Seeding Wildflower Meadows in Spring

Thank goodness we have done no wildflower seeding here this spring. It has been so dry the patch of unruly wasteland we have in Somerset looks more like the Gobi Desert. I have been watering our green roof and running around the veg patch with a watering can.

I fear this is going to be a pattern; a dry spring followed by a cool wet summer. This is hopeless for seeding wildflower seed mixes. Wildflowers and native grasses are particularly vulnerable because – unlike commercial cultivars – they take a while to get going. They’re also surface sown rather than drilled, which leaves them exposed.

If there’s enough moisture around for seed to germinate the seedlings will conk out before you’ve even noticed them. If there isn’t there’ll just sit there being eaten by birds and blowing about until a downpour washes them away.

Traditional wisdom is that you sow wildflowers in spring or early autumn. Most of the species in wildflower meadow mixes set seed in summer, so you would think early autumn would be a better bet for seeding – and you’d be right.

Fingers Crossed

The idea with seeding in September is that the soil is warm and moist enough and the days long enough that there will be some germination before it turns cold. The caveat to this is to be wary of heavy wet soils, where there is a risk seed will just sit in waterlogged conditions and rot. There’s also a risk of a really wet and cold period on any soil, which would do for a lot of seedlings. Generally, though, it looks to be better time to seed than spring as rainfall is more reliable in September/October than it is in April/May.

Some species too, most notably Yellow Rattle, need to stratify to germinate, so want the cold of winter.

The text books say the last time to seed in spring is end May. This is particularly true of annuals, which won’t have the time to flower before the days start drawing in. If you’re sowing a mix of perennials and grasses – a wildflower meadow mix – I’m increasingly thinking you should think about doing it at any time of year between March and November when conditions are right.

We need to adapt to changing weather patterns and local conditions. If I were seeding a Welsh hillside I would be reasonably happy doing it in June, for example. Rainfall is pretty reliable throughout the summer here. On the other hand I’m increasingly cautious about sowing wildflower mixes in places like East Anglia and Kent in spring without the ability to water.

It looks like we’ll have to take more care whenever we seed. We should also resign ourselves to more failures because of hostile weather conditions. If you have to seed in spring water the seed bed then the seedlings.

Hooper’s Hedgerow History Hypothesis

Max Hooper has just died. He was a proper botanist, who became known because of his work on British hedges in the 60s. From the obituaries and his writing he seems to have been quite a character too.

Hooper's Rule

Like many I came across him because of “Hooper’s Rule”. This was his rule of thumb – for obvious reasons not definitive – for dating hedgerows. Walk along a 30 metre length of hedge and count the species in it. Multiply that number by 100 and you have a reasonable estimate for the age of the hedge.

There was also his work on the extent of the hedge loss in the UK. Hooper uncovered it by looking at RAF reconnaissance photos. 50 years ago we were losing over 10,000 miles a year. 10,000 miles! I didn’t think we had that many hedges – and how could we continue to be so casual about them?

I was staggered by Hooper’s Rule too. I started looking much more carefully at the hedges around our house in Somerset. All around us were early medieval hedges. Given the history of the village this was entirely predictable, I suppose, but I was amazed. Amazed that I hadn’t stopped twice to think about these important ancient things. Amazed that their diversity and history went unnoticed, at best. I then realised the hay meadow next door was probably pre 15th century. It was suddenly obvious to me that we didn’t even begin to appreciate or understand what was underneath our noses.

Realizing this and the extent of the destruction to our environment still going on was an important part of my decision to leave the City. There were much more important things to do. I started a business promoting – among things – native British hedge plants.  Thank you for helping to convert me, Dr. Hooper.

Adder Bites Man

I shudder when I read an adder bites man story. The Daily Mail couldn’t resist the temptation to sensationalise this extraordinary tale, although to be fair it did point out the last death from an adder bite in the UK was in 1975.

It’s an extremely rare event – rare enough that it gets plastered all over the National Press when it does happen. Adders aren’t easily provoked and they’re not “common throughout mainland Britain”. Far from it. Finding one in London is extraordinary. They’re pretty much restricted to some areas of southern England, Scotland and West Wales. Why? Loss of habitat but also persecution.

I shudder about stories like this because they provoke hysterical reactions in people. We have a lovely big grass snake in the garden. They’re clearly not adders, but people cheerfully chop grass snakes’ heads off because they’re scared of them. I’ve even seen people take spades to slow-worms because they thought they were adders. Yuk.

Slow Worm
The Gardener’s Friend

For the record, it’s illegal to kill slow-worms, grass snakes and adders. And people should think better of them. Slow-worms are fantastically helpful around the garden (and not snakes anyway). Adders kill small rodents, and with grass snakes are indicators of healthy ecosystems. I’m not thrilled by the idea of our grass snake eating our frogs and newts, but I am delighted we have so many it can.

Native And Exotic Plants In The Garden

Robin Lane-Fox wrote a bad tempered piece in last weekend’s FT about “exotic” v. “native” plants in the garden. He’s a respected plantsman, and so I wasn’t surprised to read he was against using native plants in the garden. I’m entirely sympathetic to this view; we are all masters and mistresses of our own gardens, and should do with them whatever we most enjoy. What did surprise me, however, is that he repeated the mantra that our wildlife was oblivious to the difference between (plain) native plants and attractive exotics. It’s true that disease threatens many of our “native” tree species. Sadly we would do well to think about alternatives for planting schemes. When we do, it would also be advisable to source them from UK nurseries so that a raft of new diseases doesn’t reach our shores. Improved biosecurity and more UK grown plants may be rare Brexit dividends.

Plants for Pollinators
It’s also right that “exotic” plants can be at least as beneficial to some wildlife as “native” plants – in some cases more so. Many bees, butterflies and other pollinators benefit from the longer and different flowering periods. There’s also the heavy nectar production of some attractive exotic flowers. We sell a fantastic seed mix from Flowerscapes which illustrates this. However – and this is a big but – it’s wrong to think of plants purely as providers of pollen and nectar. Even if we did there are bee species which are oligoleges – i.e. they feed from a specific plant genus or even single plant species.

Plant Food
I imagine there are no Brimstone butterflies in the doubtlessly beautiful Lane-Fox garden. Brimstone larvae dine exclusively on the leaves of one of our dullest looking shrubs, Buckthorns*. Many moth and butterfly larvae have similarly exclusive or nearly exclusive relationships with other native plants as do many thousands of insects. This includes the Blackthorn so disliked by Mr Lane-Fox.  Quercus robur – that’s the English oak, not your imported tat – supports up to 400 different species of herbivore insects in the UK. This kind of dependence is true of amphibians and mammals – no boring old hazel, no boring old dormice.

My own garden is less ornamental and more nature reserve, but that’s what gives me pleasure. It’s a smorgasbord of natives and exotics, vegetables and fruit trees. It’s also full of the munching, buzzing, swimming things which can’t survive in the surrounding farmland.

*Our bees also seem very partial to Purging Buckthorn‘s inconspicuous little flowers.

Garden Flowers For Bees

Perfect For PollinatorsWhen people ask me to recommend garden flowers for bees I usually point them at the excellent Plants for Bees by Kirk and Howes. Like most of us, though, I often wander through the local garden centre to buy plants for the garden. I try to buy flowers which are good for bees and other pollinators. I had thought that the RHS “Perfect for Pollinators” badge was a definitive guide to help me. Not so, apparently – nor are a number of other similar schemes and labels.

A study has just been released by the excellent Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at Sussex University. They spent time in local garden centres where they found that “there were many recommended varieties that were unattractive or poorly attractive to insects, and some non-recommended varieties that were very attractive”. The report also points out the difficulties of recommending many different varieties and hybrids in the same plant group, many of which have misleading pictures on their labels.

Poor for bees and pollinators
No Thanks
I was aghast, to be honest, although it did confirm what I had suspected for a while. How can you say that two wildly different cultivars are both as attractive to pollinators? It explains why some “bee friendly” of “butterfly friendly” flowers in our garden here have disappointed. Roses are a very good example; the open single types of rose – closer relations to wild roses – are very different and much better for pollinators than the popular modern “English Roses”.
Dog rose - bumblebee
Yes Please!

So what’s the answer? The study suggests seeing which plants at the garden centre insects and bees visit most, which seems good advice. Ask yourself too how any self respecting pollinator is going to access the nectar and pollen of the flower you’re looking at.

The labels are a guide but nothing more.

Pruning Old Apple Trees

It’s the time of year to prune apple trees. We used to have an old orchard, and I loved renovating the apple trees there; it was amazing to see them springing back into life with renewed vigour. They must have been around 80 – 90 years old, so towards the end of their time, although pruning will extend their lives. This is one of the reason why orchards are such good habitats. Apple trees don’t last long, so there is always lots of dead and rotting wood around, with their attendant flora and fauna.

There are several reasons to prune, which you should bear in mind. Firstly, remove badly placed and rubbing branches, which can be an entry point for infection. Then think about increasing the light and air flow through the tree, to reduce the risk of infection and help apples ripen properly. I also cut out diseased wood rather than spraying a tree with fungicide to help biodiversity. You also want to manage the tree’s shape so it doesn’t blow over or risk losing major limbs in windy weather.

I was always told not to be frightened of taking too much off an old tree – up to 25% as a guide is fine – and to concentrate on taking bigger branches off to reduce the number of wounds. An old apple grower in Kent used to say a well pruned tree was one you could throw your hat through!

The chances are good that when you renovate an old orchard you’ll find heritage apple varieties. Many have only gone out of fashion because they don’t keep, bruise in transit or look asymmetrical. Think about grafting from the cuttings, to perpetuate part of our rural heritage.

If you would like to know more about pruning have a look at this helpful video introduction from the People’s Trust for Endangered Species – big orchard fans because of their importance as a habitat for so many rare flora and fauna.

Bees and Warm Wet Winters

My poor bees are having another terrible winter. “Terrible” winters for honeybees are warm and wet, not cold, which they can deal with quite happily.
If it’s consistently warm and wet they’re in trouble. They are too active, eating their winter stores of honey too quickly. After a while they starve, which is why beekeepers “heft” their hives – to feel how heavy they are, to assess how much honey is left in them. If not much they can be fed fondant to keep them going.
Better though would be to give the bees nearby forage, so that on dry days at least they can get out and bring some food back to the hive. We have some “trees for bees” on our website, which can help. It’s also worth thinking about early flowering bulbs like crocuses.
This pre-supposes that dry winter days are also warm, which isn’t what’s happening in Somerset at least. It’s either warm enough for the bees to be active but too wet for them to fly or sunny but colder. Grrr…
Bumblebee queens are only slightly better off as they can fly in lower temperatures and in drizzle. They will break hibernation on a warm day. I’ve seen queen wasps, which follow a similar life cycle, as recently as the last frost. I can guarantee low Social wasp populations here next year already.

European and Asian Hornets
Which is European?
These warm wet winters bring another ill for honeybees. The Asian hornet, Vespa velutina has reached these shores. It is an aggressive animal and a voracious predator of honeybees. Without colder weather it will spread rapidly and spell disaster for unguarded colonies.
I also fancy it is very bad news for our own European hornet, which is a relatively harmless* but much persecuted and increasingly rare beauty. Many more will now be killed, through paranoia and mistaken identity. Gone from our gardens will be their lovely baritone buzz – another victim, in a way, of climate change.

*not what I felt when I dried myself off after a dip on holiday last year with a hornet tangled in the towel – OUCH!

Climate Change, Hen Harriers and Bees in the Post Fact World

I had pondering time on my hands today at hospital in Bath, recovering from a minor operation. It went swimmingly, all well thank you – let’s just say it was an old bloke issue. I was very grateful to be in the hands of Mr. Courtney and not Jacob Rees-Mogg, Mystic Meg or Michael Gove. Perhaps we do need experts, after all.

Climate Change

Certainly Breitbart don’t. Scribbler James Delingpole has written regularly on climate change in this news organ. Like many things in the post truth era, he seems to see climate change as some kind of political opinion – which he doesn’t like in this instance. He is in hot water with that subversive left wing political news outlet, the Weather Channel, for misrepresenting them in his most recent article. Weather.com are furious. Looking at the video of an exasperated weather forecaster and reading their response, you’ve got to admit they have a point.

Driven Grouse Shooting

Hen Harrier on moor
Hen Harrier (Image: RSPB)

On a much smaller scale there is a similar conflation of entrenched political views and “scientific facts” going on in the conservation world about driven grouse shooting. Unsurprisingly the Left hate it and the Right love it. I’m no expert (!), but there is good evidence that raptors are puzzlingly absent from grouse moors, including rare species like Hen Harriers. In some quarters this has just been denied point blank. Keepers are shooting a lot of Mountain Hares, and there’s little doubt that grouse moors contribute to flooding.

There was an article on this by Matt Ridley in The Spectator which included some apparently spurious statistics to support his view. He claims that these moorlands are better at retaining water than forests. Better than spruce plantations possibly, but generally no, this is complete nonsense. The government itself has recently acknowledged this by announcing a £15 million tree planting programme as part of its flood prevention strategy.

The whole issue has fallen victim to shouty Delingpole style politics. If Matt Ridley sees an insidious left wing plot, then George Monbiot sees it as an example of the establishment elite trampling the people. It turns out Paul Dacre (Daily Mail editor) owns a grouse moor. Chris Packham is unhappy with the shooters and the shooters are certainly unhappy with Chris Packham, who they think is a metro luvvie who doesn’t understand country pursuits. And so it goes on.

It is more important than ever for experts and proper journalists to be precise and informative about conservation and environmental issues. They must also avoid confirmation bias. The rest of us to have to amplify good information via social media.

Different Bees Please

To take a small but nonetheless annoying example, I would say the MAJORITY of articles I read about bees on Facebook confuse honeybees with solitary bees and bumblebees. They’re often also illustrated with a photo of a hoverfly. People are interested in bees and want to do the right thing for them, but end up confused. They sign petitions purporting to be about all bees which are actually about honeybees. They share helpful Facebook posts about feeding dying bumblebee workers in autumn and funny cartoons about how good bees are and how bad wasps are. People spend hours making bumblebee nesters – which don’t work – rather than solitary bee nesters – which do. We should be following the Bee experts.

Food or Fauna?

Miles King is a well informed ecologist who I read for self-improvement – God knows I need it. His latest blog asks some uncomfortable questions about intensive farming. As he says:

We certainly do need to continue to challenge the propaganda that Guy Smith, Robin Page et al put out, that somehow nature has disappeared from the farmed landscape due to other reasons – predators for example, or urban development.

No-one has yet managed to explain to me how 97% of wildflower meadows, or 75% of chalk downland, has disappeared in 70 years thanks to predators. And urban development still only covers 12% of England.

Whatever words we use, the facts are the same. Modern farming methods, together and individually, have caused nature to disappear from the farmed countryside.

intensive agricultureThe % of the UK which has been urbanised is even lower; based on government population figures it is under 10%, of which the reckoning is that anything up to 50% might be green space. The idea that urban development is the biggest threat to biodiversity in the UK is one that needs squashing. It has become politically convenient for the farming lobby and handy for the anti-immigration lot, but is not based in fact. Rather, wildlife here is under threat from intensive farming practices. According to HMG, 69% of the UK is used for agriculture (although we only produce 60% of the food we eat).

I’m no expert, but there are seemingly only four outcomes to this battle between food and fauna:
1. We carry on as is.
2. We import more food and farm less intensively.
3. We eat less (and much less meat) and farm less intensively.
4. We farm even more intensively.

An unfortunate consequence of Sterling devaluation and a policy vacuum is that the most likely scenario is the last one. Bad news for wildlife.

The Magic of Green Roofs

It has been three years since we planted the green roof for our new house with wildflower plug plants, which has turned out to be a fabulous success. For many, “green roof” is synonymous with “sedum roof”, p1080079we started off by colour bombing it with annuals while the slower growing perennials developed.
This sense of progression and change – like a wildflower meadow – is part of its fascination. Fortunately I can see it from my office window on the first floor! Its colours change through the season and species come and go depending on the weather. It’s much past its best now, but still lovely.

Green Roof in 2014
Green Roof in 2014
Also like a wildflower meadow, the roof serves as a wonderful habitat for all sorts of invertebrates and birds as well. Our wagtails love it, and we see different finches on it regularly too. Fingers crossed we might even have something nest on it next year!
p1080073Conditions on the roof are almost opposite to the wet clay hereabouts, so we can create diversity as well as a very different look with it. Wild Thyme and Scabious (pictured) do very well on it, for example, which we would never see normally here. There are some areas where the growing substrate is evidently more fertile than in others and the moisture retention in the substrate also varies, which gives diversity to the flora and flora within the roof too. Some areas still have a lot of bare earth, whereas others have almost tussocky grass.
p1080085It can be pretty hostile for the plants on the roof, which means I don’t need to do much more than weed it a couple of times a year. Things don’t grow to great size, and annual weeds generally don’t survive at all. In the first year I watered it a couple of times but now I don’t bother. I’ve just sown some Yellow Rattle this year to keep the grasses down a bit in some sections, too. What’s not to like?