Like 10.3 million other people I have been stunned by Blue Planet 2. In terms of ratings it has knocked the socks off Strictly and the ailing X Factor. It is just superb. Gorgeous, dramatic, authoritative. All our millennial children and their friends watch it. They have Blue Planet parties to watch it.
The sainted David Attenborough*, now an extraordinary 91, dodgy knees and all, has absolutely connected with this generation via the wonders of BBC production quality. It is an extraordinary feat. We owe him an enormous debt of gratitude.
At a time when the under 30s seem so disconnected with the natural world, Blue Planet is a really important chink of light. There IS real interest in our environment and what is going wrong with it. We need to communicate this much, much more effectively and urgently.
Everywhere I look in the conservation world I find earnest middle aged (ok – late middle aged!) white men like me. We have a lot of good things to offer, but we don’t get that spark. Programmes like Springwatch don’t get it either. The lobbying organisations that ARE good at communication with under 30s are usually badly informed and/or crass. Everyone is under-financed.
How do we make green back gardens as sexy as the blue planet?
*without wanting to sound a major suck up, I met Sir David once at a Butterfly Conservation do. He was an absolute sweetie and despite me being rather star struck wrote me a very kind letter. This is pinned up in the office and we quote it shamelessly on the website.
I spent a fascinating day at Kew yesterday listening to lectures on wildflower seed. It was hosted by NASSTEC, a hopelessly complicated acronym for the even more complicated Native Seed Science Technology and Conservation Initial Training Network. This is an EU funded project to find out about who is doing what in the world of native plant seeds, and to share that information. Very worthwhile it has been too.
One of the interesting topics that came up yesterday was an old bugbear of mine – certification and seed quality. If you buy a wildflower seed mix you want to know:
1. That the seed in it is what it says on the packet
2. Where it’s from
3. That it can germinate
I don’t think this is unreasonable!
Weirdly, however, I don’t have to tell you any of that on the packet. The seed might be from Vladivostock, it could be 10 years old and might just be grass seed. I have my supplier’s assurance about its origin and quality, but that’s all. We randomly test some seed mixes ourselves, but it’s an expensive business and so we can only test a tiny number of batches.
Not declaring anything about seed origin and quality suits the less scrupulous. Producers can use non-viable seed bought in from outside the UK, or different species than are in the specification. Resellers can store seed in inadequate conditions for years until selling it to you. As incredibly, there’s no standard protocol that wildflower seed producers are obliged to follow. There are no guidelines about storage, for example – different producers use different regimes as to humidity and temperature.
Whatever the reasons, there’s clearly a problem with the germination rates and content of some seed mixes supplied by some folk. Sadly I think this situation might suit them; it was notable that in a room full of academics, ecologists and specialist seed producers that I was the only seed reseller.
I would guess that the overwhelming proportion of wildflower seed mixes sold to retail buyers are poor quality and of dodgy origin. They’re too cheap to suggest otherwise. They often look peculiar. They sometimes include agricultural cultivars and odd surprises. Specialist wildflower seed producers and harvesters only seem sell around 5% of their seed to individuals*, but it feels that the total amount of wildflower seed being produced by these guys is very small compared to the total volume sold. There are only around 10 specialist producers in the UK, and most of these are tiny.
The market is so opaque that some resellers don’t even tell customers that they’re not actually producing the seed they sell themselves.
It won’t surprise you that this state of affairs is unusual. They have well organised independent certification schemes in the U.S. and in Germany, and identify and audit seed origin and propagation in France.
There’s no point existing producers getting together here and producing some kind of quality assurance mark. It wouldn’t be seen as independent. If it were auditable it would be expensive. Consumers wouldn’t know to look for it and won’t know if it’s missing. It only suits a tiny number of producers who are trying to do the right thing. The government must legislate. It’s only with this that struggling small scale producers can be rewarded for doing the right thing, and that we can consistently create really high quality wildflower projects.
There wouldn’t be the money to create a testing framework but a move to the French system – so that you can see the origin of the seed and producers have some kind of protocol to follow in production techniques – would be a good start. I do hope organizations like Kew, Plantlife and perhaps even the RHS might understand this and lobby for it.
Earlier this summer a copy of Holly Farrell’s The Jam Maker’s Garden arrived for me to review. It has sat in the catering department’s in tray ever since, but now jam making time is upon us we dug it out. What a delight.
There’s a peculiar pleasure in growing and using your own produce. You can square that if you have to process it in some way. I made three small pots of beeswax polish from the cappings left over from this year’s honey harvest; fantastic.
Holly Farrell is quick to understand this. She also points out other joys of jam making – not just the delight of eating them! Enjoy the tastes of summer and autumn through the winter and the connection they make with the local – what the French would call – terroir.
There’s a lot more than celebration about this book, however. It covers “garden notes” as well as “kitchen notes”, so deals with growing the fruit you’ll cook too. Some sensible advice in this section, although I find people could always do with more help about what varieties to plant and in what volume. Everyone always plants too many apple trees and under-plants soft fruit, for example.
The kitchen section is great. It’s clearly laid out into vegetable and fruit sections. The recipes are easy to follow and many highly original. Carrot jam looks delicious!
The book promotes some more obscure fruit as well – Medlars do well here and I grow them principally for their blossom, but now we’ll be making medlar fudge. I Can’t wait.
For my sins I have spent several hours recently tramping around local estates delivering election leaflets. This has provided a fascinating insight into the average local garden. The real ones – not like you see on Gardener’s World or the Chelsea Flower Show.
I make this distinction because gardening seems to be treated by the visual media like cooking. Millions of people love to watch cookery videos but live on take-aways and fish fingers. Millions love to watch Monty Don and his dog but have urban gardens full of rusting barbeques and decking.
So what does Monty think his typical viewer’s garden looks like? I assume he’s in the same bubble as the celebrity cooks, so he’s going to be well wide of the mark. Well, at least in this part of the world, they generally don’t look great.
They fall into four groups:
1. Immaculate. Unusual. Typically heavy on the veg and cut flowers, head gardener of pensionable age.
2. Struggling. Possibly aspiring to immaculate but time and knowledge poor. Some weird sights. Gnomes.
3. Jungle. Lost engine parts and bits of recycling the foxes have messed about with. The odd child’s toy.
4. Hard landscaping. Cars on breeze blocks. Marestail the only green thing.
In total, not very encouraging for Monty – or for wildlife.*
Firstly, jungle is – contrary to popular belief – not great for invertebrates. I aspire to a balance between 1 and 3. This combination was almost non-existent, interestingly. My favourite garden was one which had a kind of delicate urban meadow going on, with Fox and Cubs and Trefoil in the lawn. Judging by the veg, here was a competent gardener, but one who could give nature a nod with an aesthetically pleasing and time saving feature.
Secondly, jungle is mostly the look of rented houses and – consequently – becoming more and more prevalent. Why on earth should young renters bother?
Thirdly, the more modern the house the more miniscule the “garden” and the more aggressive the hard landscaping. This is appallingly obvious, not the least because of the almost complete absence of pollinators in recently built areas. And these are areas surrounded by “countryside”.
So I took myself off to the local meadow by way of an antidote. Even here there seemed to be fewer bees than there used to be. Maybe the cold spring has been hard for them. Oh well. Here’s a nice picture of an orchid from the meadow anyway; Monty – or Nigella for that matter – would be pleased.
*Talking of which – people! – go easy on the damn slug pellets!
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.
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.
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.
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.
When 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.
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”.
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.
Last week the RHS published the first paper from its “Plants for Bugs” four-year study in the Journal of Applied Ecology. It’s an interesting read, not least because so little research has been done in this area. According to the RHS website the key messages for gardeners are:
The best strategy for gardeners wanting to support pollinating insects in gardens is to plant a mix of flowering plants from different countries and regions.
Emphasis should be given to plants native to the UK and the northern hemisphere, though exotic plants from the southern hemisphere can be used to extend the season (there are a greater proportion of exotic plants flowering later in the season compared to UK native and northern hemisphere plants) and provide nectar and pollen for some specific pollinators.
Regardless of plant origin (native or non-native), the more flowers a garden can offer throughout the year, the greater the number of bees, hoverflies and other pollinating insects it will attract and support.
This is all good stuff, and I absolutely agree with it. But – and you knew there was a but coming – I do have two complaints about the way this is being spun.
First off, there’s a question of emphasis. The accompanying social media blurb from the RHS says:
Native plants alone may not be the best option for supporting pollinating insects in UK gardens!
Well, yes, but non-natives alone DEFINITELY aren’t. I can’t see the headline reading “Exotic plants alone are definitely not the best option for supporting pollinating insects in UK gardens” Perhaps I’m just being over-sensitive, or perhaps not. The RHS are hardly likely to discourage people from growing exotic cultivars, after all – it’s what they do.
Secondly, identifying what provides the “best” nectar and pollen for certain pollinators is very helpful, but it’s not the bee all (geddit?) and end all. Take butterflies, for example.
Like some solitary bees and many other “bugs” they have developed relationships with very specific plants. In the case of butterflies it’s as food plants for their caterpillars; Yellow Brimstone caterpillars eat Buckthorn, for example. I know some butterflies and moths can adapt to non-native plants, but not all. It’s also true that some of our own insects like non-native plants for non dietary reasons; the wool carder bee just loves Stachys byzantina, with which it lines its nest.
In other words, choosing plants for bugs is not just about native v. non-native or pollen and nectar. It’s more complicated than that. As usual.
Viper’s Bugloss is one of my favourite British wildflowers. It looks like a kind of poor man’s Delphinium, but flowers for ever and it’s just great for bees. It’s not an antidote to snake venom though, which belief is why herbalists gave it its common name. “Bugloss” supposedly derives from the Greek word for ox-tongue, which describes the plant’s leaves.
It’s unusual to find a flower like Viper’s Bugloss which attracts all sorts of bees – honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees. Butterflies and moths love it too.
Honeybees have shorter flatter tongues, so for nectar they tend to visit more open platelike flowers with relatively easily accessible nectaries but relatively low reward.
Bumblebees have longer tongues, up to 13mm for Bombus hortorum, which means they can access nectar hidden at the base of flowers with long floral tubes. These include wild Red Clover, Foxglove, vetches and Bird’s-foot trefoil.
Solitary bees cover the gamut of tongue lengths. They’re mostly short tongued, so prefer low reward, easy access flowers, but some, including leafcutter bees and mason bees, have relatively long tongues and go for restricted access flowers with higher nectar rewards.
The story for pollen is slightly more complicated; we’re beginning to understand the importance of diversity of pollen in diet for all bees. Some plants have relatively high protein in their pollen and seem to be preferred. Viper’s Bugloss pollen has three times the protein value of sunflowers, for example, according to Plants For Bees, the bible on this sort of thing.
It’s not just the features of flowers which folk should be considering – it’s the time they’re in flower. Good plants flowering outside periods of high nectar flow are invaluable. This obviously includes late autumn and early spring, but there’s also a shortage in mid summer which beekeepers call the “June gap”. Lavender is a great bee plant from this point of view – as is Bugloss.
Last – but by no means least – there’s the look of the plant. I’m not having plants in my garden I don’t like, however good they are for butterflies and bees. Viper’s bugloss looks lovely to my eye, and has a nice strong, upright habit. It likes poor well drained soil and tolerates drought well – it does well on our roof, for example. It’s biennial but self seeds, so once you’ve got it you’ve got it! I love it in blocks, where it’s dark blue makes a striking – and buzzing! – statement in our gravel garden next to some Nepeta.
Corncockle, Agrostemma githago, is a favourite plant. Not because it has special qualities, but rather as it seems a plant worth standing up for.
Corncockle seems to have arrived in the UK from Europe in the Iron Ages. It’s a “cornfield annual” – that is to say, it grew in disturbed ground and was commonly found in corn fields. It has been seen as an agricultural weed for long enough that persistent herbicide treatments mean that it only rarely grows in the wild. Unlike the iconic poppy and better known cornflower, though, it has a pretty low profile and is not often missed.
The corncockle isn’t showy. Although it’s a vigorous plant its purple flowers are relatively inconspicuous compared to the vibrant blue, yellow and red of cornflowers, corn marigold and poppies. It’s not, consequently, either noticed or promoted. When gardeners think of cornfield annuals these other plants are what they want in their seed mix. It is these consumers who are keeping them in the landscape.
Not only is corncockle less blousy than some other cornfield annuals, but its seed presents problems for the retailer too. Firstly, it’s poisonous, which (unreasonably) tends to put people off. In fact the whole plant is poisonous, which the Press gleefully pointed out last year when Kew’s Grow Wild seed packets included corncockle. The way it was reported you would have been forgiven for thinking its virtual eradication over the last 100 years was unequivocally a good thing, potentially saving hundreds of lives. Secondly, the seeds are big, like peppercorns, which precludes them being included in a small seed packet.
It doesn’t even seem to be a particularly “good” plant for pollinators either, according to my “Plants for Bees” book.
I’m making a point of growing it this year in our annual beds though, and the first flowers are now appearing. It should make a really lovely show.