Things Fall Apart

From time to time I used to suffer from what doctors call “anxiety” – I guess a form of mild depression, which I’ve learnt how to manage over the years. I’m now feeling something rather different and rather more alarming; a sense of foreboding.

We’re in one of our favourite places – Italy – for a few days. I’m writing on a sunny terrace with glorious views of violet hills, against a soundtrack of sparrows. There are clouds of butterflies about and – later this evening – a mob of unruly swifts will close the day.

We have lost all these things at home.

We have the odd swift, the odd sparrow. A hot dry summer will be good for our beleaguered butterflies, and I can hear people saying now that they seem to have turned the corner where they are, etc. etc.. Nature friendly farmers tell me how much they’re doing for wildlife. Enthusiasts click on online campaigns. The numbers remain pretty awful though. Biodiversity has collapsed in the UK and many species numbers are still in sharp decline. The short story is that there is still no concrete strategy in place to reverse this.

I’m sure, too, that many will say that the recent weather – all over the world – is just weather, and nothing to do with global warming. In any event, people still don’t care enough about global warming to even list it in their top 10 concerns at the ballot box. As one who has canvassed with spectacularly poor results around Langport in the Somerset Levels this is something I know at first hand. The U.S. Administration, of course, doesn’t even acknowledge climate change exists.

My concern about these two things – mass extinctions and catastrophic climate change – have, to be honest, marked me out as a bit odd among my friends. Even more bizarre for them has been my trying in a practical way to do something about them in the UK over the last 10 years.

This has been very depressing. It’s not too much of a stretch to see people’s lack of reaction to the rise of populism (is this the right label?) as similar. Right wing extremists are murdering our MPs, elements of the Press are calling the senior judiciary and our Prime Minister “traitors”. Both Left and Right are polarised; it’s a type of politics familiar from the Europe of the interwar years. Our political class is manifestly failing us – not just in the UK, of course – and destroying public confidence in our institutions. Doubly concerning, this is coming at a terrible time to deal with the consequences of climate change, which will fuel extreme political views.

Why do I have to be an eccentric / snowflake / Trot if I am doing things about stopping climate change, mass extinctions and neo-fascists?

There are (some, at least!) bright, well meaning people in parliament, of different political persuasions, who need to completely refocus their agendas. We ALL have to get involved. In a hurry.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

W.B.Yeats

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!

Green Brexit Greenwash – and Some More Cheerful News

I have read a great deal about the government’s plans for the environment – a Green Brexit. I have heard Michael Gove speak about it, earlier this year. I read my notes from that Conference over the weekend, to make sure I wasn’t suffering from sudden onset early Alzheimers.

Yes, he did indeed promise  a “global gold standard” in “strengthened environmental protection measures”. He explicitly outlined the need for an environmental regulator “with teeth”, backed by legislation.  This Green Brexit was all somewhat unexpected but, on the face of it, rather exciting.

It turns out that after all these were – well – not promises. I’m not sure what they were. They actually… er… didn’t represent government policy, but were aspirations, whatever on earth that means. The government has announced plans for a new regulatory body for the environment which is purely advisory. It cannot prosecute. What the hell use is this? It’s like having a court which can’t send offenders to jail. Gove has apparently caved in to pressure from the Treasury, who have always seen green regulation as a form of tax on business. Hideously regressive thinking.

Even if this plan is overturned in the Lords – and the signs are encouraging that it might be – I found this news profoundly depressing. Firstly, the Green Brexit landscape Gove has been talking about – aspirationally – will involve significant short term cost, for the tax payer and the consumer (for long term gain). If the Treasury baulks at the first step in this process, what chance does this vision have of coming to fruition?  It has got two hopes, and Bob has just left the building.

Second off, Michael Gove presented his plans for the environment post Brexit as POLICY. It clearly wasn’t, and he is no position to deliver them.

Thirdly, this kind of thing massively undermines public trust in the political process. It seems to happen repeatedly these days. People are fed up with being treated with this sort of contempt. Too many of our politicians don’t seem to understand this, including, it seems, Michael Gove.

*Sigh*

Moving on to more positive news.

One of the reasons I haven’t written much recently is because I’ve been holding down two jobs. One for Habitat Aid, which pays the bills, and the other as a flag waver for the estimable Bumblebee Conservation Trust, for whom I’m a trustee. I’ve got a bit of a thing about bees generally, and I’m a big fan of the Trust for a variety of reasons. I’ve supported them through the business for 10 years now, and watched them do some really good things.

Cheerful News
Photo: Stephen Vaughan

Anyway, I have been organising some events to raise their profile and some money for a new long term investment fund. We’ve been talking about the project to save the Shrill carder bee too. These evenings have gone really well – due to the enthusiasm of the BBCT folk, those involved at the venues, the people who turned up and, most of all, those who signed the cheques.  We’ve had nice fuzzy noises from some great and good who couldn’t make the evenings but want to help. It has been tremendously heart warming and encouraging. Thank you all.

 

 

Blacksmithing

I like a bit of craft. I’ve been on dry stone walling and hedge laying courses, and afterwards really enjoyed trying to impersonate someone who knew what they were doing. I suppose I had the same kind of idea in mind when I signed up to a blacksmithing course in Devon over the weekend.

Blacksmithing 2
Blacksmith Manns

Earlier Manns were blacksmiths in the East End for at least three generations in the 19th century. I wondered if it might be a genetic thing. It turns out it’s not. Even if they were twice as naturally talented as I am at it, they would still have been as hopelessly impoverished as they were.

Predictably, for someone whose last formal instruction in this kind of thing was being banned from doing O Level woodwork, I was pretty er… average. It turns out you don’t just heat lumps of metal up and give them a good bashing. There’s measuring and precision involved in blacksmithing, for a start. Then artistic interpretation. All things I am comfortably an E for.

Having said that, I had a lovely time, made some twirly and functional artefacts, and was made to feel like someone who could make a very good blacksmith if only I had the time. My delightful fellow students all looked like they would make very good blacksmiths.

BlacksmithingOur teacher was John Bellamy, a bluff but kind and patient Northerner. This makes sense; I always thought Moria was somewhere under Yorkshire. John wouldn’t mind me describing him as apparently completely physically square. He would be more embarrassed to be described as one of the country’s leading blacksmiths.

These crafts are fascinating – they are a real bridge to our common past. Medieval apprentices would have been taught to use the same tools as my great great grandfather used in Cable Street, and which I now have a passing acquaintance with. I’ve laid hedges in the style used hereabouts since – goodness knows – the Iron Age? We too often lose that sense of continuity .

 

 

 

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.

 

Common Ground

Common Ground is a wonderfully slippery fish. It’s a charity founded by Sue Clifford and Angela King, which according to its unique website “seek(s) imaginative ways to engage people with their local environment”. We’ve supported it for many years, and I very much share its philosophy and aims. I guess finding Common Ground was one of the reasons I had my conversion from City bloke to whatever the hell it is I do now.

Common GroundWhat do they do? All sorts. Art installations, practical guides, events… I first bumped into them in the early 2000s, when we set up an Apple Day in an old cider orchard in our village. Everyone gathered and harvested the apples, tea was taken, then the apples pressed and bottled to support the village church and hall.

It was Common Ground who started Apple Day and the idea of community orchards. They also worked hard to revive local varieties of fruit trees, but particularly apple trees. This fell neatly into Sue and Angela’s central objective. They want to get communities to understand and promote “local distinctiveness” through art and custom, landscape and architecture, history and environment.
Common GroundBang on message for Habitat Aid. We promote exactly the same values. I wish I had the imagination to come up with the kind of innovative ways Common Ground have done to promote them.

These days, you might associate this kind of philosophy with a small island mentality. Not at all with Common Ground. Their message is absolutely inclusive, promoting localism within a global community. The two can co-exist. And Common Ground have got things done, rather than just talk about them. Books, projects, artwork, landscape work – over a 35 year history they have produced a really significant and eclectic body of work. You can see their influence across a whole range of apparently unconnected areas, in urban and rural settings.

I heard Sue speak yesterday evening. Although these days they have handed the running of the charity on, her and Angela’s enthusiasm and clarity of purpose is undimmed. Thanks both.

Hand Collected Meadow Seed Mixes

Meadow seed mixes come in several forms, but it had never struck me that hand collected mixes might be one of them. There are generally four types of meadow seed mixes; let’s call them generic, bespoke, direct harvest and green hay.
Generic meadow seed mixes are usually 80% grasses 20% wildflowers. They consist of seed harvested from plants usually grown in controlled environments, so that you can guarantee their exact composition. They consist of a limited number of common species but can provide a really good starting point to establish a meadow. This has obvious advantages; you know exactly what you’re getting and the seed mix should be pretty much bombproof. This approach can also be used to create bespoke mixes, which produce different visual or ecological results. You can create blue mixes or mixes for particular butterflies, for example.
We’re big fans of direct harvest mixes. These are seed mixes which you collect and clean from existing wildflower meadows. If produced carefully they provide a wide range of species with high floristic content – usually something like 50% wildflowers to 50% meadow grasses. They also have a specific geographic origin. This is important for many reasons; viability, local ecosystem, persistence, local distinctiveness. We’ve even set up a website promoting them.
I’ve also come across green hay, which sounds alluring but actually… isn’t. The idea is straightforward; take a hay cut from an existing meadow, collect the hay, strew the hay over the target site, remove. What could possibly go wrong? Well, actually, a lot. The logistics of this sort of operation are horrendous, as you can imagine. And hay from the donor site is only going to contain a small % of the species there, most of which won’t have set seed at the right moment. It’s also very difficult to find the right donor site.
Hand collected seed mixes were something new for me. Their advantages are obvious. Good and specific species representation, as they’re collected across a wide time window and combined after cleaning. Specific provenance. High floristic content. What’s not to like? Well, potentially, the cost! As you can imagine, per kg these mixes are much, much more expensive than their competition. Here’s an odd thing, though.
I’m writing from deepest Norfolk, where I’ve just been learning about what the folk at Abbey Farm in Flitcham have been up to. A dedicated team of harvesters has been hard at work collecting and processing seed for a large local project. It’s taking a while, as you can imagine, but the important thing is that it’s doable. Fantastic. There are simply fabulous wildflower meadows at the farm which supply most of their needs, and painstaking research gives them an appropriate species list.
I do have a reservation, though. This is an unbeatable approach if you have a wonderful source of seeds (which Abbey Farm is) and either deep pockets or very poor fertility soil. Let me explain. It’s obviously very labour intensive to hand pick individual seeds, clean them manually and combine them into a mix. Consequently, it’s expensive – very expensive. Having said that, the recommended seeding rate is the lowest I have ever seen – by factors. You seed “normal” meadow seed mixes at 3 to 4g per square metre, which seems ludicrously little to most people. These hand picked mixes are recommended to be sown at 0.5g. 0.5g! Even allowing for the very high proportion of wildflowers, this is very low. This rate means on a per square metre basis the different types of mixes are similar prices.
On any medium to high fertility soil this will be asking for trouble, however, as it will be rapidly overwhelmed by docks, thistles, and nettle – among other nasties.
So if you have a top donor site nearby and very low fertility soil or deep pockets, this is a great option…

Neonicotinoids And Bees (Again)

Yesterday I saw two papers on neonicotinoids and bees. They are the first large scale look at how these systemic pesticides affect bees in the field.
We’ve known for some time that neonicotinoids have bad effects on bees in the lab, which is hardly surprising. They are pesticides, after all. The big argument has been about how they affect bees in the real world.

neonicotinoids
Oilseed Rape
The Centre of Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) looked at honeybees, bumblebees and solitary bees. Their paper aimed “to quantify the impact… of two commercial neonicotinoid-based seed treatments in commercially grown crops of oilseed rape”. As usual, the results the results have thrown up more questions. People will continue to argue about methodology, I’m sure. In essence, however, the conclusion is that the neonicotinoids harmed both “wild bees” and honeybees.
Ironically, Syngenta and Bayer funded the study. It was their neonicotinoids which were used. Led by the unfortunately named Dr Schmuck, Bayer CropScience are now scrambling to re-interpret the results and are adamant they are not conclusive.
A second paper, however, published in Canada, reached similar conclusions. It looked at neonicotinoid treated maize and honeybees. It has more bad news, as Buglife point out:

The Canadian study also found that the common fungicide boscalid almost doubled the toxicity of neonicotinoids to bees. This is significant because a recent paper showed that 70% of the plants that people buy from garden centres to help garden bees contain neonicotinoids, and 48% also contain boscalid (Lentola et al. 2017). This suggests that gardeners may be unknowingly poisoning pollinators in their efforts to try to help them, a factor that may be associated with recent declines in numbers of urban butterflies (Dennis et al. 2017).

We knew how toxic the combination of insecticides and fungicides is to bee colonies. This first came up when scientists were looking at Colony Collapse Disorder in the U.S. Now we can worry about the scale of the problem.

Three things have continued to irk me throughout this shambles. Firstly, we still know nothing about how these pesticides affect other pollinators. Secondly, what are the less damaging alternatives to neonicotinoids? Farmers claim they would have to use lots more pyrethroid based pesticides to control, for example, flea beetle. Conservationists claim they wouldn’t.* Why is this debate STILL going on? Let’s have some fact based policy! And this take us to the third point. Why have we been using these pesticides for so long without knowing what damage they might be doing? We are supposed to follow the Precautionary Principle. Instead, we seem to chase short term financial gain. Our environment is too precious to turn it into a kind of giant chemical experiment.

*no prizes for guessing where I stand on this one.

Himalayan Balsam

Impatiens glandulifera

What’s that lovely pink flower that’s appeared all the way down the river bank? I’d never noticed it before.

It’s called Himalayan Balsam – yes, the flowers are very pretty.

The bees seem to love it too, and it must be an easy plant to grow. Do you know where I can buy it for my garden?

You can’t, I’m afraid. Himalayan Balsam is a highly invasive non-native and it’s not allowed to be sold. Its Latin name is a clue – Impatiens glandulifera – as is its height. It’s an annual that grows taller than 2 metres! That’s a lot of growing in a year.

But it can’t be that bad if it’s good for the bees, can it?

Himalayan BalsamEr… well, yes actually. Japanese Knotweed is a good bee plant too! Like Himalayan Balsam, it flowers for a long time in late summer and produces great bee forage. The point is that Balsam does for every other plant trying to grow with it. That’s why you tend to see it and nothing else. And if all the other plants go, so do all the animal species that depend on them. Including bees, ironically, because the earlier flowering plants will be overwhelmed too.

But can’t I grow it in my garden and keep an eye on it?

Not really. It has an explosive seed release, which means seeds can travel several metres. Your neighbour might not be happy about getting your Balsam, and if it hops over the hedge into the field you’ve potentially even committed an offence!

I don’t really understand. I’ve got lots of buttercup – that’s pretty invasive. Why isn’t that on the naughty plant list?

I sympathize! Lots of our native plants can dominate, particular in newly planted areas, but they only like particular sites and / or particular conditions. We had a plague of Mayweed last year, but this year much less and next probably none.

Images licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. “North West Wing” by Bankhall – Own work.

Newsletter: December 2013

December Newsletter
What a year it has been! We’ve really come of age in 2013, which seemed a distant ambition 5 years ago when we set the business up. We’ve supplied so many super projects this year I couldn’t begin to name them.

Some of our suppliers found themselves in front of the camera this week on BBC’s Great British Garden Revival, which was great news – if slightly disconcerting! It’s encouraging to see increasing interest in our growers and nurseries as folk become more aware of where their plants and seeds are coming from and the skill and care involved in producing them.

hedge_2The delayed onset of a proper winter gives us all a great opportunity to get our bare root trees and hedging planted before the ground freezes. At Hookgate I’ve been planting a new length of mixed native conservation hedge () , as well as some interesting fruit trees.

Christmas is coming…

We’ve got some nice gift ideas on the website, from Japanese gardening tools from the lovely Jake Hobson to Red Beehive’s solitary bee house. You could buy a gift voucher or maybe a fruit tree, or even some of our edible hedge, as featured in the Telegraph and grown with loving care by the good folk at Perrie Hale nursery in Honiton. We’re always on the look out for new ideas, so if there’s anything you’d like to see us sell do let us know!

IMG_0643I particularly wanted to wish one of our suppliers well this Christmas. Stephen Lewis has recently set his own business up in West Wales. Lew is a top notch plantsman who specializes in native aquatic plants, and just the kind of guy we should be out there supporting. His new firm is called “Dragonfly Flora” and we are using them to supply our pond plant collections.

A huge thank you to all our customers and suppliers for all your help in 2013, and a very happy Christmas to you.