Little, a brownfield gardening expert from Essex who grew up watching post-industrial landscapes become havens for nature.

“That’s where all the industries were,” he says. “Now the old chalk pits, sand pits and landfills have been abandoned, they have become Wildlife Trust reserves; we recover a lot of biodiversity. Whereas if you are in the middle of the countryside with mainly arable fields, you have nothing left. It was a fascinating thing: the places that seem the worst have the best wildlife. »

John Little Brownfield Garden, Horndon-on-the-Hill, Essex

John Little’s Brownfield Garden, Horndon-on-the-Hill, Essex © John Little

Healthy ecosystems depend on a cycle of disturbance and diversity, says McKerr: If we create space for wildlife, it will show up. “You have cycles of disruption and then abandonment. Nature likes to heal itself.

In her minimalist kitchen, McKerr shows me photographs of what the garden was like: a tidal wave of brambles and overgrowth so deep she hadn’t initially realized the land spanned 2, 5 acres. While the same space now houses a pond, patches of grassland, an alley of crabapple trees and a copse of hazelnut trees, what is interesting is that a ghost of its abandonment lingers in its design today.

“I didn’t want to lose that savagery,” she says. “You’re worried you’ve crossed a line, when you’ve unchecked stuff. But things are coming back incredibly fast. McKerr cut back the growth the first year and covered the old railroad with a black plastic pond liner for two years to eradicate the brambles. A man with a shovel was tasked with moving piles of rubble down the leveled slope where his meadows now bloom every summer, “just so we could actually walk to the bottom of the garden”.

“The soil was so poor that I had to start small with everything,” says McKerr, of planting. One-year-old tree whips came in – hazelnut was chosen for its chances of surviving in the anaerobic clay that remains of the canal lining – “I really expected them to die, but they don’t didn’t do it.” Then she let it go for two years, “to imagine what it was going to be”.

jo-mckerr and his gardenCredit: andrew-maybury

Jo McKerr in her garden in a village near Bath, from the ruins of history © Andrew Maybury

Jo McKerr's garden

© Andrew Maybury

McKerr made a wish at the beginning: “nothing in, nothing out”. So far, she has stuck to it: a wildlife wall providing hibernation space has been built from rocks found in the garden; the gravel garden was sown in concrete found and crushed on site. Even McKerr’s idyllic greenhouse was built with bricks taken from a dilapidated farmhouse outbuilding.

“In our industry, we use topsoil everywhere and we don’t think about the fact that it’s such a valuable resource; that we really shouldn’t move the earth, but respect and use what we have,” she says.

Beyond durability, some plants can be incredibly resilient in nutrient-poor soil, McKerr says. “When you have very fertile soil, which has a lot of nitrogen and phosphorus, you limit the ability of these plants to form microbial relationships. But if you immediately start a plant in nutrient-poor soil, it will seek out what it needs; the roots go on and on. Because of this, it is completely drought resistant. Nothing, she adds, died in her garden during this summer’s record heat waves. “And I never watered it.”

With plants going deeper for the nutrients and water they need, there is more room for different varieties. “You can have a lot of competition,” says McKerr. “And the more plants you have, the more life there is in your soil.”

Brownfields are also less demanding. As Little explains, a crushed concrete flowerbed offers a lot of things except weeds: “You have enough nutrients to grow things, but you have a very draining material that is totally weed-free. herbs. This is the other joy. Each of these materials that you use can be sown without any preparation.

The High Line, New York, one of the most famous brownfield inspired gardens
The High Line, New York, one of the most famous gardens inspired by brownfields © Shutterstock/François Roux

Growing from seeds and small plants is a crucial part of McKerr’s and Little’s approaches: brownfield gardens do not provide instant gratification. But the two-metre beds in McKerr’s gravel garden are almost fully seeded. It’s less gardening by controlling than by witnessing. “Plants tend to organize themselves where they want to be,” says McKerr. “They just need an editor”.

The wildlife that has returned to these gardens is remarkable. The canal tunnel around the corner from McKerr’s Garden is home to 45 rare horseshoe bats – three times as many as when they were discovered five years ago. It is also visited by owls, kestrels, toads and snakes.

She admits it’s crucial that ‘people feel like it’s an aesthetic they can buy into’, lest brownfield gardening remain an experiment for ambitious horticulturalists, rather than encouraging more of us to make the most of the landscapes we have inherited in our backyards.

But it’s already happening, as evidenced by a trend toward wilder, grassier planting designs. “We’re very drawn to the High Line and places like it, where the previous use of the place is evidenced by the fact that plants have taken over,” McKerr says. “I think this idea that nature can reclaim the Anthropocene is very appealing to us in this time of great anxiety, that these things can have a second life.”

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