I gave some cornfield annual seed to a really nice bunch of folk at a Primary School in Essex last year. They were a HUGE success sown in a flowerbed, but unfortunately they didn’t let them set seed. My heart sank when I saw this recent entry and photo on their Facebook page:
“Today the children started to prepare the wildflower meadow.
They dug and raked the soil and found lots of interesting insects such as ladybirds ants and worms in the process!
I cant believe just how hard they worked as a team and we soon had the whole area cleared, well done to year 6. To their parents, sorry about their shoes, bit muddy ooppps.
We have two boxes of wildflower seeds so sow, which was another great find in the pound shop, and another packet of seeds are being delivered next week. These should be sown in the next couple of weeks as the weather warms up.
As you know we cannot post the photos of the children on facebook, so you will have to make do with pictures of the boxes of seeds!”
People like me obviously aren’t getting the message across. Sowing these seeds will no more give you a “wildflower meadow” than planting petunias will, I’m afraid. They’re not British species, they’re not meadow species, they won’t be British seeds and they probably won’t germinate anyway. I don’t know what the butterflies are on the packets, but they’re not British either, which is a bit of a clue. This kind of thing is a widespread issue; I went to Wisley last summer and popped into the shop there, only to find the RHS was selling lovely French wildflower seed.
Does it matter that any old wildflower mixes are being sold to consumers who think they are buying the right kit to establish a “wildflower meadow”? I think it does. I’m not qualified to make the ecological arguments about appropriateness, but I think it’s important that people get what they expect. There’s also the argument for supporting British suppliers. Quite apart from questions of provenance, I think most shoppers would be appalled to know where many of the seeds in packets sold in garden centres came from. We come across the same issues in other areas too; if I bought a mix of “native hedge plants” I think I might reasonably expect the plants to be British. The chances are, of course, that they’re not. It’s one of the things we make a song and dance about, and as a reseller we only sell British seed (and plants!) from British suppliers. There aren’t many about, but we try to provide geographic choice of origin within the UK as much as we can. We’re always on the hunt for new sources to add to our network of harvesters and growers, so if you know anyone local to you who produces seed please let us know.
Despite the alluring packaging, wildflower seed has had a bad press in recent times, which is one of the reasons why wildflower turf and plug plants are such attractive alternatives. I’ve often asked myself what the problems are that people have with seed, and I think they fall into three categories; preparation and management, appropriateness, and seed quality. How we can shorten the odds on making seed work for people and getting them to buy the “right” mixes?
Getting preparation and management right is just a question of persuading folk to do some research and have some patience. Carrying basic information on the website is one thing, but if I were tackling a reasonable sized project from scratch I would at least buy a couple of books, and probably get an expert in to give me a management plan. The cost of that sort of investment is tiny relative to the whole project. We’ve started to offer just that kind of service, particularly aimed at designers and landscape architects.
Making sure the seed mix is right is as much about making different options available as it is asking consumers the right questions about their site and what they want from it. A generic mix bought off the shelf may be completely inappropriate for your soil type, which means it will disappoint; it could also fail because the seed is old or has been badly stored. The good quality end of the market hasn’t done enough to let consumers know that their seed has demonstrably better germination rates than cheaper mixes, which consequently represent a false economy. We’ve started randomly testing our mixes through an external laboratory to give extra peace of mind, and offer a testing service as an option for larger orders too. It’s relatively inexpensive and I can’t imagine why more suppliers don’t do it.
There is a kind of trade body for wildflower seed – Flora Locale – who do a great job, but it’s specifically not an organization able to issue some kind of a kitemark. Perhaps Kew, who have started to get involved, might be interested in setting up some kind of a scheme and raising broader awareness of these issues. In the meantime we’ll carry on doing our best to try to, and perhaps most importantly raise appreciation of the aesthetic of what an ecologist would call “unimproved grassland”. At the very least it would be good to see more (British!) native plants in gardens in some form or other.
This blog also appeared as a guest blog for the The Grasslands Trust