Flowery Meads

I met Jane Owen at an open day with the charismatic Andy McIndoe at Hillier’s this week. I’ve got a pretty steep learning curve to deal with but at least, as I’ve commented before, I’m finding some of the best and nicest people to help me up it. Jane was researching an article on flowering lawns so I put her in touch with Linda Laxton, the expert’s expert on native plants and founder of British Wildflower Plants, one of our suppliers.
We sell both plug and seed mixes for flowering lawns, so I ought to know more about them and post more information on the website. I do know that “flowery meads” or “enamelled lawns” were an important element of medieval gardens and I can very much see their attraction now. Playing football on them might be problemmatic but they’re low maintenance, hugely more wildlife friendly than a “traditional” lawn and add colour and interest to smaller gardens in particular. I suppose a well kept tightly mown lawn is the gardening equivalent of a field of perennial rye grass from an ecologist’s point of view…

Unmown section of lawn
Unmown section of lawn
If you don’t want to go the whole hog then mow tightly around small islands and only let them grow a little to make them look neat, which I saw at Jenny Steel’s garden (left). Leaving these sections unmown for a couple of weeks or so gives at least the clover and, here, Selfheal as well (a good bumblebee plant) a chance to flower. Perhaps I could sell this solution to the footballers.
Anyway, I’m looking forward to Jane’s article on the lawns and, in the meantime, back to Linda for some notes to help folk on the website.

Pigs

I’ve had a love affair with Large Black Pigs over the last few years. I’m not a full time swineherd, but we buy our pigs in as weaners every year and fatten them up. Once common, they are a Rare Breed now, but excellent for beginners like us as they’re very phlegmatic and easy to keep. We let ours wander around the orchard with the odd length of one strand electric fence coralling them in (in sharp contrast with the entertaining but hooligan Tamworths my friend Spon keeps down the road). I am also appalled at the conditions in which pigs are often kept commercially and our Large Blacks make fantastic eating, so we no longer buy sausages, pork, pancetta or ham.

Large Black Pig, Winter 2008/9
Large Black Pig, Winter 2008/9
They fulfill a useful function for the meadow too, by opening up the sward with their rooting. The breed is not known for being particularly aggressive at excavating, but they do the business. I’ve just sorted out delivery of our next three weaners in October, which is perfect. I have dragged around the green hay from an existing patch of meadow to where the pigs will be, hoping that the seeds from it will do well on the bare earth they will leave. We should have a new annual rich meadow area as a result – albeit one that will need some rolling!

Ponds

Hazlegrove wildlife pond
Hazlegrove wildlife pond
I’ve just started work on our next illustration project, a wildife pond at our youngest’s school. This should be a cracker; it is a good sized site and there are amphibia and reptiles around the grounds already. What a great thing to have at a school; they plan to have al fresco science lessons around the pond, which has a viewing area and will have cut paths for the children to wander. The heavy moving work and lining have been done already, so now I’m preparing for the planting. Needless to say, all native plugs and seed mixes, which should look gorgeous by next summer. Amphibian and Reptile Conservation offer lots of practical advice if you’re thinking of doing the same for your school, which you should be; ponds suppport some of our most threatened and most interesting animals, which children love – even though some think they won’t!

Local seed for meadows

I’ve borrowed an acre or so of land to turn into a wildflower meadow in the corner of one of Archie’s potato fields next to Sparkford, on the A303. Although I’ve been working on some areas at home over the last couple of years I thought it was time to do something much more public to promote the idea and – hopefully – show how it can be done. And we do need to do something. Although we are waking up to the problem, the catastrophic loss of ancient meadows – an estimated 98% since 1945 – has had an inestimable impact. Unimproved grassland is one of the most important of our native habitats, and its disappearance seems to be a major factor in recent declines and extinctions of a number of species. We can’t replace ancient meadows overnight, but we can make a difference by creating new ones and – wow! – they’re beautiful. I’ll be banging on a good deal about meadows, but for the time being you can find out more about Archie’s site and other projects on our website.
Today I wanted to write about the need for using the right seed mixes for them. I’ve been slightly taken aback by people’s ideas about what constitutes a “traditional” meadow. Folk are planting initially beautiful annual flowers rather than perennial mixes WITH grasses, and managing them poorly so they disappear. There are now some gorgeous North American annual mixes available too which are understandably popular, but not what’s required. Many packet “native” seed mixes also seem to include non-native plants, which is unhelpful. Not only that, but work by Scotia Seeds suggests that some commercially available mixes have germination rates as low as… zero.
I’m trying to follow some guidelines in our work and in what we’re promoting on the website:
Use only native seed. Native animals need native plants, and no-one needs invasive foreign species or hybrids.
Use only high quality seed. A low germination rate means all your work will be wasted.
Plant as diverse a mix as possible. The more species of flora you have, the more beautiful the meadow will look and the more species of fauna you will support.
Plan and manage the sward properly. Work out what kind of conditions you have and find an appropriate mix, which will then need an annual regime.

Orchid in Archie's meadow mix
Orchid in Archie's meadow mix

Lastly, try to use local seed. It seems to me that it will not only do better and include possibly rare species, but also be more relevant to local fauna. We are trying to encourage unimproved meadow owners to produce seed (do you know anyone who might be interested ?), but it is a difficult, commercially hazardous and highly specialized business. There is currently only a handful of commercial suppliers who produce the really good quality and regionally appropriate mixes we sell ourselves. We will be using some seed from a local meadow in our new project, which I’m very excited about and which we’ll be selling on the website. This mix includes the Corky-fruited Water-dropwort (!), which I gather is typical of this area, and in a couple of years time we will be sowing some lovely orchids, including the one pictured, I’m told a hybrid Common Spotted / Marsh orchid.

Autumn Gluts

I must be one of the world’s worst vegetable gardeners. Every year I walk around my in-laws’ fantastic plot and promise to do better. Every year I respond enthusiastically to various management directives and plant increasingly exotic and disastrous crops. For every couple of disasters there is always a massive glut, which is even more hopeless. There are only so many giant yellow courgettes you can eat. This year we also had huge quantities of rhubarb (as ever) and raspberries (I wish I hadn’t bought an autumn fruiting variety), with a good crop of plums too. Previously this would have resulted in a lot of head scratching and shrugging of under-gardener shoulders, but now salvation is at hand in the shape of Pam Corbin.

Jams, Chutneys and Vinegars
Jams, Chutneys and Vinegars
Pam runs courses on preserves at The River Cottage and has also written a book you should buy immediately – Preserves also published by River Cottage. Our life has been transformed. Courgettes and rhubarb? Mix with ginger to make jam (delicious). Raspberries – jam and vinegar. Plums – jam and chutney. Not only have we actually been using the produce of my useless vegetable patch, but we have also been foraging to good effect. We’ve always made Elderflower syrup and Sloe gin, but now we have Rose Hip syrup, from all the Field Roses I’ve planted to gap up the hedges, and Elderberry vinegar. How very bucolic.

Horse Chestnuts

Some of our Horse Chestnuts
Some of our Horse Chestnuts
We have a row of different sized Horse Chestnuts, I’d have thought a couple dating back to when the house was tarted up in the 1840s. Everyone forgets they were introductions, albeit 500 years ago, so celebrated are they in folklore and so resonant in memory. Although as non-natives they have limited ecological value (other than acting as giant feeding stations for pollinators in the spring), ours are very fine trees and, aesthetically, one of the best things we have. They feel very much part of our lives. The bees frolic in the blossom in spring, the sheep shelter under their vast spreading boughs in summer and in the autumn our youngest and his friends collect their conkers. Unfortunately they seem doomed, like many Horse Chestnuts in Britain.
In the south many trees now suffer from Chestnut Leaf Miner Moth infestation. The moth’s mines make the leaves shrivel, brown and fall at this time of year, when the damage is most obvious. The moth seems to be a new species, originating in Greece, and has caused enormous damage to Horse Chestnuts throughout Europe.
Canker on mature Horse Chestnut
Canker on mature Horse Chestnut
Our trees, however, have a problem that’s not largely disfiguring but rather more serious – bleeding canker. This used to be caused by a fungal pathogen, Phytophthora, which was regarded as being unusual. However, I gather the recent disease is related to a bacterium and is much more widespread. Although it is capable of killing a tree on its own it is as likely to weaken it for another disease to deliver the coup de grace. Unfortunately our Chestnuts are next to the orchard, and apple trees are apparently notorious in arbicultural circles for harbouring honey fungus; we’ve already lost two to it as a consequence.
As far as treatments go there have been some trials involving Allicin, an extract of garlic, but so far nothing conclusive. Why does there seem so little sense of crisis about a problem that could have a landscape scale impact? Whisper it not, but apparently old fashioned Bordeaux mixture seems to have worked on some trees in the past, which makes a lot of sense as I understand the disease is closely related to the bacterial canker you get on Cherries. Have any tests been done on it ? Not as far as I can see but, frankly, I’ll give anything a go.

Honeybees

Hiving a swarm
Hiving a swarm
I’m not sure why I was persuaded to keep bees, but I took it up four or five years ago and thoroughly enjoy it. People’s motivations for doing it seem very different; I enjoy the husbandry side of it, and find the mechanics of working with my colonies very satisfying and therapeutic. Moments like the one pictured, when a swarm I’d taken lined up behind their queen and marched into a new hive, give me enormous pleasure. We make lovely honey too, but that’s pretty secondary as far as I’m concerned; we only have up to four hives, so its a nice little earner but nothing more.
Honeybees have been this year’s endangered species for the Press, so I won’t drone on (sorry) about their various travails. However, it’s the new interest that the kind of “did you realize we would only have four years to live without bees” commentary has generated that makes me want to talk about them here. There’s been a tremendous surge in people keeping bees, which is great as colony mortality rates are over 20% and beekeeper numbers had plummeted over the last twenty years, particularly in areas like ours where fruit growing used to be such a big industry. What’s not so great is that many of these folk don’t seem to know much about it; although membership of the BBKA and attendance at their courses has risen sharply, it seemingly hasn’t nearly matched the growth in numbers of beekeepers. Seemingly sentient types locally have been buying all the kit, shipping in nuclei or swarms, and then doing the oddest things or nothing with them. It’s a terrible waste; these colonies will mostly be dead by Spring.
Although beekeeping isn’t rocket science it is a craft, and one that has to be learnt. Like most crafts, that’s difficult to do from a book. I haven’t taken any exams – mea culpa – but I have been on a couple of courses and various lectures, have a bee mentor (very importantly), and as a BBKA member get the magazines and even went to the Spring Convention this year. I still have huge amounts to learn, but so far I have avoided doing anything really stupid. Of course old beekeepers didn’t bother with all this stuff, but then they didn’t have to deal with Varroa destructor, the consequences of climate change, Colony Collapse Disorder, European Foul Brood, etc. etc.
If you’re thinking about taking up beekeeping my three top tips would be:
1. Whatever anyone says you will get stung (promise).
2. Do it – for selfish and altruistic reasons.
3. Do it properly.
Get in touch with your local beekeeping association and go on a course before you think about collecting your bees. After all, they’re a precious commodity.

Bullbeggar Cider

Bullbeggar Cider Label
Bullbeggar Cider Label
When we moved to Somerset in 2001 picked apples falling into buckets was the defining sound of autumn. We live opposite a traditional cider orchard, and for weeks from the beginning of September farmer and father-in-law picked for the local factory. The road to Shepton was full of tractors pulling apple carts. Then one year it was quiet; the factory had started to import concentrate from China, and there was no market for any local apples at all.
It seemed a shame, not just economically. The orchard, typical of local cider orchards, has a good mix of mature trees and is a real asset, not least in terms of its biodiversity value. In 2007 a group of us decided to form a village co-op and turn cider makers to keep it alive. We chose the name of the cider from an ancient local legend; the Bullbeggar of Creech Hill (which overlooks the village) is a restless spirit who waylays folk late at night. The history of human settlement on the hill goes back to the neolithic, so no-one’s quite sure where he came from.
Every year now we invite everyone to come along to pick on Apple Day and lay on a little spread for helpers. In 2008 we harvested about two and a half tonnes in no time at all, as we had half the village turn out. We don’t have our own press – yet – so we haul it off to Hecks Cider Farm for pressing, then bring the juice back to our own cider barn to ferment and rack. Some we then carbonate and bottle, some we leave in the wood for local events.
We’ve nearly recouped our investment now, thanks largely to the indefatigable Nick Smallwood, and we’ll be donating any profits to the village hall and church. The cider’s not bad either.

Herbs

Sometimes my nerve nearly fails me. Perhaps it is a symptom of the world we live in that there are too many generalists about, and that they seem to have too much front. In my previous incarnation that’s exactly what I was, knowing a little about a broad spectrum of Japanese / investment topics and a little about how stock prices behaved, and now on a bad day it seems I am reinventing myself as a kind of unqualified eco-generalist.

Supposedly Pliny the Elder
Supposedly Pliny the Elder (no relation to Prince Albert)
I recently blithely started to research a range of historical herb garden collections to be sold to help raise funds for the excellent Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at Sussex University, about whom more another time. Bees love herbs and herbalists love bees; it’s a natural love affair that has persisted since well before Antony and Cleopatra, and as complicated.
Fortunately I keep stumbling across really good people to help me. I was looking for some Viola odorata the other day, and it turned out there was a supplier just up the road – Arne Herbs, run by the affable Anthony Lyman-Dixon. I should have known about Anthony who, it turns out, is the expert’s expert in historical gardens. His specialty is the Medieval and early Renaissance, but unsurprisingly he’s no slouch outside his period and full of super-informed advice. He suggested Linda Farrar’s “Ancient Roman Gardens” as an introduction and the polymath (most definitely not “generalist”) Pliny the Elder as a principal source for a “Roman garden collection”. Pliny loved bees, specifically honeybees, but although his nephew was an engaging enough read as an A level text, Alan Titchmarsh he ain’t. Thank goodness, Antony is continuing to help me through textual interpretations and the practical difficulties of plant selection.
Another area, another supplier, and I’m just pleased to be able to promote them. We hope to be able to launch our range of historic herb garden collections later in the autumn. I should stop worrying and just believe in serendipity.

Sedums

Sedum 'Purple Emperor' and squadron of White-tailed bumblebees
Sedum 'Purple Emperor' and squadron of White-tailed bumblebees
It’s nearly September and there seems to be a new urgency in the air. Now we have taken our honey the honeybees, battling wasps at the hive entrance, are building up stores ready for winter. The butterflies now look very ragged and faded, as do this year’s Bumblebees – although the new queens look pristine, and are feeding frantically to build up fat for their hibernation.
I’m acutely aware of the need for nectar flow before the ivy flowers, and for us although Verbena and some Asters seem to do well for insects at this time of year the plant that ticks all the boxes is Sedum, or Stonecrop (spectabile) and Orpine (telephium). The large flowerheads with their scores of florets are perfect for most pollinators. We’ve devoted a nice big section of a sunny southwest facing border to it, where I grow three different varieties in order to ensure seamless foraging from late August to October. As ever, the fancier the cultivar the less helpful it is – I’ve had several failed experiments.
Male Red-tailed bumblebee
Male Red-tailed bumblebee

Small Tortoiseshell and Honeybee
Small Tortoiseshell and Honeybee
Male Carder Bee
Male Carder Bee
I’m cursing because I can’t remember the name of the more prostrate plant shown right- can you help me out ? Incidentally, there are many more of the smaller male bumblebees about at this time of year. Having mated they have nothing to do; lacking pollen baskets all they do is feed. Sedum telephium ‘Purple Emperor’ (pictured right), named after its foliage rather than flower colour, is in full flower at the moment and attracting a wide range of pollinators. Or at least I think that’s what it is; it might just be Orpine, Sedum telephium ‘Matrona’, which is another fabulous nectar plant. The odd honeybee and Carder bee are trying to winkle open ‘Autumn Joy’ (below right) already – in a week or so the flowerheads will be heaving with honeybees once the sun hits them. Excuse all the bumblebee photos by the way – I’m honing my identification skills, and I’m seemingly no better at picking different kinds of Sedum than I am Carder bees…