As the rain carries on lashing down I thought it might be fun to post some photos of our wildflower meadows in spring. Something to look forward to. We have several relatively small areas, which we have sown and managed slightly differently to create different habitats. Contrary to popular belief a meadow doesn’t just burst into flower in mid summer. Our wildflower meadows in spring give colour from as early as February with some coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), and a reasonable amount of interest from April onwards. The flowering window extends all the way up to cutting in August, when the meadows are full of Common knapweed (Centaurea nigra). In our case it lasts even longer as we’ve got some Autumn crocus (Colchicum autumnale) too.
There’s not much to look at here, at the beginning of March. It looks pretty much like a lawn, but closer examination shows the wildflowers. We’ve kept things tidy – our place isn’t big enough for sheep, so every now and then we mow it over the winter. You can see some unmown swales in the photo too, which are planted with Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) and another wet loving native plant, Yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus). These work brilliantly in wet winters. They’re connected to our main pond and not only slow water runoff, but also give us another rich habitat. We now have a healthy grass snake population, which followed an explosion of amphibian numbers.
By April colour is appearing, along with some insects. I’m not personally a fan of dropping things like Carnassia into meadows, but we have planted some native bulbs, as you see. The Fritillaries should naturalise particularly well as we’re on wet heavy clay. We have dandelions too, of course – such a great resource for early flying pollinators and so cheery – as well as pockets of celandine, primrose and cowslip. They’re a harbinger of the moment the meadow fully explodes into life in May.
Do you want a patch of wildflowers in your garden? The right answer! I think they can look lovely; some are long flowering too, like this mallow in the gravel by our back door, and of course they’re all good for wildlife.
I’m talking here about wildflowers on their own, not mixed with grasses, which will give you a wildflower meadow. This will require a different management regime. I’m also talking about British wildflowers.
Whether you’re growing a meadow or just wildflowers, you will need a nice clean seedbed before you start. Only sow onto bare earth, clear of weeds and grasses. I can’t stress how important this is! A little time preparing will save you hours of labour later. The wildflowers will spread out over time and suppress any weeds that try to get established.
They will do better in a low fertility growing medium. I know this sticks in the throat of some experienced gardeners, who have spent many hours improving their soil with manure and compost. It’s not that wildflowers don’t like high fertility soil; it’s just that everything else – dock, nettle, thistle etc etc – likes it more. Wildflowers are – by definition – very hardy, so don’t need a great deal of tender care. This all means that they will sit uneasily in your beautifully improved flowerbeds, and most likely need a spot of their own. Having said that, we use them in blocks in their own beds (Red campion is an easy favourite), and the wildflowers in your garden will provide a lovely contrast with the more “exotic”.
In practical terms, if your wildflower patch is small you can reduce the fertility of the soil by adding something like horticultural or sharp sand to it. If you’re sowing them onto a planter or raised bed, use sand and topsoil mixed together at a ratio of something around 1:3 (that’s not a scientific calculation, by the way!). I would also put some cardboard underneath a raised bed sitting on soil, which will rot away over time but prevent any really hardy weeds making a nuisance of themselves.
We talk elsewhere about the relative merits of seed, plugs and turf , but I’m concentrating here on the cheapest and most diverse approach – seed.
When you come to buy your seed we would of course prefer you to buy it from us (!). If you don’t, please make sure the species in the mix are sensible, are UK wildflower species (you laugh, but many seed mixes aren’t!), and that the seed comes from plants in the UK. If it’s not stated that it does, the chances are it hasn’t. This can be a problem in terms of biosecurity and hybridisation, among other things.
The wildflower only seed mixes we sell are generally perennials, but they do have some biennials and annuals in them too. The annuals will flower very quickly – around 60 days after seeding, if sown in spring – to give you a sense of achievement!
The optimum time for sowing is September – October. The books all say you can sow in spring too. Having said that, with the weather the way it is, the rule book is being reinvented – we have successfully seeded wildflower meadows from March until November. You just need warm moist soil. Conditions vary so much across the UK now it’s hard to generalise. I wouldn’t sow in spring in East Anglia, for example, whereas in Wales I might sow all the way through the summer, pretty much.
Anyway – where was I? – oh yes – seeding. Once you have your seed, pause. Your patch will only need seeding at a very low rate. It’s more like carrot seed than grass seed. We recommend our mixes are sown at 1g to 2g per square metre, which really is not a lot. Don’t chuck down loads of seed – the quicker growing species will just crowd out the others. Mix the seed with some of your sand if you’re nervous, which will bulk it out and make it easier to see where you’ve sown.
Don’t cover the seed once sown. Just lightly roll or tread in, and maybe water if it’s dry.
You will notice the annuals in the mix, like poppies and cornflowers, which germinate very quickly – that’s their strategy. The perennials will be much, much slower. If you sow wildflowers in your garden in September, some won’t even germinate until the following summer! They won’t generally flower in their first season.
Make sure you keep an eye on the seedlings as they do develop. Weed out anything you recognise that shouldn’t be there – take no prisoners! You may find thistles appearing, which are bad – not in themselves, but they can quickly take over. If you really can’t bear to hoick them out, then deadhead them before they set seed.
The timing of tidying up your wildflower area is less mission critical than it would be if you had a meadow. If it’s small you could deadhead individual plants, or leave seedheads on. Alternatively you could take a pair of shears to it in late summer/early autumn. Remember that all these plants will die back and would be perfectly happy if grazed all winter. You could do the equivalent if you wanted, but don’t once you notice new growth starting in March.
I think that’s about it. I hope you enjoy your new wildflowers in your garden – they’ll look good as well as do good!
Amazingly, Habitat Aid is 10 years old. It started off as what now looks like a lunatic plunge into the unknown. I’d had 30+years in the City and needed another career. I was a keen but strictly amateur naturalist and gardener/smallholder. I think people thought I was having a midlife crisis (probably) or that I’d made so much money it didn’t matter (weak laughter). We downsized dramatically. To the surprise of most the business has kept food on the table and, more importantly, done some good things. Anyway, our tenth anniversary has given me an excellent opportunity to go off on one…
I wish I’d kept tabs on what we’ve given away to charities and community projects, how many acres of wildflower meadows or orchards we’ve had a hand in, or seed packets, or numbers of ponds, or miles of hedges. Wildflower meadows are now particularly dear to my heart. Largely unprotected, almost completely destroyed, our most diverse and attractive habitat. I think the biggest meadow site we’ve seeded is over a hundred acres. Wildly exciting.
Most aspects of what we do have been very satisfying, not least helping our network of suppliers, many of whom have been with us since we started. We have made some modest progress in changing minds, like promoting local provenance meadow seed, for example. People have been very supportive, from David Attenborough to an appreciative pupil from a Primary school in County Durham (thank you for the letter, Lucy). Thanks everyone, not least my long suffering wife!
This keeps me going; sometimes, as you can imagine, it can be difficult. I do wish we were having a wider impact. The business is still pretty modest, and we find it difficult to be heard. Projects are complicated and can go wrong (don’t tell!). People don’t pay much for plants and seed, and can find them baffling. Selling online seems to be more and more difficult for small companies who don’t want to use Amazon. Social media audiences follow enthusiastic and luminous personalities. Folk have odd ideas. Things get weird very quickly. TBH I’m hopeless at it. One of the reasons we set up Habitat Aid was to get across sound information on how to try and improve our natural environment. Worthy but dull on Facebook. Hopeless.
Although we know more about what’s happening in our own back garden than we did 10 years ago, it’s still remarkably little. Some of the charities we support are working hard to change that, but we’re still blundering around in – at best – the twilight. Our understanding of what we’re doing to the natural environment here remains depressingly sketchy.
The conservation lobby is often at loggerheads with other interest groups. I’m delighted to see a new activism abroad, like the recent People’s Walk for Wildlife and various online petitions. I’m uncomfortable though about the confrontational element of some of this stuff, and the over-simplification and sensationalising (is that a word?) of complicated real world issues. For example, banning neonicotinoids on its own isn’t going to “save our bees”. Don’t get me wrong. I think banning them is a very good thing and was very overdue – but bees have other problems too. We continue to find out how many. We’re also finding out how many other impacts neonics have too. In the meantime farmers are flooding their oilseed rape fields with pyrethroid based pesticides instead. Specialist evidence based conservation charities really struggle to put across complicated messages without compromising them.”Personalities” or campaigning groups often eclipse them, too.
NGOs are, however, getting better at persuading people that wildlife friendly can also be people friendly. Most are also engaging better with the real world, although there are a couple of ivory towers out there which need to be bazooka-ed. It must be a concern to them, however, that their supporters continue to be overwhelmingly white middle class folk of a certain age, from outside urban areas. It’s a symptom of “nature deficit disorder”, I guess. There’s also shifting baseline syndrome to fight among the younger generation.
Lastly there’s the commercial sector. Retailers sell lots of THINGS to try replace degraded habitat. Bee boxes, bird boxes, hedgehog boxes, bat boxes, dormice boxes, hibernacula, bird feeders, even bumblebee colonies.* This all just widens people’s disconnectedness with nature. Together with the over-simplification of key messages they are encouraged to think that nature is easily and cheaply replaceable. They’re not looking at it either. Our efforts to get people to take pleasure in the small things – a new butterfly in the garden, a new plant in the meadow – generally fall on deaf ears. I still run into far too much greenwash in the corporate sector at large. Perhaps naively I think this is often down to ignorance.
I’ve become increasingly suspicious of government, although encouraged by the Blue Planet effect. This means that – for the first time ever – the environment will win votes. Best of all, it might win votes among the under 25s. This realisation just might drive a good environmental deal post Brexit, although as this will mean short term cost and higher food prices the jury is still firmly out. At the least, we should get improved biosecurity and wave goodbye to the Common Agricultural Policy.
This is apparently my 362nd blog. There does now seem to be a wider understanding that something is needed to reverse what Chris Packham calls an “ecological apocalypse” here. There are more active efforts being made to that end, like rewilding. Much hasn’t changed over the previous 361 blogs, though. We still worry about animals like hedgehogs much more than we do about the drivers behind their decline. These are common to many, many other species. Biodiversity loss is still the Cinderella of the Green movement, which is much more concerned about energy and sustainability. We still spend peanuts on it, least of all on the poor souls slaving away in this area – or in horticulture generally, come to that.
I’m still convinced that the way to improve biodiversity here is by recreating and rejoining (as best we can) destroyed and splintered natural habitats. This not only means huge changes to the way we use and value land here, but also getting people to see the benefits of habitat creation. It can be beautiful and wildly exciting (sorry! – Ed.).
*Plants and seed sellers often pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap. “Wildflower seed” in particular could be anything from anywhere and often fails. Retailers seem to sometimes actively encourage people’s confusion; between actual and other sorts of “meadows”, and the provenance of plants, for example.
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.
Barring the Yellow Rattle the seeding is all done for another year and we’re lining up all our hedge plant orders, to start delivery from next week.
The weather is finally turning autumnal, but I think the extended warm spell has done for my honeybees, who despite my best efforts look to have succumbed to a bunch of freebooting wasps. Oh well – time will tell.
Climate change was very much on the agenda at the Invertebrate Conservation Conference a couple of weeks ago. Distributions of butterflies and moths should persuade anyone that it’s getting warmer here and that habitat loss continues to wreak terrible damage to our invertebrate populations – and thence everything else.
Looking on the bright side though, there are some really good initiatives gathering momentum, characterized by co-ordination between various interested parties – keep an eye on B-Lines, for example, a Buglife led project which is now taking aim at London. Even HMG seems to have caught pollinator fever – in a modest way.
The business continues to truck along. 2014 will be another record year for us thanks to our business to business sales. We’re helping create a lot of valuable new habitat! We are redesigning our website to kickstart moribund retail sales, about which more anon. It should relaunch early next year.
Learning to Garden
I’ve finally got around to doing the RHS Level 2 course, which has reminded me how little I know about almost everything. Last week I embarrassed myself by not recognizing Iris foetidissima. Now I know it I’ve added it to my cracking native plants for gardens list. One of many!
Finally – FINALLY – the pond is starting to fill. We’ve even had some Chasers laying eggs in it, and the odd frog. I’ve popped some oxygenators in ahead of the winter; Starwort, Milfoil and Hornwort. The test will now be to see how clean the water is that will be running off into it; water quality is the key issue for ponds like this.
A Meadow in Winter
We had a visitor a couple of weeks ago who didn’t believe we had any meadow areas here. I can sympathize; in winter they look like closely mown lawns ( with a lot of “weeds” in! ). A lot of folk make the mistake of not keeping their meadows either grazed or cut close enough over the winter. It won’t harm the rosettes of the wildflowers and will encourage diversity.
In autumn 2009 we seeded a meadow in the corner of one of Archie’s potato fields at Sparkford, next to the A303. The idea was to test some of the mixes I was being offered by suppliers, and to show people:
A) How easy it can be
B) How meadows evolve
C) How beautiful they are
To see how it has developed click on one of the photos to find a gallery, or just search for “Archie” to find related posts.
I pop down there with the dogs every couple of weeks to hoik out the odd thistle, and took my camera with me yesterday. It’s really beginning to take off – and not just visually. The thing I really love about establishing meadow areas is to see how they change and to watch their associated fauna arrive. It’s great playing God. I didn’t see anything rare or bizarre yesterday, but things are stirring; talking about just lepidoptera, I bumped into Small Tortoiseshells and Marbled Whites (“found in flowery grassland” – hurrah!), Meadow Browns and Six-spot Burnets. So next time you’ve zoomed past Sparkford roundabout eastbound keep a look out for it, on your left hand side, and ask yourself whether you couldn’t do something similar.
There is a mystique about wildflower meadow creation that suggests it is difficult and time consuming. Not necessarily so. And a wildflower meadow – even a small area – is a buzzing, fluttering living thing of great beauty and wonder.
Make one because you want to and not because you think it’s the right thing to do, however. If you do, it will bring you great pleasure. You’ll also find it easier to manage than you might think. Less wearisome and polluting mowing, for example…
Gentle reader, if you are a gardener or landowner looking to turn a relatively small area of land into a wildflower meadow you can cut straight to the chase with this introductory video if you prefer:
What is a Wildflower Meadow?
Let’s start by saying what’s it’s not. It’s not this, lovely though it looks. These are “cornfield annuals”, with the odd grass intruder. You can buy mixes of native British annual wildflowers, which produce a gorgeous display in mid-summer and provide welcome nectar and pollen to pollinators. That’s all though folks.
They are quick to flower – around 2 months after seeding – but have a limited flowering window. You can extend it with multiple sowings. These cornfield annuals demand a completely different regime to a perennial wildflower meadow; I grow them in borders and follow the tips in this video from one of our suppliers, Emorsgate Seeds: Managing Cornfield Annuals .
They have a limited ecological value too, truth be told. Butterflies, for example, love the nectar from annual wildflowers but need perennials and grasses as foodplants for their larvae. Pollinators generally need a longer flowering period. Other invertebrates need the protection of perennial plants to overwinter.
There are also some more or less good “pictorial meadow” mixes available. These can look gorgeous and provide a long flowering window. Carefully selected, they can also be excellent for at least some pollinators. It’s a quite different look to a traditional wildflower meadow and most likely delivers less in terms of biodiversity (sweeping generalisation, I know). There are no grasses, and these mixes generally include a majority of non-native – typically American – species. They usually need reseeding every year – i.e. consist of annuals. This also means extra expense. They’re widely used in urban environments, where they look great.
“Traditional” meadows come in different types too, but are grasslands which are mown for hay. They are typically grazed or cut through the winter. In other words, artificial, not natural features – always worth remembering. They also have (relatively retiring) native grasses, not aggressive agricultural cultivars, which means they can also have perennial wildflowers. This is what makes them so attractive and good for wildlife.
They can look strikingly different looking according to local conditions and the time of year, which to my mind makes them even more fascinating…
Is My Site Suitable For A Wildflower Meadow?
How much sun does your planned meadow get? As much as possible; it is of course possible to grow wildflowers in shade, but a wildflower meadow you won’t get, as the species in it need full sun.
Is the area you’re thinking of used for anything else? Many folk (mea culpa) establish a nice looking meadow area in a new orchard, only for it to be shaded out in 10 years time. In any case, fruit trees like rich soil, meadows don’t.
This last point is much debated and the single biggest issue people have. Sometimes soil is just too rich in nutrients for a wildflower meadow to establish. You’ll end up with a jungle of nettle, dock, aggressive grasses and your favourite other local weeds. You’ll read a lot about meadows’ need for low fertility soils. Wildflowers need lower fertility than grass and things like nettles. Feed scabious fertiliser and you won’t get much reaction. Feed nettles and grass and they will go bonkers. If you have lots of nettle in particular, that’s a good sign your site is destined not to work.
In any event, you should definitely work to reduce soil fertility over time by at least removing cuttings. Some more determined enthusiasts go further; you can invert the soil, for example, so that you’re seeding onto subsoil and the topsoil is buried.
How Do I Start My Meadow?
Before you start to think about preparing your wildflower meadow area, what sounds like a stupid question. Do you know what’s already there? It might be that the existing flora is pretty good, and with a few tweaks to management you might not have to do very much to end up with a really nice meadow. If you’re not sure, ask someone in to have a look.
If there’s not much there you have a choice of 3 routes, and will need to take different first steps according to which you choose. The table below summarises the differences between wildflower turf, seed mixes and plugs. Of course, all 3 are not mutually exclusive; they can be used in combination.
We’ve only recently figured out how to make successful wildflower turf, but it’s a problem which seems to have been cracked by a few people now. Its great virtue is that it is instant, and can create an almost immediate effect. Although you can include annual wildflowers in a seed mix, we often have customers complain that there is nothing happening in their meadow for ages while the perennial flowers establish themselves.
Wildflower turf can be pretty diverse, but not as diverse or interesting as the better seed mixes, and of course it’s one size fits all; unless you have over 400 square metres to cover, in which case we can produce turf on a bespoke basis, there is one – albeit rather good – mix for everyone. You not only lose local diversity, but you couldn’t easily tweak the mix for a particular purpose either. You might want to encourage a particular species of butterfly by introducing its food plant, for example. Generally wildflower turf doesn’t include grasses.
My other concern is the mesh which it’s grown in, which is plastic and doesn’t biodegrade… hmm. Perhaps something the producers can crack.
I think it’s a good solution for some, however. Don’t be too put off by the cost; if necessary you can use a chess board planting system, alternating between existing sward or seeded squares and wildflower turf. This video is well worth a look: Wildflower Turf. Fab.
Wildflower Meadow Seed
Seed mixes are much cheaper and can be tweaked as to soil type, situation and customer requirement. Wildflower turf might be over £12/square metre including VAT (plus carriage), but wildflower meadow seed usually works out between 15p – 25p.
Ecologists (and me!) like “direct harvest” mixes, sustainably harvested from donor sites, sometimes hundreds of years old. They can be super exciting! You can find very diverse mixes with high floristic content and at least relatively local provenance. You can get pretty much instant colour by adding a “nurse” of cornfield annuals – this is a site we seeded recently using this approach. It’s going to be AMAZING!
These direct harvest seed mixes are outstanding value for money, as they include a wide range of species – sometimes rare – and up to 70% wildflowers to 30% wild grasses.
You can also buy generic mixes, which are less exciting – but you do know what you’re getting. They are typically 80% or even 90% grasses and only 10% – 20% wildflowers. The grasses are certified – i.e. not harvested from wild populations. Have a look at our blog on which wildflower seed to buy for more information.
If you don’t buy your seed through us or our sister website please please make sure you are buying from another specialist supplier.
Wildflower plugs are usually sold as little egg cup sized plants. They’re typically only a year old, or even less. They’re relatively cheap (around 50p/plant including VAT), and you can buy trays of varied species to suit different soils and situations. Although they can be handy when starting from scratch, in combination with seed, we generally see people using them to add to an existing lawn. They will need to be planted at 5 / square metre.
It’s relatively tricky to establish a seed mix in an existing sward, which puts a lot of people off. A garden lawn usually has a lot of perennial rye grass, which is there for a reason – it’s a thug. One way or the other you really need to start with a clean sheet. Either put a plastic sheet or similar down to kill the existing grass and weeds, cultivate repeatedly (the “stale seed bed” approach), or stripping the topsoil off completely*.
Prepping the ground for wildflower turf is less problematic, as the mesh the flowers’ root systems are based in acts like a mulch.
(can be) High
Use in grass
Many people want to start their meadow in spring. If you do, be prepared to water – particularly as our springs have been so dry recently – and make sure the soil has been properly prepared. At that time of year it’s difficult to know how many weeds might be lurking on your site. There’s also an issue with “vernalization”; many species, most renownedly Yellow Rattle, need a prolonged period of cold before they germinate. If you sow them in spring you won’t see anything until the following year. Better to spend the summer preparing the site and planning and DON’T shoot from the hip. Work towards D Day in October, when you want to be looking at bare soil.
DON’T add topsoil or compost, by the way!
Before you seed, just create a bit of a tilth and clear away larger stones etc. by raking.
Unless you have specialist kit, you’ll end up hand broadcasting your seed. Why? Wildflower seed comes in many different sizes and shapes, and has very low seeding rates – typically 4g/square metre. Drills and spreaders can’t generally cope with it. Because the seeding rate is so low, divide the area to be seeded into squares, using canes or similar. The size of the squares doesn’t matter – whatever you feel comfortable with and is appropriate for the site. Weigh out enough seed for a square. Add an inert carrier like sand or sawdust to ensure more even coverage, and show you where you’ve gone. It doesn’t matter how much.
Try to do two passes in each area – one in each direction. This will also mean the coverage is more even. Walk steadily. Once seeded, do not cover!
What Do I Do To Convert Existing Pasture/Grass into a Wildflower Meadow?
Folk often seem to think that native plants are imbued with supernatural powers of establishment. Would you scatter lupin seeds on your lawn and expect them to successfully germinate and establish themselves? Please bear this mind when contemplating conversion. This will take longer than you think, and be more problematic.
You can try by either using plug plants or Yellow Rattle, or both. For plug plants make sure the grass is cut tight and removed around each plug so that it won’t be out-competed by it. Reckon on 5 per square metre, and use Rattle as well. Yellow Rattle is an attractive annual wildflower which parasitises grass, reducing its vigour and thus giving other wildflowers more of a chance. It needs to be sown in Autumn, and you need to cut any existing grass very short as well as scarify it to see around 50% earth before raking the seed in. The idea is that after a year you can cut tight and scarify again, but this time sow your other wildflowers.
Nature’s Grand Hotel has its Season, like the others. As the guests one by one pack, pay, and depart, and the seats at the table d’hote shrink pitifully at each succeeding meal; as suites of rooms are closed, carpets taken up, and waiters sent away; those boarders who are staying on, en pension, until the next year’s full reopening, cannot help being somewhat affected by all these flittings and farewells, this eager discussion of plans, routes, and fresh quarters, this daily shrinkage in the stream of comradeship. One gets unsettled, depressed, and inclined to be querulous.
Rat muses, Wind in the Willows, Chapter 9
Poor Ratty — he obviously wasn’t a gardener. Autumn is my favourite season, partly because I’m keen on my cider and perry, jams and jellies. It’s partly also because it’s the time to plant and sow in the garden, and not just for our own benefit.
This is the perfect moment to sow native wildflower and grass mixes. The seed of some of our native plants needs to chill over the winter before germinating, so an autumn sowing is preferable to spring, particularly as springs seem to have been so dry recently.
Why start a meadow? Most of our unimproved grassland — over 97% — has disappeared. That’s a tragedy — not just for us, but also for the myriad animal species associated with them. Unimproved grassland is one of our richest native habitats, as well as one of the most beautiful. Meadows don’t just work as giant nectar bars in the summer, but support a complicated ecosystem all year round. I know folk who have beautiful meadows that are made up of largely non-native species. They are nectar-rich, possibly, but useless for any of the animal species dependent on particular plants. No Kidney Vetch, no Small Blue. No Annual Meadow Grass, no Wall. These butterflies will not colonize areas where their larvae have no food plants, and the food plants of British butterflies are British plants. Nectar is not the complete answer. Establish and manage the right plants properly in your garden and your insect and bird populations thrive. We’ve got a tussocky area for voles too, and, hey presto — Barn Owls.
‘The right plants’ also means local plants. It’s difficult to find really locally appropriate mixes commercially, but you might be lucky. If not, you will be able to find a generic mix for your garden soil type or requirement, but do make sure it is from a reputable supplier and signatory of the Flora Locale code of practice. Local species will obligingly appear over time as well, of course.
You won’t be able to create a 500-year-old hay meadow overnight, but even a small “micromeadow” in your back garden will make a difference. And, contrary to popular belief, it’s relatively easy to start and maintain a meadow area. If you prepare properly and establish an annual regime you’ll be surprised how simple it is. As ever, “wildlife gardening” doesn’t mean “go wild”. Brambles, nettles, thistles and dock are as much a nuisance in a meadow as they are in a formal garden area. My in-laws, very good gardeners, had a “wildlife” area in their garden that looked more like a biohazard. We had a council of war and decided what they thought was a wildflower and what was a weed. It now gives them as much pleasure for its flora as for the fauna it has attracted.
I ought to talk about native berrying plants as well — the emphasis on native again. You can make a really good alternative to the woodland edge in your garden by planting a mixed hedge. Wildlife corridor, good nest sites, hedgerows in decline — you know the story, I’m sure. It’s the perfect time of year to plant these chaps too. Bare root plants have a much better chance of establishing themselves in your garden and, again, the dry springs we’ve had recently mean that autumn is the better planting season.
Here too there’s a happy coincidence; what’s good for the birds is in many instances good for us. John Wright has written the latest of several good books on hedgerow cooking, and we mostly follow fellow River Cottager “Pam the Jam” Corbin. At this time of year we’re always knee deep in jams and jellies, chutneys and cheeses and, of course, the dreaded sloe gin. We’ve recently processed an industrial 15 kg of sloes, so popular is the final product with our friends as a Christmas present. A woman came up to me in Waitrose as I loaded several tonnes of sugar into my trolley and asked me conspiratorially if I knew about an impending shortage.
Anyway, which are my favourite native plants for human and avian consumption? We have roses in any hedgerow we plant, and not just for their hips (jelly and tea). Simple, single-flowered species are good for nectar too. Blackthorn is, as you’ve probably gathered, a particular favourite, and its spiny habit means it’s a good nesting place too. Hawthorn is quicker-growing and less spiky but much more common, and I don’t much go for Hawthorn Berry wine. Crab Apples are a decorative choice as a small tree (as are Cherry Plums) and their fruit, with its high pectin levels, is very helpful in the kitchen. If you’ve a little more space there is Bird Cherry and Wild Cherry; I’ve recently planted a Mazzard — an ancient variety of Wild Cherry that can be eaten off the tree by humans. Rowan will make a jelly, but is more popular among Chaffinches than humans.
Elder flowers and berries are, of course, a culinary delight, but the trees need to be sited carefully as they tend to take over. On my hedge-laying course I was told to cut them out of the hedge line, as you do brambles; they are helpful in their place, although a friend’s notion of a butterfly-friendly “bramblarium” seems a bit excessive unless you’ve got space and relaxed aesthetics.
The berries of the Sea-buckthorn were a Neolithic staple but, unless you’re Ray Mears, to my mind they’re more useful for Fieldfares and other thrushes than humans. I don’t think I would personally cook with Juniper berries either, which are an arbortifacient, although I’m very keen to see more Juniper trees planted. They’re in sharp decline at the moment, and provide a good garden habitat for a range of insect and bird species. Take care not to plant them close to pear trees, however, as they harbour pear rust. I’m not sure there are any culinary uses for Guelder Rose berries or Alder Buckthorn berries, but they are attractive and useful berrying shrubs. Dayglo Spindleberry and Purging Buckthorn berries are — guess what — strong purgatives, and Wild Privet berries are poisonous to us but attractive to birds, especially apparently thrushes, and as a semi-evergreen provides helpful cover.
Although these are typically hedgerow species you don’t have to grow them as a hedge if you don’t have room for one. Try planting natives in a formal garden area, preferably in a small group, avoiding any suckering species like Blackthorn if you haven’t got much space. You can keep them tidy by clipping them if you like (at the right times of year). And when you plant, sow a suitable mix of wildflowers around them too.
…Rat was absorbed and deaf to the world; alternately scribbling and sucking the top of his pencil. It is true that he sucked a good deal more than he scribbled; but it was joy to the Mole to know that the cure had at least begun.
Cold Wind Blowing
It’s my favourite time of year. We took a bumper honey crop at the beginning of August and, despite the wasps, the bees look in good shape. We’ve finished scything the meadow, which was lovely this year, and seeding a couple of new areas. The kitchen staff (surely some mistake – Ed.) are now wrestling with current and impending gluts of courgettes, apples, plums, pumpkins (!), and, more excitingly, usable numbers of quinces, figs, medlars and pears. We’re cleaning the apple press and might even have enough Perry Pears to think about our first vintage. Huge furry new bumblebee queens have started to buzz the sedum and the bats and swallows are zipping about in celebration of a fecund year in the garage. The new pond we made for our course in April has been extraordinary – the latest excitement there has been the arrival of Anax Imperator.
Basking in the late summer sun I should feel content, and looking forward to what I hope will be a busy month as folk start buying seed and ordering bare-root trees. Perhaps I’ve spent too long in front of my computer recently, but instead I feel rather morose. The economic and environmental news over the last few weeks has, let’s face it, been pretty grim, and there’s worse to come.
On the other hand, my resolve is also strengthened. Charities have to find new ways to fund themselves. Small businesses and consultants have to find new ways to market, and the internet should be the perfect medium for them. It should also work well to promote localism generally. This is all very much what Habitat Aid is about.
Most people have been incredibly supportive, but there’s a certain residue of suspicion about what we’re doing, which is understandable. My background was in the City (not a good start), and I have no expertise in many of the areas I’m looking at now, I do know people who have. The idea of a business which isn’t driven by financial profit is still a new idea for a lot of folk; I’m often asked questions like “is your blog commercial?”, or at the other end of the spectrum “who is funding you?” I still feel like we are a tiny boat (coracle?) in a pretty vast and stormy sea, but we are making headway I think. Since we started trading in May last year we have had nearly 100,000 page views, which to me sounds like a lot from a standing start.
We’re launching a microsite about meadows at www.micromeadow.co.uk. To quote the blurb:
The site is intended to encourage folk to establish smaller scale meadows and to provide access to good quality plants and seeds, as well as to reliable information and advice.
Got it? Have a look and let us know what you think.
We’re delighted to announce we are working with Downderry Nursery to sell a range of lavenders from the spring. Downderry are regular Gold Medal winners and owner Simon Charlesworth is a committed conservationist. I met him originally at an open day organized by the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at Sussex University, with whom he is working to trial the best bee friendly varieties.
We have started to carry adverts on our main site and blog. Not the usual nonsense, but we are being guided by the excellent Digital Spring. Like us, they occupy an interesting spot in the demi-monde between charities and commerce. They have put together a portfolio of ethically vetted conservation related advertisers – binoculars, birding holidays, etc. – whose ads appear on our sites. We make money, they make money – and donate some to a related charity.
We’ve signed up to become an associate corporate member of our local Wildlife Trust. It’s a great scheme, and another example of a partnership between charities and corporates where everyone wins.
Fruit Tree Management Courses
This winter we are hosting two one day courses on managing fruit trees, tutored by respected specialist nurseryman Kevin Croucher, owner of Thornhayes Nursery.
Habitat Aid aims to persuade and enable folk to at least partly recreate or help replace key habitats like meadows, wetlands, orchards and woodland. The company also helps a small number of charities.
We are partly an online retailer selling mostly trees, plants and seeds sourced from really good quality specialized suppliers who often have a limited or no e-commerce operation themselves. Half our profits from sales go to selected partner charities, which are linked to specific products; this doesn’t just help charities financially, but also helps get their key messages across.
We also act as a kind of honest broker. We are building a network of consultants in areas like “wildlife garden” and estate design, meadow creation, and wetland and pond projects. We recommend and introduce these folk to end clients and landscape professionals, to give advice or to design and project manage. We then supply the plants for these schemes.
Lastly, we are developing products directly with our partner charities. We are working with the ‘Adopt a Beehive’ scheme and BBKA Enterprises to supply native seed mixes for bees, for example.
Even for the relatively undoggy, an irresistible photo from one of our customers – thanks Richard! All the life going in a meadow means they are a magnet for sensitive noses, and it’s a job to keep our two ferreting about for hours too. It’s not just the insects and birds who appear (see Our Meadow in July); I even met a hedgehog marching about last night – only the second time I’ve seen one here in ten years – which got me nearly as excited as the dogs. Richard sowed both the cornfield annuals you can see here and also our clay soil meadow mix, and is creating a really nice natural area in his garden, with mown paths a la Little Dixter winding between the trees. Looking at some of his other photos the Rattle in the mix seems to have taken, which will be the key going forward. As for us, we’ve been busy again at Archie’s meadow. Mowing it a week or so ago and strewn the hay about Archie has rather brilliantly baled it, saving us a load of work. This bale must be worth a few quid – there’s still a lot of seed in it, albeit mostly annuals – or he could use it to seed a new area. We scythed the last strip of meadow, which took no time at all, and it’s all looking very well set for a meadow approaching its first anniversary. We’ve learnt several useful lessons over the last 12 months, not the least being the virtue of patience while waiting for the perennials to get established. I don’t think we’ll cut it through the autumn, so we will get another flush of annuals next year as there’s still plenty of bare ground for them to get established on. I’ll keep an eye on it over the next few months to see which emerging perennials I can spot, and do the odd bit of weeding. In the meantime all we’ll do is spray off a very thistly section of the field margin to keep them seeding. In contrast we’ll cut the meadow here (now in its third year) in a little while – rather later to let some of the later flowering species like Knapweed and Bedstraw go to seed. When we do I’ll use my scythe rather than anything mechanical to avoid doing any damage to the fauna, including my new hedgehog friend.