Tag Archives: local preschool

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 sufficiently 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!

“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.

A stick sculpture by the preschool children?

April 30, 2017

You may have noticed the new addition to the preschool’s planting (in the third bed from the war memorial) –suggestions have included ‘an arty stick sculpture’ and ‘large immobile stick insects’. In fact we’re trying to discourage the local cat or cats who think the preschool’s vegetable area is an ideal cat litter tray; we couldn’t let the children do the planting themselves this year, as there were so many messes around the plot. But they watered the peas in well, and sowed carrots, and hunted for sticks to support the peas and protect them, so they had a good time in the garden again.

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.