Author Archives: foe

The gardens in early autumn

We didn’t take as many photos as usual this year, but here’s one of the gardens a couple of weeks ago – still lots of interest as we go into October, quite a bit of colour, a lot of height, and many interesting seed heads that are attracting goldfinches and other birds already.

A long hot summer

02 October 2018

It’s nearly three months since we managed to post on this blog; I’m sorry for the long silence. This summer has really taxed us, with much more watering than usual both at the gardens and on our own allotments and the other gardens we look after. There’s been a knock-on effect too, as we couldn’t move any plants or try and establish new ones during the drought and unusual heat, so there’s been a backlog of work which we’re only just getting done. And now we’re running straight into the leaf-collecting season – though for the first batch we had help from the local preschool, who had a great time on Monday helping load leaves into bags (and run through them, and run around with those big-hand leaf collectors which a couple of the boys felt made them into mini Incredible Hulks.

Our original plan for this year was to consolidate the planting, and to try and reduce volunteer hours as we’d just be maintaining the gardens, rather than rescuing them from the invasive plants like white clover and self-heal which had choked out most others. This year, we said, we’ll just be able to do a bit of deadheading and move a couple of plants that would be happier in other places, and perhaps add a few more plants that we’ll have grown ourselves.

Well, along with the bit of deadheading we’ve had to do much more watering – we usually try to water as little as possible, partly so as not to waste a valuable resource, and partly because plants grown ‘hard’ (with all they need, but not overfed or overwatered) seem to thrive better. But we did end up watering many parts of the beds with a hose three times since May, and watering specific plants that weren’t sufficiently established before the heatwave started, like the five new roses, which need a proper soaking every week for the first year or so even in normal weather, to encourage their roots to get down into the soil, so we’ve given each of them a couple of cans of water At least the thick mulch of leaf mould we put on in May has helped keep what moisture there is deep in the soil, and watering most of the gardens once a month is probably not too bad for this year.

We didn’t manage to sow many hardy annuals as the ground was just too dry and we’d have been watering them every couple of days, though we did raise a few tomato plants with the preschool (and they’re just beginning to ripen now). Their peas and carrots didn’t survive the heat, though, and we’re rethinking what we do in their bit of the garden – for a start, we’re adding more herbs and some lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) as they love the smells of rosemary, mint and fennel, and the softness of the lamb’s ears leaves.

At least with the combination of heat that stopped many weeds from germinating, and mulch that kept light away from those that were there, we haven’t needed to weed the beds since July, just before the In Bloom competition this year. At least we had a lovely sunny day for the judges’ visit, with the preschool children out in force demonstrating just how much they love watering anything and everything! The whole team came along, too, including our invaluable Duke of Edinburgh’s award student Miles, who’s helped us so much this year.

And in September we heard that Leighton Buzzard had been awarded 12 Golds, 2 Silver Gilts, and two ‘Best in the region’ awards (for Linslade Wood and for the Tactic youth project). The gardens are part of Mentmore Road park, which was one of the sites awarded a Gold – it’s good to know we’re all on the right track!

The other half of the wild flower bed

8 July 2018

An earlier post mentioned that we were trying to introduce more perennial and late-flowering UK native flowers into the bed nearest the car park. This involves a completely different form of wild flower management from what we need to do to keep the poppies coming back every year, and we’ve been asked a couple of times what we’re doing in that half of the bed – in particular, we’ve been asked if we’re growing a meadow.

Well, no; in a smallish, narrow bed, with half given over to cornfield annuals that like rich soil, we don’t think we’ve got room to grow a meadow that would prefer poorer soil (one of the best ways of establishing a new meadow is to remove the top layer of soil, and plant into the next layer down, which will have fewer nutrients in it). So we’ve left a number of the self-seeded cornfield annuals, particularly the oxeye daisies, and started moving plants from other beds into the spaces between them. For example, a few years ago the children from Mentmore Road Under-Fives sowed wild flower seeds in the second bed up from the memorial, and a couple of plants have succeeded so well that they’re crowding out many of the other plants we’d put in that bed; so we’ve tried transplanting the overgrown clumps of wild flowers into the top bed. The various types of scabious have been really successful, and so has the kidney vetch; however, we’re finding it harder to establish Jacob’s ladders and Welsh poppies there.

We’ve recently added geranium sanguineum to extend the flowering season for bees – this is the pale pink variant ‘lancastriense’ that grows wild on sand dunes on the north-west coast, rather than the more common, magenta-coloured one, whose flowers don’t seem to be nearly as attractive to bees (which is a pity, as it would look great in that bed). The ‘lancastriense’ variant was featured on Gardener’s World a couple of years ago, with Carol Klein extolling its virtues while huddled up against the side of the dune where it was growing, on a very blustery day. The landscape here in the gardens is rather less dramatic! but as the plant grows well in gardens in Mardle Road, which runs behind the Memorial Gardens, so we’re hoping it’ll be equally successful in that top bed too.

In addition, we have a lot of black meddick and forget-me-nots forming an understorey that seems to be very attractive to insects – there’s a real ecosystem down there, for those with the flexibility to get down to look at it (and to get back up again …). We had one musk mallow plant surviving in one of the middle beds, from several that were planted when the beds were first established; the survivor died after a year, too, but not before setting seed, which we sowed in a seed tray and left until this spring, when it germinated. We now have fifteen small plants, one or two of which will find their way into that end bed, to provide some structure and interest when the poppies die down, and some of the others will probably be added to some of South Beds Friends of the Earth’s other bee-friendly sites around Leighton, to keep the display going later into the year.

But at the moment, with this heatwave burning up quite a few of our flowers, and no rain for weeks, we’re not thinking of putting any more new plants in; we’ll get back to working on that bed once it’s had a good soaking!

Dead leaves

 7 July 2018

We’ve been asked a couple of times why there are so many dead leaves on the flower beds at the moment.

They’re there for two reasons; the first is that we’re using them as a mulch, to try and keep moisture in the soil, while adding more organic matter without overfeeding the beds. We recycle all the material we take off the beds as compost, which we add to the beds in autumn to increase soil organic matter, which in turn helps the soil retain more moisture, as well as feeding it. We don’t have any compost available yet, but we clearly needed to do something to make the most of whatever water we’re putting on the beds as it’s been so much hotter and drier than usual, and the heatwave started so early – we’d only just got used to the fact that the freezing wet winter and spring had finally given way to summer!

So even though we wouldn’t expect to be able to use leaves for a year or two after we’ve started a leaf mould bin, we did start rifling through our new bin in the work area behind the Memorial Gardens to see if enough leaves had rotted enough to be put out on the beds to help keep in any moisture there is in the ground. We’d put quite a few new plants in, grown from seed or from cuttings, and we weren’t able to water them every day to establish them; this way we can water them just once or twice a week while they establish. We hope it doesn’t look too untidy! The mulch is making a real difference, everything looks much fresher than we’d expect in this heat and drought, and most plants are still growing on well. We’d still like a few good heavy showers, though!

And the second reason? It’s a great substitute for bare earth when you’re three years old and want to just dig something with a trowel. Last week when the children from the local preschool came over to help us water, we dug up some of the potatoes they’d planted before Easter and found that their second favourite activity (after watering) was digging with a trowel. Problem – there isn’t enough clear soil to let them dig. Solution – we filled a large flexible trug with leaf mould, put it next to the flower beds, and let them dig it out and put it on the earth around the plants, and let them get on with it. Result – happy children and some very well-mulched flower beds!

So why are the bees in trouble, anyway?

17 January 2017

 The interpretation boards in the gardens say that our bees and other pollinating insects are in serious decline; one of the things we’ve been asked when working at the gardens has been, “So why are the bees in trouble, anyway?”

There are a number of causes, of which the most important is probably loss of habitat. Bees need to eat. Throughout the year they need plenty of flowering plants so that they can collect enough nectar and pollen. We used to have large areas of wild flowers – wild flower meadows, roadside verges, and wild margins around cultivated fields on farms. However, over the last sixty years or so, we have lost 97% of wildflower meadows in the UK, mostly to intensive agriculture through site drainage, ploughing, increased use of weedkillers and fertilisers, and earlier cutting for silage. Many former meadows are now intensively managed and put down to fields growing mainly perennial rye-grass which is less attractive to bees, other pollinating insects or birds. It’s often easier for contractors to cut grass short, which looks tidier, rather than managing it in a more wildlife-friendly way (delaying cutting until after the flowers have seeded).

Friends of the Earth started the ‘Bee Cause’ campaign to raise awareness of the crisis facing bees – and us, as bees pollinate about 75% of our crops; even if it were possible for farmers to pollinate them by hand or machine, it would cost over a billion pounds to do so.

South Beds Friends of the Earth has contributed to the campaign by creating a number of bee-friendly habitats around Leighton Buzzard, planting mainly wild flowers to provide nectar and pollen for as much of the year as possible.

There’s a lot more information on the ‘Bee Cause’ part of the Friends of the Earth site, for example at https://www.foe.co.uk/page/learn-about-bees, with suggestions for ways you can help at https://www.foe.co.uk/page/the-bee-cause-act.

Meanwhile, we hope you enjoy watching the bees and other wildlife in these gardens throughout the year!

Remembrance Sunday 2016

13 November 2016

A couple of photos taken before the service.

The felt poppies in the top bed were made by children from Heathwood Lower School; there are also poppies (in the bed nearest the war memorial) made by children from St Georges Lower School.

ready-for-the-service-resized

colours-in-the-gardens-on-remembrance-sunday-2016-resized

Ready for Remembrance Sunday

ready-for-remembrance-day

Yesterday we spent the morning tidying away the plants that were killed by the previous night’s frost – the blackened dahlias in the bottom two beds, the deep red Cosmos that had been flowering in several of the beds right up till then, and the runner beans planted and harvested by the children from Mentmore  Road Under Fives Preschool. It all looks a bit emptier now! We’d already weeded the new lavender edging and tidied the edges of the beds, so the only thing left to do was to dead-head any plants we think will carry on for a bit longer, and stake some of the verbena bonariensis and linaria that were flopping over. We’ll need to mulch the dahlia tubers with leaf mould to protect them from any sharper frosts, but we want to wait until after Sunday as it’ll look untidy for a while at first.

It’s a difficult balance to get right. If we strip out everything except the shrubs and perennials, the garden may look more tightly managed on Sunday, but we’d lose a lot of the early flowers like deadnettles and forget-me-nots that make a large contribution to the nectar and pollen needed by bees emerging in the spring (or whenever it’s warm enough right through the winter). If we cut down all the dead stems and seed heads, we remove shelter for predatory insects over the winter, particularly ladybirds – and they did a great job this year in cleaning any aphids off the roses, for example. Many of the seed heads look great in frosty weather, too, adding to the interest in the gardens when most of the plants are dormant. We’ve also left a lot of seedlings which we’ll edit down to a few plants later on, when they’re bigger; I hope they don’t look as if we just haven’t weeded the beds!

 

Getting ready for winter

28 October 2016

We’ve lifted all the spent annual wild flowers in the top bed by the car park, and we’ve resown poppies, cornflowers and toadflax. These cornfield annuals often need a period of cold weather to start their germination, but the bed’s already full of seedlings, probably from last year. We resow every year to be sure we’ll have a good show of flowers from June and July, though we do then have to thin the seedlings to leave enough room for the remaining ones to grow into stronger plants. It works well in practice, but it feels a bit odd to be sowing seeds, then pulling half of them up!

Over the last couple of months we’ve moved a few plants to places where they’ll be happier or look better, we’ve planted bulbs for next spring, sown seeds of California poppies and Welsh poppies, and thinned some of the seedlings of forget-me-nots and borage; all of these provide a lot of nectar and pollen for bees, and by letting seedlings emerge now we’re ensuring they’ll be flowering earlier next year than if we’d sown them in the spring. It does mean that we can’t mulch all the beds, though, or we’ll choke seeds that are still emerging. We’d like to mulch the beds to prevent heavy rain from damaging the soil structure, to keep nutrients in the soil, and to provide places where beneficial insects can hibernate. Blackbirds seem to appreciate a layer of leaf mould, too, judging by the amount they turn onto the paths when they’re looking for worms underneath it.

We try to have the gardens looking their best for Remembrance Sunday, which isn’t quite as easy as it is in June and July! We do leave quite a few stems and seed heads for hibernating insects,  because many seed heads look good in frost, and because it stops the gardens looking too bare through the winter months; however, we try to balance these ecological requirements with keeping the gardens looking cared for and well tended, in respect of their setting. It’s a difficult balance.

Although we’ve started making our own leaf mould, it won’t be ready for another couple of years and we used all our existing stock to make peat-free potting compost; so we’re very grateful to the local residents who’ve given us enough leaf mould for our needs this year. Thank you!