The trouble with poppies …

06 June 2022

A couple of years ago, a passer-by in the gardens congratulated us on managing to get a good display of poppies year after year. That surprised me – we knew that poppies grow on disturbed ground, so weused to let the seed ripen and fall on the ground, then turn the ground over and .sow more seed, for good measure. And the poppies grew every year, and put on a great display.






“Ah,” he said, “but it needs to be newly-disturbed ground. Not disturbed every year.”

That set us thinking – how were we going to have newly-disturbed ground every year? Or at all?

So for the last three years, we’ve raked it, but not turned the soil, so that in two or three years we could fork it over and have that elusive ‘newly-disturbed’ soil again. And hopefully, we’d still have poppies for those years, and then a much better, newly invigorated display once we’d disturbed it again.

Well, we’ve left it one year too late. There are hardly any poppies this year, and those there are, are small and weak. The same for cornflowers. At least the corncockles will be amazing, and they’re coming out now. After they’ve all flowered, we’ll let some seed drop, and collect the rest, then fork the soil over and hope very much that that counts, and that we’ll have a good strong display of poppies again.

It’s a very artificial conceit, this idea of ‘wild flower gardens’ – they’re not nearly as manageable as good old cultivated garden flowers! That end bed isn’t a meadow, which would have mainly perennial flowers growing through grass; it mainly has cornfield annuals in it, like the poppies, cornflowers, corn cockle and corn marigold. They’re often described in the media as ‘wild flower meadow’, but usually nowadays corn cockles and cornflowers have been deliberately sown. (Poppies do indeed just spring up when the soil’s been disturbed – you can see hundreds of them where the soil’s recently been turned for a new road.

So when the annuals have died back this year, we’ll take them out and turn the soil in that bed before resowing. Hopefully that will count as newly-disturbed … And at least there are a few clumps of later-flowering wild flowers, like scabrious and knapweed, which wiill keep the show going this year.

In the meantime, do look at the wonderful opium poppies (the large scarlet ones) a couple of beds away, on the right if you’re standing with your back to the car park. We had some orange ones for several years, then the plant got pulled up – and a kind visitor to the gardens was so concerned by it, that she went straight home and fetched my some seed from the plants in her own garden, so that we’d still have some of the same poppies. The ones in flower right now are hers = if by any chance you’re reading this, thank you very much!

Preschool helpers

17 March 2022

Last week we had more help than usual in the gardens – some of the children from Mentmore Road Under-Fives came out to help us.

A couple of purple toadflax seeds had grown into sizeable plants in the veg (sunnier) end of their bed, so we used a garden fork to lift them carefully (two children standing on the fork at a time) and carry them down to the shadier end.







Then they dug holes and replanted them there, together with some spare foxglove plants I had. One little girl had found a small bit of conifer that had blown down in the wind, and wanted to plant that, too – hopefully it’ll grow, others have in various places in the gardens.

Then everything had to be watered very thoroughly, and then watered again, just in case.

There were a lot of twigs and other sticks all over the grass, after the windy days last week, so some of the children went collecting sticks to support the peas they’ll be sowing next week.

It’s inspiring to work with them, they’re so enthusiastic!

How to help bumblebees at this time of year

15 March 2022

This is lifted from a thread on Twitter this morning, by the person who started the Bee Sanctuary of Ireland

This is just a summary; the original thread, with lots of photos and more links, is here  .He’s asked us to share it more widely.

Lots of people asking us about bumblebees at the moment – why they’re seeing them on the ground – so here’s a quick thread to explain what they’re up to. Please share as every queen that survives means a new colony that gets to exist & produce new queen bees for next year!

Bumblebee queens emerge in early spring from hibernation and immediately need to feed – that’s why early flowering plants are so important. Apart from feeding, their mission at this time is to find a suitable site to establish a nest. Hence you will observe queens flying low to the ground zig-zagging across the landscape – they’re house-hunting. Stopping to explore in long grass and vegetation, hollows in trees, stone walls, under sheds and even compost heaps. During this time bumblebee queens spend a lot of their time resting between flights.

These between flight stopovers can last for up to an hour and they are not always careful about where they take them – sometimes the middle of a footpath can be the ‘ideal’ spot. So if you see a big bumblebee chilling on the ground don’t always presume they need rescuing!

As with sleeping dogs leave resting bees lie – for up to an hour before intervening. (Unless of course she is in imminent danger whereby she should be carefully moved to a safe place). If after about an hour she is still present then she may need assistance.

In this case preference is to move her to a nearby source of nectar – a flower! If no flowers are nearby she can be offered a 50/50 mix of white sugar and water. NEVER offer her honey as although it would seem to be the obvious action honey can contain pathogens that may be harmful to bumblebees. Usually once she takes on some sugars & heats up she’ll happily fly off. Don’t bring her indoors for long periods! Thanks for reading/caring. PLEASE RETWEET this forward. The more informed, the more queens survive & the more bees we have. Simple. “

A few more spring flowers

14 March 2022

A few photos taken yesterday, as a change from long posts about different types of shop-bought compost. There were a couple of queen bumblebees around the pulmonaria – it doesn’t look much at the moment, but it’s a real bee magnet

When did we all start using shop-bought composts?

March 13 2022

When did we all start using shop-bought composts?

This is a bit of a digression, but I though it might be interesting to look at why and when we all started using bagged composts.

Before about the middle of the twentieth century, most people made their own potting mixes, based on soil, homemade compost, leaf mould, sand, grit – whatever they had to hand or could source. They might need to add fertilizers, as the compost had to provide the right balance of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and trace elements. It needed to have the right amount of lime, or none; for example, if it contained too much leaf mould, it might be too acidic. It needed to be the right texture, and probably sterilised.

So the possibility of having a reliable, ready-to-use bagged compost would have been a real godsend.

This was provided by the John Innes Horticultural Institution, which was set up in 1910 as an advanced training school for gardeners, a fruit-breeding research station and an institution for horticultural experiment and research with an emphasis on plant genetics.

They needed reliable composts for their experimental plants, and rafter much research during the 1930s, they arrived at a set of formulae for different types of compost, e.g. for growing seeds, for potting-on, or for growing larger plants, shrubs and trees in containers. In 1938, as part of the war effort, they published a series of leaflets and gave radio broadcasts to publicise their new composts and other improved methods for raising garden crops. ({info from

Incidentally, the fact that the recipes weren’t patented explains why ‘John Innes Compost’ can cover so many wildly different formulations still; and peat has been used in many interpretations of the original recipe and still is, today. The crucial ingredient was loam (soil), with the addition of peat, sand or grit, limestone (usually), and a specially formulated ‘base fertilizer’, which was mixture of organic and mineral ingredients to provide enough nutrients for a month or two.

Why peat? It was reliable, consistent, and very very cheap to produce in large quantities. It’s said to hold water better than anything else (as long as you don’t let it dry out completely, when it can be very hard to get it to take up water again!). And it can be used in the many machines that have made industrial plant growing possible – for example, in the soil-blocking machines that produce the huge numbers of plug plants bought in from the Netherlands and elsewhere, to be grown on for sale.

Since these composts were first introduced, the industry has grown beyond all recognition. Once garden centres started up in the 1970s, many manufacturers have developed large ranges of different composts for different purposes, which made it so much easier to choose the right growing medium. Most of them don’t use soil at all (which makes them much lighter – suddenly, even if you didn’t have a garden, you could just go out and buy some compost to fill a few pots and have a few plants on a balcony, or just outside the door. The convenience and predictability of these composts meant that over the years, we’ve all begun to feel that they’re absolutely necessary in order to grow anything. That’s not quite the case – but we’ll look at that in the next post.

If it’s nearly spring, people will be reminding us to avoid using peat …

03 March 2022

Every year about this time we start thinking about what we’re going to grow, in whatever space we have – a houseplant on the windowsill, a pot on a balcony, a few more plants in the garden, an allotment-full of vegetables. And every year about this time, this blog starts banging on about peat, and why we shouldn’t be using it – for example, see here, here and here.

This year we thought we’d do something a little different, and look first at when and why we all started using peat, and how we gradually began to think it was essential (but it isn’t). Then in the following post, we’ll look at ways of cutting down on our use of peat, in addition to just buying peat-free compost (at least one common use can actually waste your money, and damage the soil too); and as there are a few things that have to be done a little differently when moving over to peat-free composts, we’ll look at that, too.

Over the last two or three years there has been a little progress, both in an increased awareness of the problems of using composts based on peat, and on the quality and availability of peat-free composts.

Indeed, we won’t be updating the list of suppliers around Leighton Buzzard this year, for the excellent reason that suddenly most places that sell multipurpose compost are selling peat-free versions, and they’re not necessarily more expensive – though we will look at why it’s worth paying more for any multipurpose compost you buy, to save money in the long run.

For the last ten years, the government has said the problem of using peat can be resolved by voluntary means, run by the horticulture industry. Sadly this hasn’t happened – target after target has been missed, and at the current rate of progress, forecourts will still be piled high with peat-based compost in thirty or forty years, which is far too late for maintaining a liveable planet.

The government recently proposed to ban the use of peat in compost produced for retail use (that’s us) by 2024. As the largest sections of the industry are finding it hard to follow their many colleagues who gave up using peat years ago, it’s proposed that their use of peat will also be banned, but by 2030. Defra (Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs), has a current consultation on this, and we urge you to go and complete it at

The consultation ends on March 18 2022.

First flowers in bloom this year

11 February 2022

We’re just beginning to see a few flowers coming out at the gardens – we post photos of them every year, as although it’s the same two or three things that flower early, we’re still very happy to see them as they herald the beginning of the end of winter.


The Sarcoccus confusa – Sweet box – in the bed nearest the memorial, is just full of flower, and has a lovely strong perfume when the sun or wind catches it..


The winter aconites have been showing a little yellow for a couple of weeks now, but they’re really beginning to open up whenever there’s enough light and/or sunshine. And they’re spreading! The great gardener Christopher Lloyd often regretted that he couldn’t establish them in his wonderful garden at Great Dixter. It’s nice to know that even the best gardeners rely on a bit of luck – I spend enough time worrying about the plants that haven’t thrived in these gardens as well as I’d hoped, but I’ll draw comfort from the way these come back cheerfully early every year.

This one looks particularly good next to the copper-leaved bugle, which will come into its own in a couple of months. And the large clump of cultivated poppy next to it came from a passer-by last year, who was sad that someone had pulled a mature poppy out and left it lying on the ground; she said she had some seed from a similar plant at home, so she went off immediately to fetch it. This is the first of several clumps that’ll delight us in the summer.

And of course there are snowdops!

There are several clumps around the garden, including some under the flowering cherry tree in the corner, by the Bowls Club and the car park. These are growing ruond the buddleia in the middle of the bed the preschool children look after.

Britain in Bloom is boosting its green credentials

03 February 2022

Every year, usually around July, we take part in the nationwide community gardening competition that is Britain in Bloom, as part of Leighton-Linslade’s entry. The judging criteria have always included an element of sustainability, but that’s been really strengthened for this year’s competition.

It was very heartening to read about these changes in the latest issue of the RHS’s monthly magazine The Garden (February 2022, p. 87, “Boosting Bloom’s green credentials”). They’ve been introduced “to place more emphasis on sustainable gardening and supporting biodiversity”.

“The new judging criteria will build on the environmental work that Bloom groups already do, by encouraging entrants to minimise their impact on local environments and to make a positive difference. Groups will be encouraged to use appropriate plant selections for year-round impact, use ecological gardening methods and promote biodiversity across their work. ” […]

“Incorporating sustainable gardening practices into their projects will attract top marks, including eliminating the use of peat for propagating and raising plants, minimising water use and reducing reliance on mains water. ” […]

“Prioritising perennials and pollinator-friendly plants, and those that are less susceptible to pests and diseases, will be a key focus. Groups will be asked to carefully consider the use and provenance of annual bedding, where use in displays.”

This is great, coming from the main professional body in the UK! These are exactly the principles that have guided South Beds Friends of the Earth all the years we’ve worked here in the Linslade Garden of Remembrance, so it’s very encouraging to find that they’re becoming more and more mainstream. We’ve noticed that over the seven years we’ve been looking after the gardens, we’ve gradually had to explain less and less about what we do and why, and that lately we’ve had a number of people tell us that they weren’t sure about it when we started out, but now they love it. Endorsement from the RHS is the icing on the cake.

As it happens, we’ve begun planning what we’ll be doing this year; just for a start, I’m hoping that the provenance of our annual bedding will be ‘seeds planted into our own compost mix, by children from the local preschool’ – their enthusiasm is a real encouragement, whatever we do!

What we do with all the plastic sacks we use for leaves

27 January 2022

A couple of times lately, someone’s asked what we do with all the plastic sacks we collect leaves in, particularly as we’re South Beds Friends of the Earth and yet we’re apparently using large amounts of single-use plastic.

At various points in the leaf-collecting process we have around two hundred bags of leaves waiting to go into the bin to make leaf mould; that’s a lot of plastic. Do the bags just get thrown away after we’ve used them?

Well, no, not exactly – this was my garden yesterday, with twenty or so bags pegged to poles stuck in the lawn so that they could dry out enough to go into the loft to be stored for next year (if we don’t dry them before storage, they’re pretty rank after 10 months in the loft).

Some of them – perhaps ten per cent each year? – will have torn, or have too many holes in to be useful, but most of them can be reused and reused. The yellow one in the photo is one of the last survivors of the bags I used when I first put an ad on Freecycle (as it then was) offering to rake up leaves, to make leaf mould for my allotment. That was more than ten years ago now; they’ve lasted well.

The ones that really can’t be used again will go to ‘soft’ plastic recycling, which has got much easier in the last few years, as many supermarkets have collecting boxes for it (Tesco’s our nearest; I think some of the others have them, too).

So we think that on balance, it’s worth the amount of plastic we do have to recycle, to have enough leaf mould to make a real difference at the various gardens we look after; we’ve really raised the amount of organic matter in the soil, we’re able to water less and less every year, and the plants are thriving. And the worms love it!

Poppies for the gardens, from Linslade School

09 November, 2021

Over the years we’ve been lucky enough to have students from various schools around Leighton Buzzard and Linslade making poppies for us to put in the gardens around Remembrance Day – they echo the real poppies that flower for a couple of weeks in midsummer, and help us to focus on the reason the Garden of Remembrance is here at all.

Despite wear and tear, we still have a few of the poppies made each year, and this year we’ve been able to add to them with these ones made by some of the students at Linslade School – thank you very much!