Tag Archives: growing wild flowers

Sowing the Poppies

28 September 2019

I’ve written earlier about how tricky it can be to grow wild flowers, and how we’ve been warned that poppies prefer to grow in newly-disturbed soil – we knew about the ‘disturbed’ bit, but just how often can we produce the ‘newly-disturbed’ area they like? Anyway, we had another go this year, and in line with not digging or forking the soil over (because it destroys the soil structure), we just hoed it after lifting this year’s dead poppies.

Then a couple of weeks ago, the children from the local preschool (Mentmore Road Under-Fives) came round to help us. They raked the soil level again and added leaf mould liberally, then sowed pinches of poppy seed saved from this year’s crop. Then the seed had to be in good contact with the soil – in some situations, this is done by animals trampling the seed in, so the children duly became very obedient cows, and stomped all over the area they’d sown. They thoroughly enjoyed being not only allowed to step on the bare earth, but positively encouraged to do so!

Here they are helping us get the poppies well into the earth

And ten days later, their seeds germinated; there are hundreds of tiny seedlings that you can just see if you know where to look. When the children came round again this week to lift the carrots they’ve been growing, they were able to see how well they’d sown them. And we know we’ll have poppies again in June, as usual.

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.

 

 

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

 

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 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!

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.

Compost and cornfield annuals

04 October 2017

A few weeks ago 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.