Snowdrops round the cherry tree in the corner, a sign that spring might really be on the way at last.
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!
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!
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!
13 September 2016
There are still a lot of bees in the garden – here’s one enjoying the coreopsis:
We’ve had very little rain for the last couple of months, and the ground’s dried out again very quickly even after a whole day of it. We’d never claim to be a ‘drought garden’, but we do try not to use more water than we really need to. Even in this very dry summer we haven’t (yet!) had to use the hose this year, but the gardens don’t look particularly dry. This is thanks partly to the amount of mulching we did last year (putting something on top of wet ground to hold the moisture in), and partly due to our choice of plants – common garden perennials and many wild flowers need much less watering than annual bedding plants, for example. We use watering cans for a couple of weeks when we move plants or put new ones in, to get them established, then mulch them well and leave them to get on with it.
The exception is the vegetable bed where the preschool children are growing peas, beans and carrots this year, where we’ve been using the watering cans a lot, particularly before the children broke up for the summer – they love watering things, and the runner beans probably had such a good start that they’ll survive any number of dry weeks now!
The mulch we used for the bottom two beds (nearest the war memorial) last year was a proprietary compost made from wool and bracken, which has also kept weeds down for over a year and is still making a difference. We’re just beginning to notice a few weeds creeping back now, but it’s saved us a lot of time. It does make the soil quite hard to work in the second year, so we haven’t used it this year in the other beds where we’re still moving a lot of plants round; there, we’re using garden compost round individual plants that need more feeding, or leaf mould where we just want to cover the ground over the winter, which is better for the soil (and the ladybirds and other predators – we want to keep as many as possible around the gardens, as they did a great job this year of seeing off any aphids that did try to colonise the plants!). It’s a difficult balance at the moment – if we cover too much of the ground too early on, we’ll stifle all the self-sown Californian poppies, cornflowers and others that we’d welcome, but this is exactly the time when a lot of weeds start germinating, and we don’t want our volunteers to have to keep weeding the same patch again and again.
20 August 2016
It’s about a year since we started refocusing here in the gardens, using more garden flowers to allow us to provide nectar and pollen for bees over a longer period than we could with only wild flowers, while respecting the setting of a semi-formal memorial garden. We thought it would take a couple of full seasons for the new plan to mature, so it seems a good time to look at how the gardens are doing.
Eighteen months ago we planted shrubs down the centre of some of the beds nearest the war memorial, and we’ve gradually added lavender plants along the edges of most of the beds, to make an informal hedge and provide structure through the winter when most of our annuals and herbaceous perennials die back. All the plants we’ve put in are establishing well and developing into a good framework for the more informal planting inside the beds.
This year the bulbs, pulmonaria and perennial wallflower provided plenty of nectar in early spring for bees as they emerged from hibernation and started nesting, while the other perennials and annuals gradually took over from them, including peas and runner beans planted by the children from the local preschool. We had a great display of poppies, cornflowers and oxeye daises in the top bed (nearest the car park). We try to have at least two of the bees’ favourite plants in flower at any time between February to November, which we’ve managed so far this year.
Right now the bees’ favourite flowers are the blue hyssops in the second bed down from the car park, and the yellow daisy-like coreopsis at the other end of the bed:
Now we’re getting ready for the start of the gardening year in the autumn. We won’t be cutting and clearing until the spring, so that we don’t leave too many places where bare earth will be exposed to heavy rain, which damages soil structure and leaches nutrients away. We also like to leave stems where they don’t look too messy, and we add leaf mould, both to cover the soil and provide shelter for overwintering insects.
We’re also adding a few more plants and moving others around to places where they’ll grow best, and we’ll also sow seeds of annuals like the bright orange Californian poppies that looked so good earlier in the year. And our other main job is to clear the wild flower bed (nearest the car park) and re-sow poppies and cornflowers for next year; they grow best on ground that’s been cultivated, so we need to turn it over every year.