Author Archives: Pippa Sandford

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 specially bred to bring out specific characteristics – flowering for several months (if they’re dead-headed regularly), or being compact, or having particularly bright flowers, and so on. Unfortunately, during the breeding process the ability to produce nectar or pollen is often 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’, all 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 our blog post on Peat from 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 and 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 stunning bedding displays that won’t hurt any bees – have you seen the 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 – catch-up 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 busier than usual trying to keep all the new 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.

A stick sculpture by the preschool children?

April 30, 2017

You may have noticed the new addition to the preschool’s planting (in the third bed from the war memorial) –suggestions have included ‘an arty stick sculpture’ and ‘large immobile stick insects’. In fact we’re trying to discourage the local cat or cats who think the preschool’s vegetable area is an ideal cat litter tray; we couldn’t let the children do the planting themselves this year, as there were so many messes around the plot. But they watered the peas in well, and sowed carrots, and hunted for sticks to support the peas and protect them, so they had a good time in the garden again.

Gardening in a Changing Climate

April 30, 2017

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has just published their report on ‘Gardening in a Changing Climate’, which covers many aspects in considerable technical detail, all fully referenced. Very interesting, with a lot of useful advice, particularly in the section ‘Garden management and design within a changing climate’. It can be downloaded free of charge here

They also have a simpler guide at, which covers many of the topics that guide the way we manage these Memorial Gardens, such as using (less) water, and avoiding the use of peat. There’s also a section on how you can recognise waterlogging and flooding in your garden, though as we’ve only had one short shower since 22 March, that’s not our problem here at the moment!

Flowers of the moment

04 April 2017

Several flowers this time – grape hyacinths (Muscari latifolium)and the first bloom on a native wild flower, water avens (Geum rivale):

Bees don’t usually visit daffodils, but they make an exception for these smaller, white ones called ‘Thalia’:

And here’s real bee heaven – a good-sized patch of grape hyacinths, a native red deadnettle and forget-me-nots:

This is yet another in a series that should be called ‘Photos taken just after the bees flew off’ … there were half a dozen different bumblebees on these three plants mid-afternoon today. Bees like to find a lot of one flower – a crop, in effect – and the gardens are really beginning to provide that.



04 April 2017

Our interpretation boards mention that we don’t use peat, and we’ve been asked a couple of times why that is. There are three main reasons. Firstly, it’s a non-renewable resource – it takes thousands of years for a peat bog to form, but it can be cleared completely within 50 years. It’s also an increasingly rare habitat with its own unique flora and fauna. And lastly, peat bogs act as carbon sinks by storing large amounts of carbon dioxide; when they are dug up, large amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere, which accelerates climate change. The carbon stored in UK peat bogs is equivalent to about 3 years of total UK carbon emissions.

About 70% of most ordinary multipurpose compost is peat; the horticulture industry is one of the main users of peat. Yet gardeners only began to use peat about 50 years ago; until then, many gardeners just mixed their own composts. There are many benefits from buying in sterile, consistent compost mixes, but they don’t have to contain peat.

There are an increasing number of alternatives as the technology generally has moved on since the 1970s, and more and more brands of peat-free compost are becoming available. There’s still a bit of an urban myth around that they aren’t any good, but this isn’t really true any more; many gardeners and commercial growers manage fine with the newer peat-free composts, with great results.

Here at the Memorial gardens we do also use a mix of garden compost and leaf mould for cuttings and growing on small plants as it’s very cheap, which makes our various projects more sustainable. I checked with two local suppliers today – Leighton Buzzard Garden Centre  will have their peat-free compost in sometime within the next couple of weeks, if it’s not already in (when I rang the pallets were just being unloaded, and they weren’t sure exactly what was on those, and what was coming in the next few days); and the National Trust’s Ascott House on the Wing road sells New Horizon compost at a fiver a bag or 3 for £12 – it’s by the kiosk in the car park, and if you tell the car parking attendant you just want the compost, they won’t charge you for entry to the house or gardens!

And one last reason to try and avoid peat – this is what often happens to the roots of plants grown in a peat-based compost when they’re planted out into the kind of heavy clay we have round Leighton Buzzard and Linslade:

There are ways of persuading the roots to move outside the area of its original pot, but we’ve found that the simplest is just to use a peat-free compost. You can also buy plants grown in peat-free composts from some suppliers – we bought perennial wallflowers from the market stall near Peacock’s in the High Street.

Flower of the moment – pulmonaria

17 March 2017

We’ve had a few flowers in the gardens right through January (perennial wallflower and red deadnettle) and February (winter aconites, snowdrops and crocuses), which has provided some nectar for bees flying on warmer, dry days when there hasn’t been any wind. Now, as the days begin to get longer and slightly warmer, the pulmonarias have started flowering, and will continue for several weeks. Bees love them, and seem to  visit them in preference to anything else that’s flowering at the time (it’s so difficult not to keep writing “make a beeline for” on this blog, but watching bees approach all the flowers, then making straight for the pulmonaria, you can certainly see where the phrase came from).

We grow a few clumps of one of the darker blue forms (Blue Ensign), as well as the common pulmonaria with both pink and blue flowers. It’s a common plant that’s grown in many gardens round here, thriving on the local heavy clay. It prefers cool, shady places, ideally with rather more moisture than we have at the Memorial Gardens, but it’ll thrive pretty well anywhere. The only problem is that if the plants get too dry their leaves become mildewed, which can be unattractive, so we grow several clumps of them near the comfrey to provide them with shade in summer, or at least hide the leaves till we get round to cutting them off.

Here’s one of the children from the local preschool, taking time out from sowing peas to point to the pulmonaria.

And here’s a bumblebee on one of the clumps earlier this week.

Spring clear-up?

17 March 2017

In the autumn ( we explained that we leave stalks and seed heads over the winter for insects and other wildlife, and we mulch the ground, to protect the soil over winter. Usually we look forward to clearing all the dead growth away in spring, and removing the mulch, and someone walking through the gardens last week when I was working there asked me when this spring clear-up was going to happen. I must admit I’m itching to get on with it, but we’re being very cautious this year, as last year in our zeal to tidy up, we cleared away a lot of shoots of perennial plants we didn’t recognise, like this bee balm (Monarda didyma). It’s a very handsome plant, with bright red flowers later in the summer that bees just can’t resist.

Photo wplynn, reproduced under creative commons license

Unfortunately, new bee balm shoots look very much like self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), which is very attractive to bees, but it’s also very invasive. When these beds were first dug, volunteers were asked to leave any self-heal we found, because it’s so good for bees – but within a few months, many of the other plants we wanted to keep had been completely choked by it, and nowadays we leave it in the grass, and keep most of it out of the beds. We’ve now learned the difference between bee balm shoots and self-heal seedlings …

There are many other perennials just coming through, as well as seedlings of flowers like California poppies that were very popular last year (with bees and passers-by alike), so we’ve decided to postpone tidying up for a couple more weeks. We’ve cleared away a lot of the conifer twigs that were blown down by the storm a couple of weeks ago, and we’ve cleared some areas between plants that we do recognise. So we hope the beds don’t look too untidy, and we hope you’ll just enjoy the pulmonaria, currant, red deadnettle and primulas, and turn a blind eye to emerging weeds for just a little while longer!

Flower of the moment – red deadnettle

11 March 2017

This wild flower doesn’t look very important, but it’s one of the few plants that may be in flower at any time during the year, which is good news for any bees out flying on warmer days during January and February as it’s one of the few sources of nectar for them at that time of year. Although it’s usually classed as a weed, it’s not too invasive, and it’s pretty easy to remove if we want to – unlike the white clover and self-heal that took us most of last year to get under control – so we tend to leave it unless we really need the space for something else.

Here’s one of the clumps near the comfrey in the third bed down from the car park end, surrounded by twigs and bits of conifer that blew down in the storm last week.

So what can we do to help bees?

21 February 2017

This issue is so important to farming and our natural environment that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs produced a National Pollinator Strategy in November 2014. The Department worked with a wide range of interested groups, including beekeepers’ associations, the Country Landowners  Association, farmers’ associations, Friends of the Earth, the WI, the National Trust, the Royal Horticultural Society, wildlife trusts, the Soil Association, the University of Cambridge and the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

The NPS is a ten-year plan to address the main problems facing pollinators, you can find more details and supporting documents can be found at .

Some of the actions outlined in the plan are simple ones that anyone responsible for a patch of ground can do, to encourage a lot of people to take a few small steps to help. These actions are:

  • Grow more flowers, shrubs and trees to provide nectar and pollen; even a few flowers in a window box will help
  • Let it grow wild – try and leave a few wilder areas for bees, butterflies and other pollinators to nest or hibernate in
  • Cut grass less often – if you let your lawn grow just a little, clover, self-heal and other bee-friendly plants will have a chance to flower. NB: if you go barefoot on the lawn, or if children play there, it might be better to skip this one and compensate elsewhere in the garden!
  • Don’t disturb insect nests and hibernation spots – pollinators don’t just need nectar and pollen, they need place to nest and hibernate, too. They use holes and cracks in walls, dead wood, trees, hedgerows and areas round shrubs, small areas of longer grass, slopes with bare soil on them.
  • Think carefully about whether to use pesticides– many of them kill both harmful and beneficial insects, including insects that prey on the pests you may want to eradicate.

There’s more information about each of these points at

The national Friends of the Earth take these points a bit further at with ten easy ways to help bees in your garden.

And here in the Memorial Gardens, we’re trying to follow them all here, to some extent; future posts will look at some of them in more detail, especially ‘Choose bee-friendly plants for your space’,  ‘Plant through the seasons to provide year-round bee habitat’,  ‘Save the bees and put away the pesticides’; ‘Use peat-free compost to save wildlife habitat’; and ‘Welcome beneficial insects in your garden’.

We’ll look at some of these in more detail in future posts.