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Guest post from our Duke of Edinburgh’s Award student

11 April 2018

A guest post from Miles, who’s doing the volunteering section of his Silver Duke of Edinburgh’s award with us. We really appreciated his work with us for his Bronze award last year; this year he’s taking the work and responsibilities quite a bit further, looking at why we ask him to do what we do, and how it relates to wider environmental and farming issues. This has the additional advantage of making us look at what we’re doing and thinking about the points he raises, too.

“We spent the morning emptying compost bins. Spreading compost around plants who need it, careful not to choke them especially the Snake’s Head Fritillaries which are of particular value. Also, layering new compost of half composted matter with greenery like Nettles and Cow Parsley watering it down each time. This is a part of the task to garden organically as it would be tempting to just use fertilisers and chemicals to save time.”

Here’s Miles knee-deep in compost sorting and remaking:

And here he is with Pippa checking the plum tree, after putting some of last year’s compost round it:

 

Snake’s head fritillaries used to be very common in wetland meadows, but they’ve become very rare as most (98%) meadows have disappeared over the last few decades. South Beds Friends of the Earth planted them in many of their wildlife sites around Leighton Buzzard and Linslade, but ironically this was the only site where they grew at all, round the heritage apple trees; and we had to move the apple trees because of vandalism, displacing most of the fritillaries in the process. A few bulbs survived, which we replanted in beds near the bench, without much hope that they’d grow. But much to our delight, they’ve all come up, the one’s closest to the bench are flowering, too (next to the lavender border). The others have multiplied, so should flower next year, and the ones nearest the Mentmore Road end in the same bed look as if they’ll be in flower next week, and white. To cap it all, when we were chekcing the bed around plum blossom we found a couple of beds had survived.

We were very grateful for Miles’ help lifting the apples and planting the roses when they arrived unexpectedly early on one of the coldest, wettest days of the Christmas holidays – this was nothing to do with his DoE awards at the time, just mucking in when we needing everyone available to get all the roses safely in the ground at short notice. Much appreciated.

And the plum tree itself is going to flower this year for the first time. Nice to have a bit of good news in this cold wet spring!

Spring is postponed …

27 February 2018

We’d usually start the spring clear-up towards the end of February, removing most of the old stems and seedheads to make way for new growth coming through. But this very cold weather means it will have to wait until more normal late winter is back, so we’re planning and taking stock of progress in the beds so far.

We have quite a bit of colour from foliage like this in the bottom bed

to flowers that don’t appear to have noticed the frost and freezing north-east wind

Some years, bees have been flying on warm days in January, and there were a couple of bumblebees around here a couple of weeks ago, on a cold day in February. Anyway, the pollen and nectar are there for them when the weather does improve, and in the meantime we can enjoy the first flowers of the year.

We’re been planning what to put in the bed where the Mentmore Road Under-Fives help us.

We pruned the buddleia in the middle a couple of weeks ago, and it’s sprouting new growth again already; the snowdrops we moved last year have come back underneath it, too. We’re moved some of the Stachys byzantina (lamb’s ear) from the bottom bed by the memorial, to this bed, where it’ll get more sun, and where the children will be able to enjoy stroking its soft, silky leaves. That bottom bed doesn’t get much sun until later in the year, as it’s shaded by the huge conifer. We’ll probably have them plant some early potatoes near the end of term, they should be ready during the summer term; and even if the cold weather continues for a couple of weeks, they could sow peas in pots, to be planted out after the Easter holidays. And we’ll probably sow some pot marigolds with them there, too.

And finally, as a reminder of what the bed next to that one looked like just yesterday morning, before the snow, with its mixture of crocuses for the new year, and Michaelmas daisy seed heads from the old one, reprieved for another week or two:

 

 

More roses!

16 December 2017

This year we finally decided to move the four heritage apples growing along the hedge next to the Bowls Club. They’ve never thrived, as their stems and branches have been snapped off at various times over the last few years, and they never quite managed to recover completely. When we came to lift them, we found they’d hardly made any roots. They’ve now been replanted over at the community orchard in Astral Park, well away from hedges, and hopefully, well away from vandalism, too.

The plum tree in the middle has always been more vigorous, and is now really growing away well, so that’s been left, along with the gingko nearest the war memorial, and the large cherry tree in the corner by the car park.

We thought of replacing the apples with rose bushes to add more colour and scent to the gardens, but thought that they might look a bit underwhelming there. Then Ian Haynes from the Town Council suggested standard roses, which would have some presence, and add colour, height, scent, and a touch of formality to the gardens. Perfect!

We had quite a list of requirements – first and foremost, we needed roses that bees find attractive; many are, but many others aren’t, and it isn’t enough just to buy single-flowered rather than double-flowered varieties (in theory, bees prefer single flowers, which give them easy access to nectar and pollen, over double flowers, whose petals get in the way. But the bees don’t always seem to have read the articles saying that, and clearly colour and other factors are involved).

We wanted roses that were bee-friendly, repeat-flowering, had a long flowering season, were relatively disease-free, and vigorous but not too vigorous. Oh, and scented, too – an unperfumed rose seems to be a bit of a wasted opportunity. And they had to be available as standards, which take much more time to produce than other kinds of rose, so fewer varieties are available in that form. And they should have been grown in the ground, rather than in compost in containers, and preferably not have been treated with bee-harming pesticides.  Searching online didn’t solve the problem, so we rang Peter Beales Roses, who were unfazed by the spec, incredibly patient and very helpful, and came up with the answers.

It’s not really surprising that there were only a few varieties that satisfied all the requirements, but fortunately we’ve found two that look really great – Rhapsody in Blue and Remembrance. Once established in a couple of years, they should contribute colour at shoulder height, over several months, and scent. But just to make sure of the scent, we’ve also found room for an Alfred de Dalmas bush in the third bed down, near the bench by the others.

We thought the plants would arrive at the end of December or early in the new year, so it was quite a surprise when they arrived at the end of last week. After a few texts and changed arrangements, four of us were able to get together to put them in this morning. We added a little fish, blood and bone to the bottom of each planting hole and mixed the soil with the same amount of leaf mould as we put it back around the plant. Once the soil’s settled in a couple of months, we’ll underplant the beds, probably with hardy geraniums. Can’t wait for the flowers and the scent this summer!

Black Gold

4th November 2017

This is the time of year when gardening programmes and magazines exhort us all to make leaf mould; and coincidentally, it’s the time of year when I find myself eyeing up all the piles of leaves along roads, in parks, on lawns, along pavements, and wish I had time and space to collect them all. It’s a lot of work in November, but all you have to do then is leave them for a year or two, and they turn into black gold – a free soil conditioner, seed compost, weed suppressant and reducer of hours spent watering in the summer.

Perhaps most importantly, it increases organic matter in the soil, which helps plants take up nutrients. We also use garden compost, but that adds nutrients too, which isn’t always what you need – sometimes it can make plants grow too lush, which makes them less resistant to wind, storms and drought; and many wild plants and Mediterranean herbs like lavender and rosemary prefer soil with fewer nutrients. But leaf mould adds plenty of organic matter, which increases the populations of invertebrates, fungi and microorganisms in the soil, which seems to have helped the plants in the Memorial Gardens establish quickly and thrive.

It also makes the beds look good – here’s part of the Mentmore Road Under-5’s bed that we were weeding and mulching this week, to tidy the gardens before the Remembrance Sunday service:

The next job will be to thin the forget-me-not seedlings – we want some of them, but we can’t keep them all or they’ll crowd out the snowdrops and grape hyacinths they’re growing through; then we’ll add yet more leaf mould mulch. to keep those bulbs happy.

The forget-me-nots are really useful in the spring, when the bees emerge and need a lot of nectar – we always think there won’t be enough flowers out, but with the self-sown ones, there always are. We add thick layers of leaf mould in the spring, to block light and stop weeds from germinating – though we do try avoid areas where we want forget-me-nots or California poppies to seed themselves around; and we also find the soil then soaks up water like a sponge, and holds it – you can see the difference between areas that have had leaf mould applied and those we haven’t had enough for, which tend to puddle, then dry out quickly. This year we hardly had to water, even with three dry months in spring. And at this time of year, we pile it up over the dahlias to insulate them against the cold – we don’t really have anywhere to store them if we lift them, and the last couple of years they’ve all survived fine under their leaf mould blankets.

Up till now, the only problem has been getting enough of it. We’ve been very lucky in that the Town Council had spare leaf mould this year, so we’ve been able to use that; and we’ve  now built a large chicken wire bin near our compost area, and started collecting leaves. (They need to be processed separately from garden compost, which rots through bacterial action; leaf mould is mainly made by fungal activity). There are two bins, each two metres square, and about one metre eighty high; a couple of weeks ago they looked very empty and daunting, but some of the team have been raking up leaves from the Memorial Gardens and the playing fields, while others have bagged up leaves from home and brought them over. We’ve been promised more from other organisations round the town, and most afternoons some of us are out raking them out – on warmer, sunny days it’s a great way of getting plenty of exercise, though it’s a lot less enticing when it’s freezing cold and wet. Still, it’s always good to focus on how much less weeding and watering work we’ll have to do next year as a result of all our work now!

One of the team treading this year’s vintage of sycamore, hawthorn and maple leaves.

Difficult to photograph against the low winter light, but that leaf mould bin is now higher than we are – thank you, Leighton Buzzard Narrow Gauge Railway for filling bags for us when they cleared the lines before starting the Santa Specials; the Town Council’s ground staff, who cleared a lot of leaves from the park before Remembrance Sunday and too them over to the bin for us; children from Pulford School, who collected leaves from their playing fields (not forgetting Barry who organised the deliveries); John from the allotments who gave us a lot of bags of leaves; Penny and Janet who let us go and rake up the leaves in their gardens, members of South Beds Friends of the Earth, who brought leaves down; John who brought half the leaves on Milebush to us … and many others. This will rot down to about a third or a quarter of its current size, hopefully with the bit in the middle rotting fast enough to provide us with leaf mould next growing season. Thank you all!

 

 

 

 

Compost and cornfield annuals

04 October 2017

A few weeks ago (14 August 2017) I wrote about our small compost empire round the back of the Memorial Gardens. We’d started off with one bin last September, when our Duke of Edinburgh’s award student helped us start the first bin, with a lot of weeds, prunings and grass, all interspersed with newspaper, cardboard and shredded paper, then mixed together and watered. A bit like baking, really; perhaps we should enter for the Great British Compost Off? Then again, as it can take about a year to produce the final result, it might be taking slow TV to a whole new level.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago we uncovered the bins on the end to see how it was getting on, expecting perhaps a quarter of a Dalek of usable compost – but nearly two-thirds of the bin was fully composted and ready to go out. So instead of buying bags of manure from the communal compost heap at the allotments and transporting it to the Memorial Gardens, we were able to just ferry the equivalent a few yards to the wild flower bed, to enrich the soil so that the poppies and cornflowers will grow well and delight us all again next summer. Much easier!

We’ve been asked a few times why we fork the bed over so early in the autumn, and this year, a couple of people wondered why we were adding compost when a lot of gardening sites and programmes point out that wild flowers grow best on poor soil. It took us a while to get the hang of it, too, but it’s quite logical, really, as poppies and cornflowers normally grow in soil that’s been ploughed, and then fertilised – so we need to do the same. The difficult bit this year was hoeing off all the first seedlings that came up, as they were mainly seeds that were present in our compost, which doesn’t get hot enough to kill weed seeds. It only takes a couple of minutes to hoe them off, but we know that we’re taking out a lot of poppies and cornflowers, too, which feels a bit counter productive. Still, it does give us a chance to weed out a lot of plants we don’t want in that bed, and there are always just as many poppy and cornflower seeds waiting to start growing when we leave the bed again for a week or ten days. Just to make sure, we’ve added seed saved from that flower bed this year, last year, and some seed we’d bought in a year ago; some of it must come up!

We could sow again in the spring, but autumn-sown annuals grow better root systems over the winter, and make stronger plants. Today we noticed that they’re coming through again already, so fingers crossed for a great display next June. We’ve also put chicken wire over the seed bed, to try to stop people, dogs and bicycles killing off the seeds as they germinate, which happened last year. That top corner seems to be a very popular shortcut! The plants should be large enough to survive in a month or so, so we’ll be able to remove the chicken wire before the Remembrance Sunday service.

“What do you do with all the bits you cut off?”

“What do you do with all the bits you cut off?”

14 August 2017

 A slightly older child (see yesterday’s post) asked me this yesterday while I was pruning the lavender. As well as all the old flower stems and lavender leaves, we’d amassed quite a pile of knapweed and other spent flowers, and a trug-full of weeds – mainly sheep’s sorrel, which is great for bees but tries to take over the whole plot, as do white clover and self-heal, which in our naivety we originally encouraged.

Well, we used to stuff them all into old potting compost bags and carry them home or to our various allotment plots, and compost them there, and then bring the compost back a few months later to put round the gardens. There had to be a better way than that, so we asked the town council if we could put a couple of ‘Dalek’ compost bins round the back, in the service area behind the Bowls’ Club. A quick appeal on Freegle, and a couple of donations from people interested in what we’re doing, and we now have five Daleks close at hand to take all the green waste:

The signs say ‘Compost collecting’ and ‘Leaves only’, as we wanted to make leaf mould to get more organic matter into the soil, but we’ve now got a lot more ambitious as we’ve found several more sources of leaves, so the town council has let us construct this rather optimistically-sized bin out of metal poles and wire netting:

We’re looking forward to November this year, when we can fill one half with leaves and start the long (two years, roughly) process of letting them rot down into black gold – organic matter with very few weed seeds, to use as a mulch (to keep moisture in, and keep weeds down) and as a soil conditioner.

“Why are you cutting down our bees’ lavender?”

“Why are you cutting down our bees’ lavender?”

13 August 2017

 “Why are you cutting down our bees’ lavender?” said a voice behind me while I was pruning the lavender bushes along the paths. The voice belonged to one of the older children from the local preschool, who often come and help us plant ‘flowers for bees’ and watch the bees, dragonflies and other insects as they visit the different flowers – clearly the message had got through!

I explained that the flowers were over for this year, and we needed to trim the plants back so that they’d produce lots more flowers next year. ‘Next year’ is probably quite a vague idea when you’re not five yet, but fortunately the explanation was accepted. Bees visit many other flowers at the moment (we try to have at least two ‘bee magnets’ in flower at any time throughout the year), but it’s true that they go straight for the lavender when it’s out.

The lavender border was started a couple of years ago, when we realised that we needed more structure in the gardens so that they carried on looking good after most of the flowers had faded, particularly as we tend to leave seed heads (insects hibernate in them , and they look good through much of the winter) which could look untidy without the more formal structure of the lavender border. Most of the plants are compact varieties – Hidcote, Munstead, Dwarf Blue, Little Lady, Arctic Snow – as although the larger varieties attract more bees, they’re also much harder to keep in check, and would soon take over the paths as well as the beds.

The standard memory aid for pruning lavender is ‘8:8:8’ – prune the bush to eight inches on the eighth day of the eighth month. Not quite so effective if you think in metric! But the general rule applies – trim the plants as soon as they’ve finished flowering, to roughly 20cm all round. Hopefully, we still have a couple of months of warm weather to encourage them to put out new shoots and fill out a little before they stop growing for the winter.

However, to mollify the child who was worried about the bees having no lavender to visit for nectar, we’ve left a few of the later flowers for them!

Looking back over the last few months

10 July 2017

As the summer flowers give way to the ones that’ll take us through autumn, it’s a good time to look back at how the gardens have been doing so far this year. It’s been quite tough keeping everything going, as we’ve had two periods of rain several hours long since March, and that’s been it; so we’re having to water a lot more than we usually would to make sure there are always a couple of the bees’ favourite plants in flower right through the year. We should be looking forward to new plants coming into flower in a few weeks, but many of them are two to four weeks early – the Michaelmas daisies started flowering last week, the first week of July!

Most of the plants established last year are doing OK despite the drought, but this has been the year we trialled bedding plants for their usefulness to bees, and bedding plants seem to be the divas of the plant world – they need constant watering, dead-heading, feeding, weeding around. With hindsight, they weren’t the best choice. Still, the echiums are settling in and providing bright blue colour in the beds, and welcome nectar for the bees – though nothing like as much as their wild equivalent in the second bed down from the car park, where we have two Viper’s Bugloss (Echium vulgare) plants, tall spikes of smallish blue flowers, covered in bees most of the time. The ‘Disco’ French marigolds provide great bursts of bright orange – but then, so do the California poppies they’ve largely displaced, and while there have been a lot of bees on the California poppies, there haven’t been many bees on the marigolds. The mignonettes are finally growing well and flowering, and they do smell sweet, but it’s taken a lot of watering and TLC to get them established, and we have limited resources. So while they’ve provided a nice change this year, I don’t think we’ll be repeating the experiment. We’ll need to find something else for the children from Mentmore Road Under 5’s to plant next year – they thoroughly enjoy planting things out, and watching them grow and flower!

Last week some of the children had fun picking the peas they’d planted a couple of months ago, and eating them straight from the pod, and they also lifted some of their carrots to see how they were doing (fine, but nowhere near ready). Next year we’re thinking of getting them to plant early potatoes so they can dig up some buried treasure well before the end of term – we always have to race a bit to get them something to harvest before they break up for the summer. A couple of weeks ago they planted some annuals for the autumn (sunflowers and Cosmos) and a few foxglove and hollyhock seedlings, so that should give them something to watch grow next term. I’m not sure they believed me when I told them the tiny hollyhock seedlings would grow into plants like the ones twice their height in the next bed.

The Leighton Buzzard Observer carried a nice article on June 20th about the cooperation between the preschool and the regular team.

The regular team have been doing more dead-heading and less weeding as our earlier work has begun to pay off, especially as we were able to mulch the ground with almost-ready leaf mould after we’d weeded it. The local blackbirds throw the leaf mould around too much – often, our first task of the day is to brush the leaf mould off the paths and back into the beds. Leaf mould usually takes a couple of years to rot down completely, and what we’re using isn’t quite a year old, so we should have less mobile mulch in future. We’re also thinking ahead to autumn, when we’ll be able to sort out some compost from the bins round the back, and top it with leaf mould to keep weed seeds from germinating.

We’ll also be lifting all the dead plants in the wild flower bed – they’ve gone over much faster than usual, and have grown much less than usual too. This is almost certainly due to the drought – we watered copiously until a couple of weeks ago, when we decided we were just wasting water by pouring it onto the ground to no real effect, as wild flowers don’t seem to respond as well as garden plants and all the annuals were clearly dying back much earlier than usual. So as usual we’ll start the gardening year in September by collecting seed from the poppies to sow once we’ve turned the soil and added compost.

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 especially bred to bring out specific characteristics – flowering for several months (if they’re dead-headed regularly), or being compact, having particularly bright flowers, and so on. Unfortunately, during the breeding process the ability to produce nectar or pollen is 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’, 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 blog post on Peat, 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, 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 amazing bedding displays that won’t hurt any bees – have you seen their 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.