Monthly Archives: July 2017

Looking back over the last few months

10 July 2017

As the summer flowers give way to the ones that’ll take us through autumn, it’s a good time to look back at how the gardens have been doing so far this year. It’s been quite tough keeping everything going, as we’ve had two periods of rain several hours long since March, and that’s been it; so we’re having to water a lot more than we usually would to make sure there are always a couple of the bees’ favourite plants in flower right through the year. We should be looking forward to new plants coming into flower in a few weeks, but many of them are two to four weeks early – the Michaelmas daisies started flowering last week, the first week of July!

Most of the plants established last year are doing OK despite the drought, but this has been the year we trialled bedding plants for their usefulness to bees, and bedding plants seem to be the divas of the plant world – they need constant watering, dead-heading, feeding, weeding around. With hindsight, they weren’t the best choice. Still, the echiums are settling in and providing bright blue colour in the beds, and welcome nectar for the bees – though nothing like as much as their wild equivalent in the second bed down from the car park, where we have two Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) plants, tall spikes of smallish blue flowers, covered in bees most of the time. The ‘Disco’ French marigolds provide great bursts of bright orange – but then, so do the California poppies they’ve largely displaced, and while there have been a lot of bees on the California poppies, there haven’t been many bees on the marigolds. The mignonettes are finally growing well and flowering, and they do smell sweet, but it’s taken a lot of watering and TLC to get them established, and we have limited resources. So while they’ve provided a nice change this year, I don’t think we’ll be repeating the experiment. We’ll need to find something else for the children from Mentmore Road Under 5’s to plant next year – they thoroughly enjoy planting things out, and watching them grow and flower!

Last week some of the children had fun picking the peas they’d planted a couple of months ago, and eating them straight from the pod, and they also lifted some of their carrots to see how they were doing (fine, but nowhere near ready). Next year we’re thinking of getting them to plant early potatoes so they can dig up some buried treasure well before the end of term – we always have to race a bit to get them something to harvest before they break up for the summer. A couple of weeks ago they planted some annuals for the autumn (sunflowers and Cosmos) and a few foxglove and hollyhock seedlings, so that should give them something to watch grow next term. I’m not sure they believed me when I told them the tiny hollyhock seedlings would grow into plants like the ones twice their height in the next bed.

The Leighton Buzzard Observer carried a nice article on June 20th about the cooperation between the preschool and the regular team.

The regular team have been doing more dead-heading and less weeding as our earlier work has begun to pay off, especially as we were able to mulch the ground with almost-ready leaf mould after we’d weeded it. The local blackbirds throw the leaf mould around too much – often, our first task of the day is to brush the leaf mould off the paths and back into the beds. Leaf mould usually takes a couple of years to rot down completely, and what we’re using isn’t quite a year old, so we should have less mobile mulch in future. We’re also thinking ahead to autumn, when we’ll be able to sort out some compost from the bins round the back, and top it with leaf mould to keep weed seeds from germinating.

We’ll also be lifting all the dead plants in the wild flower bed – they’ve gone over much faster than usual, and have grown much less than usual too. This is almost certainly due to the drought – we watered copiously until a couple of weeks ago, when we decided we were just wasting water by pouring it onto the ground to no real effect, as wild flowers don’t seem to respond as well as garden plants and all the annuals were clearly dying back much earlier than usual. So as usual we’ll start the gardening year in September by collecting seed from the poppies to sow once we’ve turned the soil and added compost.

Bedding plants and compromises

09 July 2017

We’ve over-reached ourselves. Following the success of the many bee habitats planted by South Bedfordshire Friends of the Earth around Leighton Buzzard – mainly with easy-to-grow annual wild flowers, and perennial garden and wild flowers – some of the SBFoE team thought they’d try growing bedding plants, partly to try and persuade the Town Council to grow more bee-friendly plants in their formal beds around the town.

The problem with bedding plants is that they’re especially bred to bring out specific characteristics – flowering for several months (if they’re dead-headed regularly), or being compact, having particularly bright flowers, and so on. Unfortunately, during the breeding process the ability to produce nectar or pollen is lost, so they often aren’t useful for bees and other pollinators.

We found several bedding plants that are reputedly very attractive to bees, so we thought we’d try growing them, possibly with the intention of persuading the council to try some of them. We had already used cosmos bipinnatus ‘Rubenza’ successfully for the last couple of years, so this year we added ‘Echium ‘Blue Bedder’, Reseda odorata (Mignonette), and the French marigold ‘Disco, grown from seed. We sowed them in our now-standard moisture-retaining mix of New Horizon peat-free potting compost, and leaf mould (about 30:70), and we tended them under cover until they were ready to be planted out. We didn’t buy them in from a local grower as they would have been grown in multipurpose compost containing peat, and we don’t use it (see blog post on Peat, 04 April 2017).

We learned a lot, though not necessarily what we were expecting.

First – we can’t hold a candle to the professionals for horticultural ability. Although the cosmos were fine as usual, the echium plants were spindly and very slow to grow bushy, and needed coaxing to become strong enough to plant out. In contrast, the marigolds grew away really well – but they were slug magnets before they had a chance to become bee magnets. And the mignonettes – we practically had to coax each leaf out of them, they were very slow to develop, spindly, greedy (the first leaves started turning brown after only a month from lack of food in the potting mix). Eventually we managed to grow a dozen marigolds and a couple of dozen echiums and mignonettes, and the preschool has helped us plant them out over the last couple of months or so, after the risk of frost had passed. They all got there in the end, but they took a lot more time and effort than all the other plants in the garden – and we’d been taking loads of cuttings of penstemons, geraniums, hyssop and other herbs, and they’d just taken straight away, and grown on with very little TLC needed.

Second – we just don’t have enough volunteer time to look after needy bedding plants while they get going. The echiums are great, and bees love them, and the mignonette smells great, but we have to be ruthless about what works and what doesn’t, and we have to accept that we don’t have the resources to make bedding plants work when a bit of hyssop pruning will feed many times more bees.

Third, and most importantly – after we’d gone through all the stages of the bedding plant experiment, we suddenly realised one very important problem that just hadn’t occurred to us at the outset – namely that if we did persuade the council to use these plants, they’d need to buy them in from a professional grower. And almost all growers who can provide the kind of quantities they need would have used neonicotinoid pesticides from sowing onward, to ensure perfect-looking plants – so if they did attract bees, they’d be killing the very pollinators we’re trying to protect!

A couple of major chains have said that by 2018 they’ll be selling plants which haven’t been grown with bee-harming pesticides (though probably they’ll still be grown in peat), and that’s a start. So perhaps it’s better if we just sit back and enjoy the town council’s amazing bedding displays that won’t hurt any bees – have you seen their amazing beds round the town centre at the moment? – great colours working together, well tended plants, a great display. And we’ll carry on putting hardy perennials and annuals together as well as we can, and leave bedding plants to the professionals.

Flowers of the moment – catchup time

Flowers of the moment – Honeywort, Geranium macrorrhizum and poppies

09 July 2017

It’s been a long time since the last blog post, mainly because some of the team have been helping out at the Pocket Park by Leighton Buzzard station, and with the heatwave and drought of the last couple of months, we’ve been kept more busy than usual trying to all  the keep newly-planted plants sufficiently watered. We’ve even broken our usual rule of not using a hose, because one good soaking followed by mulching with leaf mould lasts a lot longer than just watering odd plants occasionally. We really need rain!

The first of the flowers that are particularly attractive to bees is honeywort (Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’), an unusual annual which flowers for a long time between April and June, and self-seeds but never becomes invasive. It has bluish-green leaves with purple bracts and hanging bell-shaped flowers, it produces lots of nectar, and the bees just love it.

We have some seed if anyone wants to start some off in their garden – just contact us via the usual email, or Comment below.

Another flower bees really like is Geranium macrorrhizum, which will eventually make quite a carpet of fresh-looking, slightly bluish leaves, with pink flowers for a few weeks between April and June, depending on the weather. The flowers are typical cranesbill geraniums, with the long, beak-shaped seedheads that give the plant family its common name. It’s a very useful plant that grows happily in full sun or quite deep shade.

We grow two other hardy geraniums here, both of which bees love – ‘Rozanne’, in the middle of the second bed down from the car park (blue flowers with a white centre; flowers most of the summer from mid-May, here; and should eventually make a plant about 80cm x 80 cm), and ‘Kashmir White’ in two or three of the other beds, which has graceful stems with bright green foliage, and white flowers with thin red stripes in them. It spreads well, but isn’t invasive.

And of course, it wouldn’t be this garden without the poppies:

with the inevitable visiting bumble bee in at least two of the flowers here.