Monthly Archives: July 2019

Wild flowers 3 – unsung heroes

11 July 2019

Four of my favourite go-to wild flowers for attracting bees and other insects. They’re not showy but they work their socks off for us. Here are four that we (almost) rely on:

1) Black medick

The least showy of them all – we have lots of this plant in the gardens, but I’d bet that many of you have never noticed it (I didn’t, till I started using it here). Looks like clover, but with tiny yellow flowers that bees and other pollinators love. We started using it as an understory in the wild flower bed, then started leaving it when it self-seeded around other beds. It’s easy to pull up and not invasive, and it’s a useful place marker to fill a gap while we work out what we want to do with a particular area.

2) Red deadnettle

Another very unshowy plant. It’s an annual, but self-seeds and is easy to recognise as a seedling if it grows anywhere we don’t want it – two very desirable traits in wild flowers! Again, tiny flowers, but bees love them. And it can flower at any time of year, so when we have an unseasonably warm day in January or December, and bees come out looking for nectar, it’s there for them.

 

3) White deadnettle

A much larger deadnettle, and this one is a perennial. I think it’s a very attractive plant, with its bright green foliage and small spires of white flowers that, again, are real bee magnets. Eventually the flower spikes get old, and turn yellow, so you just cut them down, and the plant starts growing nice fresh foliage again. Really useful if you time it just right for those times when everything seems to pause between seasons.

 

4) Welsh poppy

And probably the king of them all, the yellow Welsh poppy. Bees not only love it, they try desperately to get into the flowers as they close up in the early evening, no matter how many other bee-friendly flowers are out nearby. It’s this one they want. There’s a great flush of flowers in the spring, petering out about now in July, then another smaller flush of flower about September, with odd plants in flower on and off from April to October.

So we’ve transplanted seedlings from my garden over the back; we’ve scattered seeds here several times a year, in the autumn (in case they need a cold spell to start them germinating) and in the spring (in case that’s best for them) and in summer (in desperation). We’ve nurtured the seedlings, we’ve watched them, we’ve willed them to live. We’ve looked enviously at road verges full of Welsh poppies.

This is our sole survivor:

At least it might set seed this year.

 

 

Growing wild flowers – 2

10 July 2019

As I mentioned in the last post, we’re experimenting with growing a few perennial UK native plants, to take over from the poppies and cornflowers as they fade.

At the moment, the small scabious and knapweed are taking over at the same height as the poppies and cornflowers

Small scabious in another bed

Knapweed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

while nearer the ground we have geranium sanguineum  and yarrow keeping the show going:

Geranium sanguineum (small pink flower) and yarrow (taller white one)

In a previous post I mentioned that poppies in particular grow best in newly-disturbed soil, which is why we’ve emptied that end bed in the autumn in previous years and forked it over. However, there have been a number of really great displays of poppies just growing in grass this year, as on Soulbury Road grassy bank, so we’re going to try something different this year – we’ll add a few more clumps of perennial wild flowers through more of that end bed, hoe between them to disturb the soil a little, and sow the poppy and cornflower seeds there. That should distribute the flowers more evenly while still keeping the display going through the whole bed.

Meadow cranesbill

We also have a couple of meadow cranesbill plants at the Bowls Club end of that bed, and some tall wild carrots, some of whose flower heads are just beginning their characteristic turning inside out, to form urn-shaped seed heads that will last well into winter.

But we will still keep a poppies-only strip at the front – we have to have poppies here in front of the war memorial, and where better than a great display just as you come in from the car park?

Growing wild flowers

08 July 2019

There’s been some discussion in various local Facebook groups recently about the wild flowers that have been planted on road verges, particularly prompted by Rotherham’s planting eight miles of pictorial meadows (i.e. flowers that aren’t necessarily native to the UK, but which fit in American native species like phacelia, gillia and Californian poppies. One discussion (I can’t find the thread again – Facebook discussions can be very transitory!) asked Central Beds council why they didn’t do it, to which they replied, amongst other things, that they did help us (South Beds Friends of the Earth, the Greensand Trust, and Leighton-Linslade Town Council) to create 19 bee-friendly areas around the town. It’s nice to have the appreciation! but of course these areas are only part of the story, and probably aren’t what most people have in mind when they think of the large areas of planting along roadside verges.

In SBFOE’s bee-friendly sites we’re trying to provide food and nesting sites for bees and other pollinators, rather than producing a colourful display – we do try to do both, of course, but the focus is different. We need a framework of permanent planting, with patches of the bright cornfield annuals that many people think of as ‘wild flowers’. And this is where it starts getting complicated. Those cornfield annuals only flower for a few weeks a year, and if we want them to set seed so there will be flowers next year, we have to leave the dying stands for a couple of months after that. That can look very untidy and people can feel it looks unintended, as if we haven’t bothered to weed it.

And those roadside verges and similar beds can take a lot maintenance, even if they do save on mowing costs. In many places, the grasses and oxeye daisies begin to overwhelm all the other, weaker, annuals like poppies and cornflowers, so that by the third year or so you just have long grass with white daisies in – like the verges and banks around new roads. And docks and thistles creep in and often take over – they’re very valuable in terms of wild life, but perhaps not what many people want to see.

You can extend the idea of ‘wild flowers’ from ‘UK native flowers’ to ‘something that looks natural, like a wild flower’, or ‘native to other countries in the northern hemisphere’, like the phacelia, gilias and Californian poppies that make many ‘cultivated meadows’ look so good.

And here’s a photo of one of our sites – the grassy bank along Soulbury Road. Photo courtesy of Brian Snowdon.

Photo courtesy of Brian Snowdon

“Why don’t you just pop in a few bedding plants for a bit of colour?”

08 July 2019

 Someone said this last week, during a discussion about how we try and have at least two bee-friendly plants in flower all the year round, and how tricky this can be, not just in December and January, but also in June when many of the early summer flowers are dying off before the July-to-September ones come into bloom.

People quite often suggest that we use more bedding plants, which makes me wonder why our instinct is not to do just that. I think there are several reasons – sustainability (volunteer time and the need to water much more often, as well as more use of plastic pots and everything else needed to grow the plants), the difficulty of finding bedding plants grown in peat-free compost and the fact that we’ve not been successful in growing our own. And of course, commercially-grown plants have frequently been treated with hormones to make them flower earlier and longer, and/or insecticides, so that they are perfect at the point-of-sale. Neonicotinoid pesticides aren’t being used nearly as much as they were a couple of years ago, but we’d still prefer not to use plants treated with any pesticides.

The main reason is probably that very few of the bedding plants we could buy are attractive to bees (so in the end it doesn’t matter much that they’ve probably been treated with insecticides, as the bees won’t be collecting nectar or pollen from them). We’ve restricted ourselves in the Memorial Gardens to only growing plants that are particularly attractive to bees, so that excludes the use of most bedding plants in the bee-friendly areas that South Bedfordshire Friends of the Earth look after.

On the other hand, the Town Council are very good at growing bedding plants, and we’re fortunate to have two of their beds next to our own, next to the war memorial itself, and full of beautiful and colourful plants. So we have the best of both worlds here!