Tag Archives: bee magnet flowers

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 disturbed ground, they like newly-disturbed 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.

“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 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 yet five, 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 for insects to hibernate in over winter, and just to look good when there’s not much else happening in the dark cold days. This 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 only 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, in 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, and 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). That didn’t seem to bother them at all – they still found it magical that they could dig out little green feathery plants and find a real carrot underneath, even if it was only 10cm long! 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.

Flowers of the moment – catch-up time

Flowers of the moment – Honeywort, Geranium macrorrhizum and poppies

09 July 2017

It’s been a long time since the last blog post, mainly because some of the team have been helping out at the Pocket Park by Leighton Buzzard station, and with the heatwave and drought of the last couple of months, we’ve been kept busier than usual trying to keep all the new plants sufficiently watered. We’ve even broken our usual rule of not using a hose, because one good soaking followed by mulching with leaf mould lasts a lot longer than just watering odd plants occasionally. We really need rain!

The first of the flowers that are particularly attractive to bees is honeywort (Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’), an unusual annual which flowers for a long time between April and June, and self-seeds but never becomes invasive. It has bluish-green leaves with purple bracts and hanging bell-shaped flowers, it produces lots of nectar, and the bees just love it.

We have some seed if anyone wants to start some off in their garden – just contact us via the usual email, or Comment below.

Another flower bees really like is Geranium macrorrhizum, which will eventually make quite a carpet of fresh-looking, slightly bluish leaves, with pink flowers for a few weeks between April and June, depending on the weather. The flowers are typical cranesbill geraniums, with the long, beak-shaped seedheads that give the plant family its common name. It’s a very useful plant that grows happily in full sun or quite deep shade.

We grow two other hardy geraniums here, both of which bees love – ‘Rozanne’, in the middle of the second bed down from the car park (blue flowers with a white centre; flowers most of the summer from mid-May, here; and should eventually make a plant about 80cm x 80 cm), and ‘Kashmir White’ in two or three of the other beds, which has graceful stems with bright green foliage, and white flowers with thin red stripes in them. It spreads well, but isn’t invasive.

And of course, it wouldn’t be this garden without the poppies:

with the inevitable visiting bumble bee in at least two of the flowers here.

Flowers of the moment

04 April 2017

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

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

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

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

Flower of the moment – pulmonaria

17 March 2017

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

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

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

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

Spring clear-up?

17 March 2017

In the autumn (http://www.linsladememorialgardens.uk/2016/11/10/ready-for-remembrance-day/) we explained that we leave stalks and seed heads over the winter for insects and other wildlife, and we mulch the ground, to protect the soil over winter. Usually we look forward to clearing all the dead growth away in spring, and removing the mulch, and someone walking through the gardens last week when I was working there asked me when this spring clear-up was going to happen. I must admit I’m itching to get on with it, but we’re being very cautious this year, as last year in our zeal to tidy up, we cleared away a lot of shoots of perennial plants we didn’t recognise, like this bee balm (Monarda didyma). It’s a very handsome plant, with bright red flowers later in the summer that bees just can’t resist.

Photo wplynn, reproduced under creative commons license

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

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

Flower of the moment – red deadnettle

11 March 2017

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

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

Looking ahead to next year

20 August 2016

It’s about a year since we started refocusing here in the gardens, using more garden flowers to allow us to provide nectar and pollen for bees over a longer period than we could with only wild flowers, while respecting the setting of a semi-formal memorial garden. We thought it would take a couple of full seasons for the new plan to mature, so it seems a good time to look at how the gardens are doing.

When the current team started work on the beds about a year ago, we inherited some shrubs planted along the centre of the bed nearest the war memorial and down the centre of some of the other beds, and a couple of roses planted right next to the paths between the beds. We moved the roses out of the way of the paths, and we’ve gradually added lavender plants along the edges of most of the beds, to make an informal hedge and to provide structure through the winter when most of the annuals and herbaceous perennials die back. All the plants we’ve put in are establishing well and developing into a good framework for the more informal planting inside the beds.

This year the bulbs, pulmonaria and perennial wallflower provided plenty of nectar in early spring for bees as they emerged from hibernation and started nesting, while the other perennials and annuals gradually took over from them, including peas and runner beans planted by the children from the local preschool. We had a great display of poppies, cornflowers and oxeye daises in the top bed (nearest the car park). We try to have at least two of the bees’ favourite plants in flower at any time between February to November, and so far we’ve managed that. Right now the bees’ favourite flowers are the blue hyssops in the second bed down from the car park, and the yellow daisy-like coreopsis at the other end of the bed:

hyssop, coreopsis

Now we’re getting ready for the start of the gardening year in the autumn. We won’t be cutting and clearing until the spring, so that we don’t leave too many places where bare earth will be exposed to heavy rain, which damages soil structure and leaches nutrients away. We leave stems when they don’t look too messy, to provide shelter for overwintering insects, and we also add leaf mould to protect the soil from winter weather and to start getting more organic matter into it – that’s ‘organic’ meaning a necessary component of all soil, rather than meaning a particular way of gardening.

We’re also adding a few more plants and moving others around to places where they’ll grow best, and we’ll also sow seeds of annuals like the bright orange Californian poppies that looked so good earlier in the year. And our other main job is to clear the wild flower bed (nearest the car park) and re-sow poppies and cornflowers for next year; they grow best on ground that’s been cultivated, so we need to turn it over every year.