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.

How to Become a Minor Deity

Still recovering from our older son George’s 18th I spent some down time in the garden today looking for butterflies. Small CopperAppropriately enough, as next week is Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count, sponsored by Marks and Spencer. I counted 6 species in half an hour loitering around the herb garden – Common Blue, Large White, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Small Copper, and Brimstone. Nothing unusual to get the hardened Lep excited, but really good news for me; when we moved here there were only Whites around, so we’ve done our bit to create good habitat for butterflies. I’ve also recently seen Six Spot Burnets and Large Skippers. In a very modest sort of way I feel like a kind of God; as our resident butterfly expert Andrew George explains, there’s a lot you can do to build up a good population of colonial species like these. [aembed:youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aztg4aBBZDU]

Yellow Brimstone Foodplant
Alder Buckthorn

In the herb garden Oregano seemed to be a particular magnet for the Browns, and in the borders Veronicastrum for the Brimstones.These guys are a particular success, as I hadn’t seen one around here at all until now. Why have they suddenly arrived? Because I planted a short stretch of Alder Buckthorn, their larval food plant, in a section of hedge. You can see how tasty it has proved. With butterflies it’s not just the nectar plants you need – it’s their whole habitat. When you get that right the effects are pretty much instantaneous.

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

The lesser weevil?

Mistletoe Marble Moth
I left an old cider apple tree unpruned over the last couple of years. It’s knackered, and it had a really good crop of Mistletoe on it. I pruned about a third of it off and our older two children took it up to London in 20 big bunches, which they sold for £100 ( including a donation to Common Ground – alledgedly the cheque is in the post). Had I kept the tree in decent nick it might have produced apples worth something well under £5. Bizarre. I’m trying to square this peculiar reality with the news that the Mistletoe Marble Moth (Celypha Woodiana) is disappearing because of the shrinking number of traditional orchards. And what about the poor old Mistletoe Weevil (Ixapion variegatum), I ask myself? So I suppose from an economic and environmental point of view we should be planting orchards and turning them over to mistletoe production. Curiouser and curiouser.