When scything came to Sissinghurst

Sissinghurst is currently welcoming a new cross-continental addition to the garden, with the hope that it will stay and become a permanent addition. I am talking about the beautiful and elegantly designed Austrian scythe. Scythes have been used for around 2000 years in Britain since their introduction by the Roman Empire. Here at Sissinghurst we have decided to re-kindle this old but dying skill, by introducing it into the management of the orchard meadow. We have decided to swap the smells and sounds of the engine and replace them with the aroma of freshly cut hay and the noise of a sharp blades slicing through the long grass.

Good scything

Good scything

We chose the Austrian scythe because it is at the forefront of modern scything, leading the way in the renaissance of British scything which has been taking place over the past few years. The Austrian scythe is better than the old English scythes, which are heavier, harder to handle and sharpen and therefore, difficult for beginners to master. In contrast, the Austrian scythe is light, easy to handle and very simple to sharpen, making it the perfect work horse and a good beginners scythe.

When the scythes arrived in various pieces, there was some confusion about how to put them together but, as ever, Phil triumphed and with the help of a few rough sketches and black and white pictures from the manual,  it wasn’t long before we had the finished product. However, we didn’t go ‘guns a blazing’ as soon as we could, but had Beth Tilston from the Scythe Association come to Sissinghurst to teach us the ‘ways of scything’. This was a great day, with Beth showing herself to be a capable and extremely patient teacher. We learnt how to measure the scythes to our own body and the best ways to sharpen and clean the blade before stepping out into the orchard. When first starting, our movements could be likened to that of a somewhat stiff robot dance, but with practise, this changed from stiff robots to a more rhythmic motion, with grass falling like trees in a great storm.

We hope that scything will help with the management and visitor aspects of the garden and orchard. With the National Trust’s new opening times of 363 days a year, we wanted to come up with ways to lessen noise pollution, so that people can have the best experience possible when visiting Sissinghurst. Better the sound of scythe and gardener than a mower churning and spluttering as it moves around.

Machine mowed area

Machine mowed area

As I mentioned in the previous blog, we are slowly turning our meadow into a wildflower nirvana, and the scythe has showed great potential in helping us achieve this goal. As the scythe cuts the flowers and grass whole, it allows the seeds to ripen and set with ease. We can then strew the cuttings onto bare soil, allowing the seeds to sow themselves and re-populate the meadow. It also has the benefit of turning these fresh cuttings into easily manoeuvrable piles, allowing us to effortlessly remove them or turn them into picturesque hay piles. In contrast, a mower quickly becomes full whilst also sucking up and damaging seeds.

Scything also lowers our use of fossil fuels by relying only on ourselves as the engine rather than machines which can sometimes break and cause delay. However, I found that after scything for long periods, I actually became less reliable, as my  back and legs began to ache – but it’s never a bad thing to feel the pains of your labour. By scything, we are also cutting down to the bare soil in a methodical fashion, removing the thatch that a mower cannot reach and allowing the sun to hopefully germinate future wildflower seeds. This is an important factor for the orchard which has large areas of thatch, creating a somewhat impenetrable wall for seeds trying to reach the soil.

However, like most things in horticulture many positives have negatives and scything is no exception. The first major negative is time; it has turned what was once a 1 week job into a 3 week job whilst also taking man power that the garden could happily use. It also makes going around Vita’s trees and roses within the orchard a mammoth task, drawing on valuable time by trying to delicately avoid slicing a rose or embarrassingly getting the blade stuck into a tree. While scything, it’s also necessary to sharpen the blade every 10-15 minutes depending on the situation. I found if I hit a rock, soil, stick or even an apple I was forced to go back and sharpen the blade again.

It also becomes tiring and exhausting when working in the midday sun particularly when the grass conditions are challenging.  Factors like wind, rain and trodden paths can all force the grass into different directions of growth. This is a problem because the grass should be cut from behind to get the best results but when the grass is growing in many different directions, the scyther is forced to cut in a circular movement which wastes further time and energy.

We will have to wait and see if the Austrian scythe has earned its place within our tool shed, but this is only a test to try and find the best and most plausible way of managing the orchard through its change. We will be trying different methods such as a scything machine, reciprocating mowers or anything else that we may think viable. However, as one of the gardeners to be fortunate enough to scythe for most of the 3 week duration, I can say the scythe has earnt a place in my heart and it’s been an amazing tool to use and at the end of the day to relish in a real labour of love.

Josh, gardener.