Wildflower Meadows, Pictorial Meadows – who cares?

I went to a fascinating seminar given by Nigel Dunnett last week – he of pictorial meadows. Nigel is one of the leading influencers of landscape design in the UK. His shtick is “naturalistic planting” and – my – he is a very impressive bloke. I first came across him at Chelsea many years ago, and his star has risen steadily ever since. He seeded those amazing annuals at the London Olympics, for example. He’s lovely – a great communicator (as you’d expect from a Prof!) and hugely well informed and trained. A proper botanist. He’s also an enthusiast.

I picked up a lot of practical tips, but the day also provoked some bigger questions. Nigel’s BIG IDEA is creating landscapes that people can immerse themselves in and – consequently – respond to. He feels that we all have a visceral and uplifting response to nature, and flowers in particular. He spends his time trying to trigger that response. Fab. He has a tremendous understanding of his trade, and how to best do this. How we need this kind of reconnection, which can be the gateway to all sorts of other understanding.

I’m interested in how he does this. First of all, he’s a botanist. He draws people in exclusively through flowers – not fauna. He’s really, really good at this. He has a combination of a botanist’s knowledge and a designer’s eye, which means he can effortlessly combine plant combinations from all over the globe.

Regular readers of these pages will know that we try to engage peeps through flora AND their associated fauna. Plant Purging buckthorn and you will get Yellow Brimstones. That kind of thing. Many of our native animal species have intimate and fragile relationships with our native plant species. It turns out too that pollinators generally prefer native flowers for pollen and nectart when given the choice.

As Nigel points out, this distinction between native wildflowers and other flowers shouldn’t be as black and white as it is often portrayed. The world I inhabit splits into two warring camps; at their extremes the native plants from local sites only faction, and at the other whatever it takes to make people happy. I guess commercial pressures accentuate these two views. We promote native plants partly because that’s what we sell. We sell them because we think they are important.

In fact the distinction between “native” and “non-native” is more nuanced. It’s on a sliding scale between what Nigel calls “ecological” planting at one end and “horticultural” at the other. I like this idea. I guess I’m somewhere more towards the “ecological” end than him. In two and a half hours of slides in his presentation the only animals that appeared were dogs and yaks.

He points out – quite rightly – that “ecological” planting has never really caught on, even in today’s enlightened times. “Wildlife gardening” is too often associated with a visually unattractive and untidy mess, which many people don’t like. Sometimes it’s challenging too. Wildflower meadows, for example, many people find difficult. They’re not engaged with the fauna they bring either – or often don’t even notice what turns up. Flowers, that’s the thing; easy quick flowers, in naturalistic drifts.

Nigel promoted this key idea by coining the phrase “pictorial meadows”. I’m still not sure I forgive him. Pictorial Meadows is now a company which spun off from his work at the University of Sheffield.

I do understand his rationale, and I love the marketing idea, but it has created a deal of confusion among the punters, and not to say difficulty for those of us promoting… actual meadows. Meadows are things with grass and perennial wildflowers, in my book. They’re not swathes of non-native and native annual wildflowers on their own, lovely though they may be.

This sort of planting needs the same preparation as meadow establishment, incidentally; low fertility soils cleared of existing weeds and grasses. I guess they need the same kind of levels of management too. They’re definitely more horticultural than ecological, however, and despite his protestations he must know that.

What do I mean by that? Pictorial meadows look fab. They have lots of flowers, lots of colour, and a long flowering window. “Traditional” hay meadows have less colour and need more managing because they include grass. It’s absolutely true that gardeners don’t necessarily want the grass and all the messing around it involves.

Fauna and flora
Nothing to see here…

It’s also true though that a traditional meadow will have more biodiversity than a pictorial meadow. They have perennial grass and wildflower species which allow all sorts of invertebrates to overwinter and fee their larval stages. The grasses don’t just support the obvious species like grasshoppers, they’re also great habitat for voles (and hence owls) and other small mammals and ground nesting birds, for example. It’s this that draws people in as much as the flowers themselves – more so, in my experience.

The meadow seed mixes we sell vary according to the location of their donor site. Not just the soil type but also the area of the country, which will dictate the species mix and which subspecies of plant you will get. Old meadows have evolved naturally over hundreds of years. All quite different to a pictorial meadow.

Pictorial Meadows’ success has annoyed me from a commercial point of view, as you’ll understand. Customers expect something from a meadow I don’t. They’re not attuned to its subtleties and fauna. They don’t see the way that native plants associate and adapt to local conditions. As Nigel says, the pleasure taken from the minutiae of the natural world is no small thing itself.

He also says that traditional meadow making is about restoration rather than creation. I don’t agree. Why not start a traditional meadow, even thought you don’t want any hay? Isn’t it a thing of beauty as well as biodiversity? How can you keep the grass out of it anyway?

This has all troubled me. But I’ve reflected on it, and you know what? Perhaps it matters less than I think.

We need more flowers now, and we need lots of them. We need to get people to reconnect with nature as quickly as possible. Lots of flowers might be a great way to do that, at least initially. Let’s not make perfection the enemy of the good.

In The Meadow

We have a two acre plot in Somerset, much of it wildflower meadow. Our garden is driven by a simple principle; it has to look good and do good. Our little meadows are the embodiment of that; they keep giving.

Native Wildflower Meadows…

Common sorrel. Nothing to see here.

To a botanist they’re nothing special. We’ve created them over the last 4 years, so they’re still only half formed. Not surprisingly I haven’t seen anything wildly exotic, but that’s rather the point. I take huge pleasure in the beauty of the commonplace and the minutiae of the flora we have. We made a number of different areas with different soil treatments and drainage, which has resulted in a range of different vigour, colours and species. One strip is full of knapweed; the next, wetter but sown with the same seed mixture, has a patch dominated by meadow buttercup. Ragged robin has unexpectedly appeared in a remote damp corner. We have three different vetches all awash with bees, each with its own appointed place.

The grasses vary wildly, depending on the soil and earlier use. There’s knee high Timothy and Foxtail where once there was pasture, and the delicate Crested dogstail we sowed onto subsoil. Then there’s our meadow roof, with Kidney vetch, oregano, stonecrop, mallow and St John’s wort. A different thing again.

I’ve no idea how many plant species we have here, but the subtle effects they combine to make are enchanting (I’m not a good enough photographer to really get this across!). And they’re all native wildflowers. Not for me a sea of something Californian, I’m afraid.

Mostly Oxeye daisy and Common vetch

I love watching the meadow evolve through the season. From cowslip to knapweed it has its own rythmn. Over time it evolves too. Plant species disappear. Species arrive. Populations wax and wane. Different plants do well in different years – this year the vetches are going bonkers, and lend a wild look to things.

But are meadows messy? Absolutely not. Wildflower meadows are managed; they seem to me to be a perfect fusion of man and nature. We have a simple weeding (no longer really necessary) and cutting regime to make something very lovely.

… Great For Native Fauna

Common vetch and friend (male Early bumblebee, Bombus pratorum)

And not just that. If you have a varied collection of native plants you will get… a varied collection of native animals. They continue to roll in, after 4 years. When we moved here the invertebrate population was pretty limited. We’ve done a fair amount meadows apart – ponds, a wildlife friendly formal garden as well – and in combination results are obvious and exciting.

Who put that butterfly there? (Small Copper, Lycaena phlaeas)

We have a lot more buzzing, flying, crawling friends. I’m quite good at my bumblebee ID, and I can find all 7 of the most common species here now (originally just one).* More butterflies and moths, more hoverflies. Further up the foodchain, we now have bats and more – and rarer – birds.

Who are you and what on earth are you up to? (No idea – any ideas welcome!)

Many of the animals I find in the meadow are a mystery to me. Little solitary bees, beetles, micromoths, crickets. What are they? What are they doing? Which plants do they need? Why are they here? Up close it’s a wildly exotic jungle, inhabited by a matching cast of characters. Some are territorial and here to stay; others are passing through.

There are various morals to this story, I guess. Well informed but modest habitat creation can make a big difference. And good habitat can look gorgeous, which can help us relearn our connection with nature.

*Interestingly, incidentally, on a hot summer day the meadows are buzzing, but honeybees tend to hang out in the formal garden with its ornamental cultivars. It’s a good example of why variety is so important.

When and How to Cut Your Wildflower Meadow

Many of the failures we see – when a wildflower meadow reverts to grass – are due to poor cutting regimes. People tend to be rather nervous about mowing. It can be difficult to cut a meadow when you see all sorts of wildlife still enjoying it. Remember, though, that wildflowers are resilient and low growing. They’ll enjoy cutting, as it keeps the sward open and surrounding grasses under control. Cutting will also control encroaching scrub. You won’t take out over-wintering insect eggs and grubs. It’s too late to impact on ground nesting birds. The right cutting regime will increase the flower species in your wildflower meadow, extending its flowering period. Appropriate approaches will of course vary from site to site – it can get complicated! – but here is our general guide.

Darter and Oxeye Daisy seedhead
Must You Cut My Meadow Now?

When to Cut?
The ideal timetable for cutting a meadow for wildlife and cutting one for hay is different. Generally, managing for biodiversity means you will cut later, producing stalky hay.

In the FIRST year of establishment you do cut earlier and then cut often over the rest of the summer/autumn, to ensure maximum plant diversity. If there are no cornfield annuals or Yellow Rattle in the seed mix this can be from June, otherwise from mid July, after they have set seed. An early cut will also whack the flush of annual weeds which may appear.

Over time, though, this would remove attractive and useful later flowering species – here we have knapweed, wild carrot and Devil’s-bit scabious. On the other hand, if you leave cutting too late the grass will have gone over and will be very difficult to cut effectively at all. You will lose wildflower species if you do this too, as the grass will take over and form an impenetrable thatch. Sometimes the weather has a say as well – it can rain all August!

We’d generally say cut an established wildflower meadow in sections from the end of July, leaving several days between each to encourage diversity. Definitely finish before the end of August. This will encourage more diversity but stop the grasses dominating.

Unfortunately we can’t follow this advice ourselves as I have to hire the mowing kit! Depending on the weather, we cut in one go in the first half of August. Many of the later flowering plants have set seed (to the birds’ delight!), and the grass is usually still workable. Steel yourself; whenever you cut your wildflower meadow there will be something in flower.

It is good practice though – particularly if you can’t cut your meadow in sections – to cut it at slightly different time very year if you can. This will maximise floral diversity.

Cut your meadow
Cut Me Now!

What to Cut?
As above, don’t cut everything at once. Or, in fact, don’t cut everything; leave some tussocky messy grass margins, only cutting them every two years or so. Some animals – like crickets – will be enjoying the long grass into September. Bumblebees need tussocky grass for their nests. Voles need this kind of habitat to rootle about in, so owls like it. You’re allowed to make some other minor exceptions too. We have a particularly good small area of knapweed; I scythe it around the end of August.

How to Cut?
I do love my scythe, but I’m not Poldark and if I scythed our two acres of wildflower meadow it would take me days of work and I would end up in A&E. Scything is great if you can manage it, though. You won’t accidentally kill anything and you don’t have to fire up anything mechanical. You can manage your cutting over time. If you do have to use a machine, the best solution is to find something which does “cut and collect”. Failing that, you can get small bailers which will work off tractors and collect and bail the arisings from your hay cut. We hire a mower with a simple cutting deck, and collect all the hay by hand. If it’s wet we have to turn it to help dry it out. It’s a pain.

Whatever you go for, it’s very important that you collect the hay you cut and remove it (ideally let it rot down somewhere). This reduces soil fertility, and opens up the sward for your wildflowers. Make sure when you mow, incidentally, that you don’t go round and round, squashing panicked animals into a smaller and smaller area.

Fleabane pollinator plant
Fleabane and Common Blue

After the Cut?
Continuing to pretend you’re a Medieval peasant, imitate sheep (if you don’t actually have them). Mow (or lightly graze) the “aftermath”. Continue to keep the sward short over the winter until March. The amount of mowing you will have to do depends on soil fertility, the weather, and your own preference. Ideally remove any cuttings when you mow. Simples.

Make sure you have other plants in flower through the rest of August and September, in other areas. The wildflowers we have en masse for this are in our swales – fleabane and purple loosestrife, both brilliant forage plants for a wide range of pollinators.

Wildflower Seed Packets on Amazon and eBay

Wildflower seed packets sold on Amazon and Ebay are very symptomatic of some of the things going wrong in my world at the moment. There ARE some very good packets there – but – Jeez – there are some shockers.

"wildflower" seed packet contents
Shoot me now – species in “wildflower meadow” seed packet on Amazon

Some have wildly inappropriate species, including things like foxgloves in “meadow” mixes or aggressive agricultural grasses. Others consist of cornfield annuals and grasses. Many have incomprehensible or no species lists. My favourite horror mixes include things like lavender and a raft of either non-native plants or exotic cultivars. Goodness knows where the seed is from. Mars? Some punters comment their “wildflower seed” comes with Chinese packaging.

These mixes can’t possibly work beyond a year, even if the seeds are viable. It’s not physically possible. Quite apart from all the other obvious issues, when they fail the customers will never try “wildflowers” again. They will write them off as difficult or unattractive

As you can imagine – to declare my interest! – as an impecunious supplier of  pukka wildflower seed packets this completely does my head in. I’ve tried to contact some of the people selling the funny stuff, with varying degrees of success. Those I have managed to talk to express surprise or disinterest and… carry on selling the same mixes.

Weirdly, some of these folk are large seed companies and many enjoy really good seller ratings* on Ebay or Amazon. Or perhaps not weirdly. The packets apparently arrive super promptly and, presumably, well presented. Some of these seeds will germinate pretty quickly if all is well. This is what the buyers want and what the rating system is designed to measure.

You can’t blame people for not understanding that lavender isn’t from around here and can’t possibly exist in a meadow by definition – in the unlikely event it germinated it would get mown out pretty much instantly. Most folk just don’t know – they don’t know what wildflowers are and they certainly don’t know what a wildflower meadow is. It’s another symptom of nature deficit disorder.

These products succeed because they work really well in their unregulated  retail environment. They deliver what the punter is told they want – swift delivery, pretty pictures, instant effect.

This is the reality of how the commercial world works. We should wake up to this kind of thing, and not just turn a blind eye. So far as I can make out, these notional wildflower seed packets sell in pretty good volumes. It has a terribly corrosive effect. We all want to reconnect people with their natural environment, rather than see them drifting further away from understanding it.

*I would encourage you to leave some one star reviews!

Which Wildflower Seed Do I Buy?

Where Should I Buy Wildflower Seed?

It turns out there are relatively few suppliers of wildflower seed in the UK. There are a lot of more or less good resellers, and a lot of people claiming their mixes are UK wildflowers when they’re not. Be careful – it’s a very poorly regulated area.

Wildflower seedWhat is a wildflower? I know this sounds like a daft question, but lots of seed packets are mislabelled. To my mind it’s a flower which occurs naturally in the UK and is grown from British seed, harvested in the UK. These are the first things to find out about your seed mix. You often find plants like Cosmos and Californian poppies in “wildflower” mixes sold on Amazon or Ebay.* They’re lovely and long living flowers, helpful to pollinators – but UK wildflowers they ain’t. One of the most attractive and nectar rich mixes we sell is made up of a really good mix of native and non-native species, but that’s what it says on the tin.

Most of the wildflower seed sold in the UK clearly isn’t harvested here. Does that matter? We think so, but even if you don’t, you have the right to know – it should say on the packet!

There are some very good suppliers here. Some are tiny and do it largely for love, producing only 100kg of seed a year, so difficult to find online. If they were paid properly they would produce a lot more.

What Kind of Wildflower Seed Mix Should I Buy?

Essentially, you will find three different types of mixes available from reputable suppliers:

Cornfield Annuals: These are the wildflowers that used to be a common site in arable fields – cornflowers, poppies etc.. As they are annuals they need a different management technique and work to make sure they keep setting seed and producing flowers year after year. They have a relatively short flowering window and the assemblage of the standard mixes isn’t the sort of thing you’d see naturally, but they are incredibly easy and reliable and produce an amazing display of vibrant colour. They’re good for pollinators, but not for anything needing to over-winter. They have no relation to wildflower meadows.

Direct Harvest Mixes: These are seeds harvested from existing donor meadows. They’re a combination of grasses and perennial wildflowers. Experienced harvesters will take more than one sweep across a meadow during a season, usually using a brush harvester. Meadows aren’t harvested every year, and the process is fully sustainable. The mixes are cleaned up before sale. They are often only available in limited quantities or sometimes only to order. These are my favourite mixes; they usually have a high ratio of wildflowers to grasses at a sensible price, offer a massive diversity of species, and have precise provenance. If you can find a mix harvested in your area which will also do well on your site, bingo. There’s a case for buying a mix like this even if it is harvested a way away from you. Be wary of certain species, however! You don’t really want a significant rye grass element, for example, or high levels of aggressive grasses like cocksfoot and timothy. Some donor sites will have organic certification. All of them will have had either no pesticides at all used on them or very limited, targeted application of herbicide.

Generic Seed Mixes: These are mixes which have been artificially combined – put together species by species. You know exactly what you’re getting, and they can be constructed to give you the right species for your soil type or site. You will find a range of  these too on our website, which for larger projects can be produced to design. They’re really intended as a starting point; they have a relatively limited number of wildflower species included which occur naturally across the UK (at least from reputable suppliers!). This means you miss out on anything slightly unusual or particularly local. Generic mixes can be made up of wildflowers only or a meadow mix, which includes grasses. The grass element should usually consist of certified meadow grasses, although sometimes you might find a supplier who can use grass seed sourced from the wild. Usually the meadow mixes are supplied at a ratio of 80% grasses to 20% wildflowers.

Don’t be tempted by cheaper mixes produced for agri-environmental schemes which only have 10% wildflowers; 10% is too low for most people. You might also find that the “wildflowers” in these mixes are in fact cultivars. Does this matter? You bet. “Wild red clover” is going to give pollinators better forage than “red clover”. Birdsfoot trefoil lasts much longer than its much bigger cultivars.Suppliers may use herbicide in the preparation of seedbeds to produce this seed.

Where Is This Seed From?

If you are buying meadow seed do please check it has been produced in the UK from UK stock. Knowing about where it’s from is a good way of guaranteeing how it has been produced – you might want to know about pesticide use or year of harvest, for example. There are other good ecological reasons for wanting UK seeds too, ideally the more local the better. Seed mixes harvested from the wild in the UK bought in bulk should have pink labels attached; otherwise they will be green. This isn’t very helpful; a mix of UK origin and provenance wildflower seed and certified grasses would have a green label, for example. The kind of small packets you might buy in a garden centre tell you nothing about the seeds’ provenance. 

Do I Need Wildflower Seed At All?

To seed a wildflower area you need to clear the grasses and weeds from the area of your lawn / paddock / field before you start. Just a thought – do you really want to do this? If your lawn is anything like ours you’ve potentially got a mini-meadow in your garden already. I let areas of it get a bit higher in the summer to allow the daisies, self-heal, clovers, dandelions, black medick and ground ivy (etc!) to flower.

If you have a field or paddock the chances are it has aggressive modern grasses in it. If you’re very lucky and it doesn’t, you might be able just to add Yellow Rattle in the autumn. Sit back and see what comes up when it takes effect the following year, when the grasses get knocked back. You might not need any more seed at all.

*Some of this seed also has very low viability. Wildflower seed can have very limited shelf life if stored incorrectly.

Plantlife

Readers of this blog will probably be familiar with Plantlife, the plant conservation charity. They do significant work around the country managing land and raising awareness of the importance of wildflowers and the crisis they are in. I’m grateful for their work. The senior people I’ve heard and met from Plantlife know their potatoes and are good communicators, charismatic and impressive.

In terms of the UK conservation world they’re a relatively large, well funded charity. Their turnover is around £3.5 million and their income is largely from government agencies and organisations like the Heritage Lottery Fund. They have over 50 people in their head office and many other volunteers and outreach officers. Their PR is fabulous; as a charity with Prince Charles as patron they are regularly on Radio 4, for example, as they were this morning talking about their Wildflower Hunt (an interesting project). They have over 28 thousand Twitter followers and specialists running their social media feeds. Their website SEO is professional and the site ranks well in searches. This is all great for wildflowers.

But…*

Plantlife don’t seem to like the wildflower seed business. Last year this became apparent in the McMeadows fiasco. They attacked the industry in a pretty ill-informed and unhelpful way. People – including me – were very upset. Essentially they don’t like “off the shelf” wildflower seed mixes of any sort, regardless of quality, origin or provenance. All suppliers, good, bad and ugly were lumped in together.

Wildflower seed harvesting
Encourage Wildflower Seed Producers!

At the time I made the point that we should encourage the development of an economically viable and responsible wildflower seed business, not undermine it. There are very few folk scratching a living out of wildflower seed at the moment, battling people selling imported seed, non-native species and agricultural cultivars as “UK wildflowers”.

NGOs don’t have the resources or incentives to do what the commercial sector can potentially contribute. On a practical basis, if 97% if your wildflower meadows have disappeared then it’s difficult to source local plant material in the way that Plantlife would like us to, in anything like the volume required. They should engage with the good guys and we can all work together.

We pay farmers to let us harvest seed from their meadows, for example, and then sell it. Guess what? They then seed more meadows as they can see a return from them. We have set up a website to enable small specialists to sell their locally harvested meadow seed mixes. It’s to our advantage to encourage people to buy them. These are simple instances of aligning commercial and ecological interests.

I understood Plantlife’s views might have changed since, as they learnt more about the business. I’d heard some encouraging things from them. Out of curiosity I checked their website this morning to see if that was reflected there. In fairness, there was no recent McMeadows stuff. I did find this in their policy document, though:

Planting wildflower seed mixes doesn’t conserve wild flowers or restore fragmented habitats. Worse, it could threaten the distinctiveness and natural genetic variation of our local flora. Our challenge is to conserve wild flowers whilst maintaining their essential wildness. Rather than reaching for a packet of wildflower seed, the Plantlife to-do list looks like this…

Well – yes, sort of. The plant material is often not available to do what they would like us to – that’s the point. You can, however, buy packets of some direct harvest local wildflower seed mixes. The more people we encourage to buy them the more there would be available. Local provenance is something we very much promote, although even the arguments about that are complicated – far, far over my head!

Anyway, although you can disagree with the message at least it’s consistent. But then – just as I was about to close my browser – I noticed that Plantlife now have a shop. I couldn’t believe what they were selling.

Wildflower seed mixes in packets.+

You can understand why I was so gobsmacked. These are the very wildflower seed mixes they disapprove of when sold by other people. This isn’t just unfair, it’s utter humbug.

Plantlife have a huge and obvious competitive advantage over someone trying to make a living out of selling wildflower seed. In some ways this is a good thing, of course – much better to buy Plantlife seed from John Chambers than some cr@p off Amazon or Ebay. In other ways it’s clearly not.

The RHS commercial arm ran into similar accusations of unfair advantage, which they at least partly resolved by promoting good quality UK nurseries and growers, through their Plant Finder scheme and magazine, for example. It would be really, really helpful if Plantlife did something similar.

 

*You knew there would be a but.

+AND sourced from one of our competitors – doh!

 

 

 

 

 

Weed or Wildflower? Which is Which?

I always tell punters one man’s weed is another one’s wildflower. I’m not sure that’s strictly true in most cases. Problematic plants? I know dandelions and plantains can be a struggle for some in the garden, for example, despite their – to my mind – obvious allure.

Wildflower meadow
I see no weeds

Bittercress, dock and nettle – weed, I think, while acknowledging that “weed” isn’t all bad. I have a designated nettle patch that caterpillars much through. And – really – what’s the difference between Rumex obtusifolius (bad), Rumex acetosa (good) and – my favourite dock – Rumex hydrolapathum (fantastic).

I guess it’s a question of degree. We have a little video about making wildflower meadows, in which I made the mistake of saying weed out any thistles. Well, I say a mistake – it’s not; thistles are very efficient colonisers and a real pain in a new wildflower meadow. That’s not to say they aren’t good plants for pollinators and can be very pretty – as was pointed out to me in no uncertain terms (!) – but they can take over. Diversity is what you’re aiming for, and a field full of thistles isn’t that.

Anyway, Birdsfoot trefoil and Self-heal would not even hit my top 50 of “difficult” plants. We must have sold hundreds of kilos of BFT and Self-heal seed over the years, and thousands of plug plants. They are pretty, small wildflowers. Self-heal is in our flowering lawn mix and Birdsfoot trefoil looks like a native snapdragon. Good plants for a variety of pollinators, BFT particularly good for some bumbles.

I digress.

The point is, according to Farmer’s Weekly, that these two plants are on the naughty step. They are, apparently, “unwanted weeds”, albeit good weeds insofar as they improve fat levels in the lambs that eat them. Hurrah!

This is really irking, but an interesting insight into the psyche of Farmer’s Weekly readers. Many farmers still treat anything not the right sort of grass as a weed.

This has got to stop. I can understand farmers antipathy towards species like black grass and dock. But Birdsfoot trefoil and Self-heal? For starters, plants like this are good for livestock. You can buy grazing grass mixes which include them. They also have really important ecological value and their numbers are declining.

Perhaps Farmer’s Weekly should start to call them herbs, if they can’t bear “wildflowers”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wildflower Meadows: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

We sell a fair amount of seed for wildflower meadows. You might say wildflower meadows are a bit of an obsession, in fact. We do everything we can to make sure they’re going to work for our clients. We know where the seed has come from, we do random germination tests, we know how old it is and how it has been stored. We post guides and videos about how to make wildflower meadows. Things still seem to go wrong though… here are the three biggest bloopers folk commit.

1. What Is Your Seed and What Will It Do?

Do you know what you want to create and will the seed mix you buy give you that? Do you know what a “traditional” hay meadow will look like? Is that what you want? IF yes then remember… good things come to those who wait. Wait until you’ve done your prep. Wait until the right window to sow. Most importantly, wait for your meadow flowers to develop. They are    s      l      o      w growing perennials, which won’t flower in year one. Many might not in year two. Take pleasure in watching it develop. This hints at the next question…

2. Would You Sow Carrot Seed Onto Your Lawn?
No no and thrice no! And wildflower seed is often equally small and much more slow growing. Don’t chuck it on an existing pasture or lawn. If soil fertility is anything but LOW and there are any aggressive grasses about (which there almost certainly will be), your wildflower seed will end up being a waste of £££. There are exceptions to this*, but this is true of well over 90% of the sites we deal with. Clear a little space to seed wildflowers and the grasses will take it over. Create a little strip to seed wildflowers and the grasses will take it over. Scarify some of the grass off to seed wildflowers and the grasses will take over. You get the picture.

3. Be Brutal
There are some plants you don’t want in your meadow. Thistles have great biodiversity value but get everywhere. Dock looks like Sorrel, but is much less retiring. Nettles are great food plants for caterpillars but a curse in wildflower meadows. No thanks; all these need to go, and BEFORE they have any chance of setting seed. Don’t leave those thistles flowering because they’re a great food source for bees. Have them out, unless you want a thistle plantation.
Cut the grass before September. Please, please don’t wait until the last Knapweed has finished flowering. The grass will collapse before then and be virtually uncuttable. If you don’t cut it promptly and over the winter I guarantee you will soon be looking at a field full of grass, not a wildflower in sight. And that would be a great shame.

If all this is too worrying and you are to horticulture what I am to blacksmithing, just get us to do the whole thing for you.

Wildflower meadow
What’s all the fuss about?

*I can hear you thinking you might be one. If you think you might, get in touch. I’d be interested to hear from you and we can cook up a strategy for your site.

 

Farmland – Does It Really Matter and What Should We Do With It?

Much interest in Michael Gove’s prognostications on farmland subsidies today. This is a really important issue for environmentalists – perhaps more important than you might think.

Oddly, most people in the UK think that the country is largely concreted over. How much of the UK’s land area do you think is densely* built on? According to a recent Ipsos Mori poll, the average estimate is 47%. The actual number is… 0.1%. The younger people are, the more land they think is concrete. 47% is a vast over-estimation of the proportion of land built on at all, which is below 6%

UK farmlandAs the BBC’s Mark Easton pointed out in his excellent blog, this misconception has disastrous implications for debate about land use.

Oddly, folk living in rural locations had the same level of misconception as those in towns and cities. In other words, this is received rather than observed wisdom.

There’s a powerful historical narrative at work here which we need to unravel, and which has a direct bearing on what we do with our farmland. Although it takes up much more of our land than people think, farmland is far from the rural utopia that the same narrative suggests. It’s not the green and pleasant land threatened by the looming giants of the industrial revolution and – today – housing sprawl. Most farmers have to work their land very hard to make ends meet.

Farmland is very important for the natural environment. We must concentrate on getting the policies shaping it right. What happens on farmland is much, much more important for biodiversity than what happens in urban areas. It’s well over 50% of our land mass, massively more than natural land, and much of it is now very degraded.

The Common Agricultural Policy has done little to halt this degradation. It has probably made it worse. Mr Gove doesn’t like the CAP, and has perhaps been surprised to find allies in the environmental lobby. It’s expensive, inefficient and politically sensitive. Paying subsidies on the basis of land ownership – with no cap – is inevitably going to produce poor outcomes and promote grotesque income inequalities.

What Mr Gove proposes is a kind of expansion of countryside stewardship and agri-environmental schemes. We will pay farmers for the “public goods” they create rather than the acreage they farm. Mr. Gove mentioned planting woodland, creating new habitats for wildlife, helping improve water quality and recreating wildflower meadows. Potentially good news for Habitat Aid, incidentally, although I wonder where all the seed and plants for this will come from! I hope they will have the right provenance…

This dramatic and potentially really exciting switch in policy begs more questions than it answers. Presumably cost cutting is a rationale for doing it – how big would any new pot be? In order to be meaningful they will have to be landscape wide and administered by an expensive and well informed bureaucracy.

What would be the impact on food prices and how would the electorate react to that? We still produce 60% of the food we eat – what happens as that falls when intensive farming becomes less attractive? What would happen to activities like hill farming, which are fundamentally uneconomic?

I don’t see how we can end up with cheap food produced to today’s standards or better, an improved environment, and a saving to the public purse. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

  • i.e. over 80%+ covered by artificial surfaces like buildings and roads.

 

Tell Me About My Wildflower Seed

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.

Vive La Difference!
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.

*This is one of the reasons we set up the British Wildflower Seeds website