The Bath and West Show

I had a lovely time at the Bath and West show today. It’s 15 minutes down the road from us, so I’ve been a regular attendee as punter or exhibitor for the last 13 years. I’ve been down there this year putting up our new bumblarium in the Bee and Honey tent to help the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and had a lovely time this morning looking around the show with my mum. There’s a lot of tat at these big country shows now, but I love the heart of them; small local enterprises, livestock and old fashioned entertainment. I took my camera down there this year to catch a few friends and animals… Click on the pictures for bigger versions.

Silly duck
Silly duck
Superior Ruby Red Devons
Superior Ruby Red Devons










Small horses!
Small horses!
Kunekunes - silly pigs but cute
Kunekunes – silly pigs but cute










Rather evocative
Rather evocative
Train man and apprentice
Train man and apprentice










Bernie and the bumblarium
Bernie and the bumblarium
Drinks with Jeremy at Mendip Fireplaces
Drinks at Mendip Fireplaces – thanks Jeremy










Exmoor Horn rams judging
Judging the Exmoor Horn rams
Chris Hecks enjoys a joke
Chris Hecks enjoys a joke










Aoife and the BBCT stand
Aoife and the BBCT stand


Andrew Moore concentrates
Andrew Moore concentrates
Christine busy on the Westcombe stand
Christine busy selling cheese

The Shock of the New: Contemporary Homes and Solar Farms

The Shock of the NewI bet that the majority of folk who stop in front of our new house* aren’t wondering how many architectural awards it might win. I bet they’re wondering why someone in planning didn’t stop it being built, because they think it’s gopping. Each to his own; we (obviously) think it looks great. There are a couple of morals to this story, however.

First off, it should strike the gawpers that they should be that someone in the planning process trying to ensure we carry on replicating 19th century houses. The Parish Council had two planning meetings to discuss the house, the first attended by one person (me) and the second by three.

Secondly, “the country” is an environment where people live. The more prosperous it is, the better those people will be able to look after it. “The country” isn’t the exclusive preserve of retirees from the suburbs or second homers, who would, typically, like to live in an Austenesque idyll (or Poundbury!). It has to move on. I’m absolutely not saying we should rip up the restrictions on development that we have in place and go all utilitarian. Our house is not only wonderful to live in but costs nothing to run. We generate more electricity than we use and heat it and cook with wood. This doesn’t mean it should automatically get planning permission. I am saying that when the CPRE objects to faster rural broadband on the basis of disfiguring “new overhead lines and broadband cabinets blotting our finest landscapes and villages” I get cross.

The explosion of solar farms that’s happening across our landscape at the moment is another case in point. The combination of government incentives and cheap photo voltaic panels means there will be thousands of acres of them put in over the next two years. There will be some appalling cases, but I hope the planning process will generally be robust enough to stop development where it is damaging or unsightly (if the gawpers get themselves along to the right meetings). In contrast to wind farms, solar farms can also offer a brilliant opportunity to create attractive and valuable new habitat.

We are working with Solar Century and – I hope – another large scale developer, who are determined to do just that. They are putting in wildflower meadow areas and new native hedges on a large scale, and going the extra mile to make sure they are establishing the right plant species and that they will be managed sensitively. We’ve hooked Solar Century up with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, who will be helping them out.

*which is, frankly, getting a bit weird. Also, when I greet gawpers with a friendly hello I feel a bit miffed when they drive off at speed.

Hampton Court Flower Show

The great and good admire our bumblarium
I’m just back from a busy but fun three days at Hampton Court with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and our bumblarium. The bees behaved beautifully, and the only hitch was the wet, which gave us some problems with condensation. We had gazillions of folk through the bee tent, which we shared with the Beekeepers’ Association and the RHS, who were promoting their Plants for Pollinators campaign. It was handy to have a bumblebee colony and honeybee observation hive next to each other so people could appreciate the differences between them, and to have the balance of the native flowers in the bumblarium together with the list of traditional garden plants the RHS recommend. The punters’ increasing awareness of gardens as habitats was really encouraging, as was their evident pleasure in seeing the bees.
All good stuff, and much of the show was very on message this year. I was particularly pleased to see Mat Byway’s Applebee garden, which we’d supplied some flowers to and which had been put together at breakneck speed. The Floral marquee had the usual stunning display from one of our suppliers, Downderry Nursery, from whom I’m buying lavender for the landscaping project here. I think we might feature lavender in the bumblarium next year.
I also had a chance to wander around the roses by way of planning my rose bed at Hookgate, which will include some real beauties. I’ve got a lot of favourites to squeeze in, but I also wanted to include some less familiar, bee friendly single roses like Sweet Pretty and Dainty Bess, which I found at the Pococks Roses stand.
My only regret about the show was missing Mark “Otter Farm” Diacono’s offer of free bucolic cocktails, but if he doesn’t run out I’m sure he’ll be delighted to serve you at his stand in the GYO section. Cheers!

The Biggest Bumblarium in the World

Here is the biggest bumblarium in the world, shown at its inaugural outing at the Gardener’s World Show at the NEC. I borrowed the idea from those nice folk at Wildflower Turf, whose lovely product (sold by us!) the bumblarium features. They put me in touch with Robin Dean of Red Beehive who had made a version for them which was hugely successful at the Ecobuild Show. Robin knocked up this one for us, and it was brilliant in attracting people to the stand we shared with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.
The bumblarium is like a vivarium for bumblebees, with a little colony of Bombus terrestris spp. audax (Buff-tailed bumblebees) and a wildflower meadow floor for them to play in. It excited a fair amount of interest and the cost and palaver of putting it up was further justified by getting a “Highly Commended” for it. The wildflower turf looked brilliant. The diversity of species in it – over 25 – meant we could have a competition asking people to name five of them. So what did we learn?

Oldies know their wildflowers much better than the young, but that’s not saying much! One lady asked me to identify the plant taking over her front garden as she hadn’t seen it before and she wondered if it was something so rare she should leave it. She’d even brought a cutting along to show me. Creeping Buttercup.

Many gardeners have a “wild section” in their garden which they leave untended. All well and dandy, but I did wonder how much more helpful a regime of relaxed management might be for bees. Dock and nettle aren’t renowned for their qualities as bee plants.

Another oddity which keeps coming up is the way people buy wildflower seeds and sow them. Even careful gardeners, who might spend hours at a horticultural show finding exactly the cultivar they wanted, cheerfully buy an unidentified packet of wildflower seed and just fling it on the lawn. They’re then disappointed when it doesn’t work – perhaps it’s just as well! I kept on suggesting people look at our how to make a wildflower meadow area video.

My longer term worry about wildflowers is the way they are becoming exclusively identified with a particular look – i.e. hay meadow – and that people aren’t using them in combination with cultivars in more formal schemes. If I had a small urban garden I’m not sure I’d have a meadow area myself, to be honest.

Most people are profoundly in the dark about different types of bees. We spent ages explaining the differences between bumblebees, solitary bees and honeybees.

The Tree Bee, a recent arrival from France, is turning into something of a nuisance. A lot of people had problems with them taking over nestboxes, and their behaviour and predilection for raised nest sites means they’re not just obvious but also more likely to be annoying.

I was saddened to meet people who had bought bumblebees off the internet to put in their gardens. There’s a lively trade in bumblebee colonies to pollinate fruit in greenhouses – it’s how we got our bumblarium bees – but to buy them at vast expense for your own garden seems very peculiar, quite apart from any bio-hazard they may bring in. These colonies should be sourced very carefully and not overseas. Plant the right plants and they will come.

Bee Love and Plant Wars

I’ve been to two bee campaign launches this week, and I’ll declare my interest early on; the Friends of the Earth (“The Bee Cause”) are a customer, buying seed packets from us, and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust (“Bees For Everyone”) are a partner charity.
Friends of The Earth hope their campaign will be an umbrella for the many fragmented and in some cases feuding bee groups out there, in order to lobby more effectively. It’s a good idea, and Tuesday’s publicity event was very encouraging. They’re basing their approach around a well-balanced and informed paper from Reading University’s Simon Potts, which seems a fair summary of the issues involved and includes some sensible action points relating to all 267 of our bee species. Presenting a complex issue is difficult though. The Times reported the meeting under the headline “Pesticides on verge of wiping out native wild honeybees”. Was their man at the same meeting? I’m not diminishing the impact systemic pesticides are having on honeybees (and other pollinators – let’s not forget the other 266 bee species there are out there, for a start) and continue to lobby against them myself, but, as I have written before, people seem to love to sensationalise and to focus on a single issue.

We Want Flowers and We Want Them Now!
The Bumblebee Conservation Trust has always been ace at engaging their audience, and whatever they have to say is based on good science too. Their core message focuses on habitat loss, and their new website has a great practical gizmo which helps you make your garden more bee friendly. It might be less sexy than The Times would like, but they are making a real difference. Let’s hope that sooner rather than later people will start to grow the right flowers to feed bees in their back gardens in the same way they buy seed to feed birds now.
There’s a sense of fun about the new BBCT website too, which I’m sure is the way to go. I haven’t made it to Chelsea this year but my spies tell me it was full of very consciously worthy native meadow planting, enough to provoke Professor Hitchmough, a promoter of “prairie meadows” to say the use of native plants will kill the horticultural industry*.
You may be surprised to hear that if I had a small urban garden I don’t think I would have a “wildflower meadow” area. I’d love a bed of Prof. Hitchmough’s colourful, nectar rich and long flowering non-natives. You’ll be less surprised to hear that I would have loads of UK native species in my borders though, in formal planting designs, or that I might have “mini-meadows” in planters. Our gardeners need gardens which they can love and our invertebrates need our native perennials. This isn’t just about the nectar and pollen they can source from them, which they can find from carefully chosen non-native plants, but it’s also about their value for over-wintering animals and as food plants, for example; our butterfly and moth species rely on specific native plants to eat.
The BBCT have got this right too, bridging the gap between the warring native and non-native camps in a way we hope to illustrate with our new project at Hookgate Cottage. Perhaps people like Professor Hitchmough and the landscape design business will catch up with us some day.

*This probably deserves another blog. At this point, let’s just say his comments seem naïve/unhelpful/compromised/uninformed.

Photo: Bird Guides

A Functioning Coalition

Illustration: Hannah McVicar
I don’t think I’ve banged on nearly enough about the success of Meadow Anywhere, our packets of wildflower and grass seed mixes for urban gardeners. It’s such a good illustration of what we’re doing it’s irresistible.

Step 1: I have an idea for a new product, which I develop with one of our suppliers – in this case, Herbiseed. Having sorted out the right seed mix…
Step 2: I take the proposal to a small list of carefully vetted potential retailers, including the lovely Hillier Nurseries, who agree to sell it and promote it to other retailers.
Step 3: I confirm the involvement of a couple of our charity partners – in this case Butterfly Conservation and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. For them it’s a no-brainer; they love the product, which is absolutely on message, and stand to make £1 from every packet sold. And it’s not just £1 – it’s £1 they can match with government funding, and which they can do anything they like with.
Step 4: We design and illustrate the packets, supply the seed and get the whole lot packaged, together with some lush Counter Top Units.
Step 5: Hilliers sell 8,000 packets – that’s £4,000 to each of BC and the BBCT – and we grow planters to feature at their Chelsea exhibit – more publicity for all.
Step 6: More sales, more money to charity, more products to roll out in the autumn.

There are two key points to make from all of this:
1. There’s a world of difference between this and just twittering on as an “environmental activist”.
2. Charity and commercial sectors can work very well in a symbiotic relationship, although they typically need someone in the middle to kick things off and make them happen.

Garden Plants for Butterflies and Bees

Symphytum officinale
Not so good for honeybees...
We’re often asked to come up with a top ten list of garden plants for butterflies and bees, and I’m never quite sure what to say. IBRA (the International Bee Research Association) produce an excellent book, Plants for Bees, with notes telling you whether a plant is particularly good for nectar or pollen, or for bumblebees as opposed to honeybees. It helpfully also covers trees and native plants, which are, of course, important as food plants for butterfly and moth larvae. The British Beekeepers’ Association provide a helpful list, as do the standard beekeeping books I use. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Butterfly Conservation have good summaries on their websites too. Anway, everyone I talk to or read seems to have their own favourites so I’m just going to come up with some general guidelines pinched from various reliable sources:

    1. Always prefer single flowered cultivars over double flowered.
    2. Don’t buy the fancy hybrids you saw on offer at the local garden centre. If they’re not sterile the chances are that any pollen or nectar they have will be inaccessible. Think wildflowers, or cottage garden perennials, or herbs.
    3. Try to ensure that you provide a continuous supply of forage throughout the active season for bees and butterflies. Different butterfly species and different generations are around from spring until autumn. The trend towards warmer winters means bees could be flying almost any time throughout the year; they need pollen particularly in the spring and early summer for their brood, then increasingly nectar for honey. Traditionally beekeepers referred to a period in mid summer as the “June gap”, when there is often a temporary shortage of flowers which it is useful to compensate for too.
    4. Plant in clumps. Jan Miller makes this point in her helpful article in the latest edition of The Cottage Gardener; butterflies can’t see well and will find groups of flowers more easily.
    5. Plant a variety of plants. Bees seem to be healthier if they are not surrounded by a monoculture, and on a practical basis different species need different sorts of flowers as they have different length tongues. Long tongued bumblebees and solitary bees like the Hairy Footed Flower Bee love comfrey, for example, but short tongued honeybees can’t reach its nectaries.
    6. If you’re particularly keen on bumblebees, concentrate on plants from the pea family (Fabaceae), like the Everlasting Pea (Lathyrus latifolius) or Red Clover (Trifolium pratense). Dave Goulson explains why in his book “Bumblebees”; Fabaceae pollen has the richest protein and highest proportion of essential amino acids. These plants are also of great importance as a source of nectar.
    7. Plant British plants, particularly for butterflies. They need natives to provide food for their larvae, and most need very specific plants. Yellow Brimstones will come to your garden only if you plant Buckthorn. Andrew George’s book “The Butterfly Friendly Garden” has an excellent list of native plants and their associated butterfly species.
    8. Plant helpful trees if you can. There are a lot of flowers on an apple tree.
    9. Make a wildlife pond. Not only will you then be able to grow several of our most beautiful and nectar rich wildflowers (which we’d be happy to sell you!), but the water is good for every insect in the garden. For bees specifically, honeybees collect water (for their brood, to maintain humidity in the brood nest, and to dilute their own honey), and the mud is useful for mason bees to make their nests.
Red Mason Bees Collecting Mud
Red Mason Bees Collecting Mud At The Pondside

Habitat Aid Newsletter No.5: 13th May 2010

This cold dry weather is a nightmare, but I suppose at least it’s given me time to sit down and write a newsletter. I’ve been a very busy boy over the last month, so much to catch up on.

We ran our first course in April, which seems to have been a great success. Tutored by Hugh Roberts of Environments for People we all learnt how to build a wildlife pond, now sitting in front of me. Thanks to Hugh and to our wetland plant supplier Gower Wildflowers. The pond’s already populated by a selection of interesting looking invertebrae, and the swallows are collecting mud from it as I write. All very rewarding. Next off are our meadow days, run by Sue Everett, on the 11th and 12th June.

I flogged up to Sheffield last week to go to an intriguing workshop on Green Roofs and Living Walls, which is an area we’re keen to get more involved with. We already have a relationship with a consultant, and supply generic native seed and plug mixes for green roofs, but hope to do a lot more in future to encourage folk to plant native plants rather than just use the sedum mats they have done in the past. Green Roofs in particular seem to me to be a fantastic and practical way to encourage biodiversity in urban areas – among other advantages!Green roof in Sheffield

I also hope we can do more work with seeds, where we are starting to supply end business customers directly. After a successful trial we are supplying the British Beekeepers’ Association (BBKA Enterprises Ltd.) with two native seed mixes particularly helpful for bees, which I have high hopes for. We’re also supplying Flowerworld with the seed for a 50,000 sachet promotion at Morrisons to promote the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Our other bee related news is that we’re expanding our range of plants and exotic trees for bees as a result of some suggestions from Andy Willis at the BBKA Spring Convention and Norman Carreck at the Laboratory for Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex. They’ll be supplied by R.V.Roger and available from this autumn.

We are seeing the first fruits of our work with designers, sourcing native plants for some very exciting schemes. We’re both promoting those currently working with habitat creation in mind, and encouraging others to think about it more.

As to life here, Kingsley the new ram has been a success and the mad Runner Ducks are laying again, albeit mostly not in their Duck house. My bees are happy too, and I’ve set up a couple of bait hives for them. Mike the gardener’s grand veg plot looks great and our various mini-meadows look promising too – if only it would rain!

Poll Dorset in the orchard
Post Kingsley moment in the orchard

Help save the Shrill Carder Bee

Shrill Carder BeeI’ve blogged about this chap before. It’s the next species of Bumblebee likely to go kaput, and is particularly close to my heart because I we supposedly live in one of its last bastions. I’ve got everything crossed that we might see them in one of the meadows we’re working on. One of the best charities we support is The Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and I was pleased to be Tweeted by them about a project for Shrill Carder Bees in Wales. They want to create wildflower-rich habitat (yes please!) to support rare bumblebees along a new 10km path in the Pembrokeshire National Park. Live For The Outdoors has drawn up a short list of 6 “eco projects”, of which this is one, from which the public votes a winner. Their favourite project gets 30,000 Euros from an outfit called the EOG Association for Conservation. The other choices are absolutely worthy but the BBCT scheme is absolutely urgent. Please vote for it here. Thank you.
Related Posts: Bumblebees


Pippa Rayner
Pippa Rayner

I spent a very happy time today on Salisbury Plain with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s Pippa Rayner and a group of enthusiasts learning about bumblebee identification. There are 14,000 Hectares of unimproved chalk downland – or 20% of Europe’s total – on the plain, which means it is bumblebee central. Although gardeners can do a lot, restoration of species rich grassland habitat is the key to restoring the fortunes of many bumblebees.

Pippa is particularly working on saving the Shrill Carder Bee, which looks as if it could be the next of our bumblebees to go extinct. It’s clinging on in pockets of the South West, including around us, and we’re hoping that our meadow projects might help save this once common bee. Thanks to Pippa’s tuition, now I think I ‘d be able to identify one if we are lucky enough to come across it.