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!

 

Ecosystems

9 June 2019

Looking around the gardens lately, we’ve realised that we’re finally getting close to our original aim of creating an ecosystem, where all the different elements in the garden work together. Apart from growing only bee-friendly plants, we’ve also been focusing on soil health, and the rest of the benefits seem to flow from that – far fewer weeds, less need to water, and plants that establish quickly and really thrive.

Rather than turning over the soil between plants with trowels to remove weeds, which damages soil structure, and just brings yet more weed seeds to the surface, we’ve been adding mulches of compost or leaf mould on top of the soil to keep light out and stop any weed seeds from germinating. The mulches also add soil organic matter, which improves soil structure and helps to make more nutrients available to plants, and they keep moisture in by slowing down evaporation.

We worked hard to remove the more invasive weeds like self-heal, white clover and sheep’s sorrel, and now it only takes a few minutes to weed the beds by scraping any weeds out – they come out easily from areas that have been mulched. Over the last year or so we’ve added back more of the native plants that thrive in the soil and light conditions here, particularly red and white deadnettles, foxgloves and Welsh poppies, all of which are real bee magnets.

We’ve also noticed far more insects and other invertebrates around the gardens this year, and many more different types, too.

Most of this doesn’t apply to the bed nearest the car park, which we need to dig over every year as we grow cornfield annuals there, which prefer to grow in newly-disturbed soil. We do add leaf mould to that bed, to improve soil structure without adding too much fertility. We’ve also added or left a number of perennial native plants there, like black medick, red clover, deadnettles, geranium sanguineum and devil’s bit scabious; and now that bed seems to be beginning to form its own separate ecosystem, too

 

Green ripples

6 June 2019

Over the years, we’ve been very happy to discover that we’ve helped in a small way to spread the idea of gardening for bees and wildlife, and of how it’s possible to create small gardens on unused patches of ground. One unintentional consequence of these gardens, and SBFoE’s other eighteen bee-friendly sites around the town, has been to inspire other people to include a few bee-friendly plants in their gardens.

Recent posts on the blog have described how we’ve been supplying our sister site outside Bossard House in West Street, opposite Leighton-Linslade In Bloom’s stunning drought garden, which inspired us to try a north-facing drought garden; we’ll be posting soon about the Pocket Park up next to the railway station, which the team has also been helping with (another shade garden, only this time there are three trees there as well which keep most of the rainfall off the ground below, and there’s only a few inches of soil there anyway, just to keep us on our horticultural toes).

And there’s a much smaller site inspired by this place – if you ever go to the Majestic wine warehouse on Leighton Road, next to St Christopher’s garage, look out for the two green ‘cycle park’ troughs outside the doors – they were also planted up by the team working here, and now the staff there look after them. A year ago they were just bare earth, unloved and unused; then some of the In Bloom volunteers gave the staff a few plants that had been left over from their plant stall in June 2018, and the staff asked one of the Memorial Gardens team for advice when they wanted to build on that gift. We were standing talking next to a display of craft gins, many of which referred to the ‘botanicals’ used to flavour them – and suddenly, we had a theme! So you’ll see rosemary, lavender, thyme, sage, mint, lemon balm and other bee-friendly plants that are sometimes used to flavour or colour gins. Originally the planters were sited on the corner of the building by the wide drive, which meant they got quite a bit of sunshine and the Mediterranean herbs thrived; now they’ve been moved to the doorway, they get a lot of light but not much sunshine. So we’re already looking out for shade- and bee-friendly gin botanical plants for them – any ideas would be welcome!

The current exception to the ‘botanicals’ theme is the acid-yellow nemesia, which is there just because we wanted to inject some colour into the planting and couldn’t resist these plants from local nursery Potash Plants – perhaps we were thinking of the ‘amnemesia’ that might follow over-indulgence!

 

Gardening with the children from the local preschool

27 May 2019

 We’ve started trying to meet up more often with the children from Mentmore Road Under-Fives, as we all enjoy it and they remember things better after a couple of weeks than after a month! – particularly when they’ve been sowing seeds. This year they sowed peas in post – getting the multipurpose compost into the pots was all part of the fun – and they’ve been out much more often to water them than we managed last year.

A couple of people who themselves run community gardens have asked for any advice about gardening with very young children. I wouldn’t say we’re experts! But from trial and error, we’ve found that watering is probably the very favourite activity, with digging around in earth or leaf mould a close runner-up.

For watering, we’ve learned a number of things that make it easier and more fun –using child-sized watering cans (ours were a couple of pounds each from the local Homebase) and having fewer cans than the number of children, it’s much easier to keep an eye on the children that way (water travels fast, and soaked feet / t-shirts / other children spoil the event for everyone). We only fill them half full, because that makes turns come round again faster, and there’s less water to be spilled. We’ve found that the newer children, the two- or three-year-olds are pretty good at waiting for just one or two other children to empty their cans before it’s their own turn. A couple of things that make a difference, that we’ve learned over time – 1) if the tap’s quite a way away, bring plenty of water over before the children arrive as it keeps one more adult in the mix for longer – we now take four ten-litre water containers round to the garden (because that’s what our wheelbarrow will hold comfortably) and fill them from the tap before the children arrive. Also, it’s much easier to fill tiny watering cans from one adult-sized watering can than directly from the containers.

Sometimes the children bring their own watering cans!

This last week we also thought of something for the children to do while waiting for their turn. We have a lot of leaf mould that we’ve gathered over the last couple of years, and store in our work area round the back; we bring in a compost-bag of this and decant some into a trug, then have the children sieve it into another trug. We can get four children round one trug comfortably, with room for adults to help too. Then when their friends have watered bits of the garden, they go along and put leaf mould out round the plants, like tucking in the plants under a blanket. This keeps the moisture in for longer, and keeps weeds down, too.

 

Mind, towards the end of the session we  let them just throw the leaf mould onto the flower beds, well away from the paths – most of it falls on the earth anyway, and any that doesn’t get shaken down pretty quickly. And they love it!

Supplying some of our sister sites – outside the Job Centre Plus offices in West St (2)

27 May 2019

The alkanet began to take over, and while it looks really pretty in early spring, with its fresh green leaves and brilliant blue flowers, it’s one of the favourite foods of the scarlet tiger moth, which shreds its leaves – very good from an environmental point of view, less so in terms of how it looks. The plant also suppresses many other plants, so we’ve gradually removed it to take somewhere more appropriate, to replace it with other wild flowers to keep the site looking good all year.

This spring we’ve also added more of these wild flowers, as well as a few non-native plants that work well in an area of naturalistic planting like this one, such as raspberries, to give some height and structure (and bees just love them!), purple toadflax, geranium macrorrhizum, Michaelmas daisies and bugle. All of these were propagated from plants that had become congested at the Memorial Gardens. We also donated some seedlings of Bowles’ Golden Grass from one of our gardens, via the Pocket Park by the station, another of our sister sites. In this case, it’s not so much a source of nectar and pollen for bees, as the kind of habitat some of them need for nesting, as several species nest in clumps of long grass, including that one.

  And so it continues – we’re now potting up some rudbeckia for a couple of months for autumn colour; we’ll plant it out in a couple of months when it’s developed a good root system, as that means we won’t have to spend so much volunteer time watering new plants to get them established.

And the last thing we’ve been able to share is some of our leaf mould, thanks to hours of work by the Memorial Gardens team and much-appreciated contributions of sacks of leaves from Leighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway and many other residents and gardeners. We now have enough for any of our bee-friendly sites around Leighton Buzzard that need it – generally, we don’t improve the soil at all in wild flower areas, but at sites like this one, we need to add organic matter without adding the fertility that comes with compost or manure. We make sure the ground’s wet, then just put the leaf mould on top (not digging it in even with a trowel, as that disrupts the soil structure), and it starts holding in moisture at once and keeping weeds down by shutting out the light they need to germinate. Then worms start pulling it into the ground, and doing the hard work for us!

What has been really nice for us has been the appreciation of members of staff, who said they’d enjoyed watching what we’ve been doing, and they really like it!

 

Supplying some of our sister sites – outside the Job Centre Plus offices in West St (1)

23 May 2019

When the current team took over managing the Memorial Gardens, we were quite daunted by the amount of empty space in the various beds. So we set to, sowing seeds, splitting plants up and growing them on, transplanting toadflax, foxgloves and other plants from our own gardens and allotments, and generally trying to populate the beds with bee-friendly plants. And now we’re actually running out of space! And we’re able to pass some plants on to some of our sister sites.

Most recently we’ve been working on the South Beds Friends of the Earth site outside the Job Centre Plus offices in Bossard House on West Street. It’s a difficult site, north facing with much of the site never seeing the sun; but the front is in full sun for much of the afternoon in late spring and summer, so we can’t use too many plants that like deep shade.

Job Centre Plus staff members with the South Beds Friends of the Earth members in June 2017

The team working there added a lot of manure to the site in May 2017 to improve the soil’s structure and its ability to hold moisture, so they could water less often. That still seems to be working well – a number of passers-by have commented on the ‘triffid’ in the centre, a magnificent stinking hellebore plant (a horrible name for a beautiful UK native plant), which has grown huge on the manure, and flowered magnificently. Last autumn we were able to add some Welsh poppies, water avens, foxgloves and meadow cranesbill and a beautiful St John’s Wort shrub which had outgrown its home, all spare plants from the Memorial Gardens.