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The gardens in early autumn

We didn’t take as many photos as usual this year, but here’s one of the gardens a couple of weeks ago – still lots of interest as we go into October, quite a bit of colour, a lot of height, and many interesting seed heads that are attracting goldfinches and other birds already.

A long hot summer

02 October 2018

It’s nearly three months since we managed to post on this blog; I’m sorry for the long silence. This summer has really taxed us, with much more watering than usual both at the gardens and on our own allotments and the other gardens we look after. There’s been a knock-on effect too, as we couldn’t move any plants or try and establish new ones during the drought and unusual heat, so there’s been a backlog of work which we’re only just getting done. And now we’re running straight into the leaf-collecting season – though for the first batch we had help from the local preschool, who had a great time on Monday helping load leaves into bags (and run through them, and run around with those big-hand leaf collectors which a couple of the boys felt made them into mini Incredible Hulks.

Our original plan for this year was to consolidate the planting, and to try and reduce volunteer hours as we’d just be maintaining the gardens, rather than rescuing them from the invasive plants like white clover and self-heal which had choked out most others. This year, we said, we’ll just be able to do a bit of deadheading and move a couple of plants that would be happier in other places, and perhaps add a few more plants that we’ll have grown ourselves.

Well, along with the bit of deadheading we’ve had to do much more watering – we usually try to water as little as possible, partly so as not to waste a valuable resource, and partly because plants grown ‘hard’ (with all they need, but not overfed or overwatered) seem to thrive better. But we did end up watering many parts of the beds with a hose three times since May, and watering specific plants that weren’t sufficiently established before the heatwave started, like the five new roses, which need a proper soaking every week for the first year or so even in normal weather, to encourage their roots to get down into the soil, so we’ve given each of them a couple of cans of water At least the thick mulch of leaf mould we put on in May has helped keep what moisture there is deep in the soil, and watering most of the gardens once a month is probably not too bad for this year.

We didn’t manage to sow many hardy annuals as the ground was just too dry and we’d have been watering them every couple of days, though we did raise a few tomato plants with the preschool (and they’re just beginning to ripen now). Their peas and carrots didn’t survive the heat, though, and we’re rethinking what we do in their bit of the garden – for a start, we’re adding more herbs and some lamb’s ears (Stachys byzantina) as they love the smells of rosemary, mint and fennel, and the softness of the lamb’s ears leaves.

At least with the combination of heat that stopped many weeds from germinating, and mulch that kept light away from those that were there, we haven’t needed to weed the beds since July, just before the In Bloom competition this year. At least we had a lovely sunny day for the judges’ visit, with the preschool children out in force demonstrating just how much they love watering anything and everything! The whole team came along, too, including our invaluable Duke of Edinburgh’s award student Miles, who’s helped us so much this year.

And in September we heard that Leighton Buzzard had been awarded 12 Golds, 2 Silver Gilts, and two ‘Best in the region’ awards (for Linslade Wood and for the Tactic youth project). The gardens are part of Mentmore Road park, which was one of the sites awarded a Gold – it’s good to know we’re all on the right track!

The other half of the wild flower bed

8 July 2018

An earlier post mentioned that we were trying to introduce more perennial and late-flowering UK native flowers into the bed nearest the car park. This involves a completely different form of wild flower management from what we need to do to keep the poppies coming back every year, and we’ve been asked a couple of times what we’re doing in that half of the bed – in particular, we’ve been asked if we’re growing a meadow.

Well, no; in a smallish, narrow bed, with half given over to cornfield annuals that like rich soil, we don’t think we’ve got room to grow a meadow that would prefer poorer soil (one of the best ways of establishing a new meadow is to remove the top layer of soil, and plant into the next layer down, which will have fewer nutrients in it). So we’ve left a number of the self-seeded cornfield annuals, particularly the oxeye daisies, and started moving plants from other beds into the spaces between them. For example, a few years ago the children from Mentmore Road Under-Fives sowed wild flower seeds in the second bed up from the memorial, and a couple of plants have succeeded so well that they’re crowding out many of the other plants we’d put in that bed; so we’ve tried transplanting the overgrown clumps of wild flowers into the top bed. The various types of scabious have been really successful, and so has the kidney vetch; however, we’re finding it harder to establish Jacob’s ladders and Welsh poppies there.

We’ve recently added geranium sanguineum to extend the flowering season for bees – this is the pale pink variant ‘lancastriense’ that grows wild on sand dunes on the north-west coast, rather than the more common, magenta-coloured one, whose flowers don’t seem to be nearly as attractive to bees (which is a pity, as it would look great in that bed). The ‘lancastriense’ variant was featured on Gardener’s World a couple of years ago, with Carol Klein extolling its virtues while huddled up against the side of the dune where it was growing, on a very blustery day. The landscape here in the gardens is rather less dramatic! but as the plant grows well in gardens in Mardle Road, which runs behind the Memorial Gardens, so we’re hoping it’ll be equally successful in that top bed too.

In addition, we have a lot of black meddick and forget-me-nots forming an understorey that seems to be very attractive to insects – there’s a real ecosystem down there, for those with the flexibility to get down to look at it (and to get back up again …). We had one musk mallow plant surviving in one of the middle beds, from several that were planted when the beds were first established; the survivor died after a year, too, but not before setting seed, which we sowed in a seed tray and left until this spring, when it germinated. We now have fifteen small plants, one or two of which will find their way into that end bed, to provide some structure and interest when the poppies die down, and some of the others will probably be added to some of South Beds Friends of the Earth’s other bee-friendly sites around Leighton, to keep the display going later into the year.

But at the moment, with this heatwave burning up quite a few of our flowers, and no rain for weeks, we’re not thinking of putting any more new plants in; we’ll get back to working on that bed once it’s had a good soaking!

Dead leaves

 7 July 2018

We’ve been asked a couple of times why there are so many dead leaves on the flower beds at the moment.

They’re there for two reasons; the first is that we’re using them as a mulch, to try and keep moisture in the soil, while adding more organic matter without overfeeding the beds. We recycle all the material we take off the beds as compost, which we add to the beds in autumn to increase soil organic matter, which in turn helps the soil retain more moisture, as well as feeding it. We don’t have any compost available yet, but we clearly needed to do something to make the most of whatever water we’re putting on the beds as it’s been so much hotter and drier than usual, and the heatwave started so early – we’d only just got used to the fact that the freezing wet winter and spring had finally given way to summer!

So even though we wouldn’t expect to be able to use leaves for a year or two after we’ve started a leaf mould bin, we did start rifling through our new bin in the work area behind the Memorial Gardens to see if enough leaves had rotted enough to be put out on the beds to help keep in any moisture there is in the ground. We’d put quite a few new plants in, grown from seed or from cuttings, and we weren’t able to water them every day to establish them; this way we can water them just once or twice a week while they establish. We hope it doesn’t look too untidy! The mulch is making a real difference, everything looks much fresher than we’d expect in this heat and drought, and most plants are still growing on well. We’d still like a few good heavy showers, though!

And the second reason? It’s a great substitute for bare earth when you’re three years old and want to just dig something with a trowel. Last week when the children from the local preschool came over to help us water, we dug up some of the potatoes they’d planted before Easter and found that their second favourite activity (after watering) was digging with a trowel. Problem – there isn’t enough clear soil to let them dig. Solution – we filled a large flexible trug with leaf mould, put it next to the flower beds, and let them dig it out and put it on the earth around the plants, and let them get on with it. Result – happy children and some very well-mulched flower beds!

The poppies

31 May 2018

We keep tweaking the wild flower bed.

When the new beds were dug in the Memorial Gardens over the winter of 2013-4, there were many different plans for them, but the one thing everyone agreed on was that the bed nearest the car park should have a great display of poppies. This was broadened to include the standard cornfield annuals mixture to make the display last longer, with a band of poppies first, then cornflowers, then oxeye daisies. This was spectacular that first year, and the poppies were allowed to seed and regrow the second year, when they made a great display again. The stalks and seedheads were left as food for birds and insects, and for insects to hibernate in, which led to a few complaints that the gardens looked messy and disrespectful of its setting, particularly for the services on Remembrance Sunday.

So we began to manage the gardens in a slightly different way, but always kept that first bed for the poppy display, letting some of the seed fall on the ground, and resowing in the autumn and spring (because we don’t quite trust ourselves, and there’s only one chance to get it right for the display every year). A couple of regular passers-by congratulated us this week for managing to get the poppies flowering four years running – apparently it’s notoriously difficult to get them to come back year after year. They don’t just like cultivated ground, they like newly-cultivated ground (the best displays are round the edges of road-building sites). And of course, poppies became a symbol of remembrance after the first world war, as they covered the ground that had been battlefields in northern France and Belgium.

We also followed the usual advice for bee-friendly native plants, and sowed other cornfield annuals, mainly cornflowers and oxeye daisies. Usually they’ve all done well, especially the oxeyes which do tend to take over, as a trip along the M25 to Heathrow reminded me this week – white daisies everywhere, but nothing else left from the wild flowers they sowed. This year, the cornflowers suffered with the cold wet winter, and the few tiny plants that did make it through were mostly finished off by the cold snap in April. We’ve been experimenting with more perennial wild flowers in the other half of the bed, but that’s for another post.

We’re very aware that June’s great display of poppies could easily become November’s ‘weed bed’, as one disgruntled local business-owner put it. So the cultivation the poppies need also helps to keep the place tidy as we not only cut down the stalks and seedheads, but remove the plants completely, resow, and fork the soil over  One of the many compromises of wild flower gardening is that clearing the plants away every year means that we destroy the understory of stonecrop, black meddick and forget-me-nots that arrives with the poppies in the spring. It’s a bit untidy, but we generally leave it that way as long as the poppies themselves seem to be thriving, as we’ve noticed that those lower-growing plants are just alive with insects, the bed as a whole seems to be a mini-ecosystem. So far it’s worked – here’s this year’s display, just starting. Something to enjoy for the next month! And then the cycle starts all over again with seed-saving, clearing the plants away, forking the ground over, and resowing for next year.

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.