Hampshire solar farm
Solar Farm seeded by us with local direct harvest mix
It was fantastic to see wildflower meadows splashed across The Times page 3 this morning, as well as appearing in the Leader section. The gist of the piece was to amplify the recent thoughts of Trevor Dines, a botanist at Plantlife.
Dr. Dines is anxious that generic wildflower seed mixes are being used to restore meadows rather than locally sourced seed, producing a kind of “McMeadows” effect.
There are, of course, lots of reasons why it’s much better to use local seed. We promote local harvesters and suppliers as much as we can, and sell their seed through our website. We use local rather than “McMeadows”mixes for larger scale projects whenever we can.
And that’s the first problem. 97% of our meadows have disappeared, so it’s likely there is no local meadow from which to take seed, particularly on the scale you might require. In the real world, in most cases it is just not possible.
So why not look at buying seed from local wildflower seed harvesters? Most harvesters only produce up to 200kg of seed, enough for 16 acres. Sadly, there just isn’t demand for more. There aren’t many of them, either – I know of four or five – and the business isn’t exactly a ticket to instant wealth.
There are a small handful of larger scale wildflower seed specialists, who are generally pretty good (with one or two exceptions!). They’re enthusiastic, helpful and knowledgeable.
I assume it’s the generic mixes these guys produce which have annoyed Dr. Dines. These mixes are made up from seed usually grown in an individual single species bed and mixed together to predetermined %s, and are often marketed as being appropriate for a particular soil type or situation. These producers usually also produce a couple of general use mixes.
Suppliers would argue that these basic mixes are better than solutions available elsewhere, and consist of species occurring naturally across most of the UK. They are from the UK, reliably available, reasonably priced and have transparent content.
This is not where Dr. Dines should be taking aim.
Many commercially available and seed packet “wildflower seed mixes” contain non-UK seed, agricultural cultivars and non-indigenous UK plant species. We are regularly undercut by contractors using these seed mixes, even when UK native wildflower seed is specified. The seed companies selling them are driving prices down, misleading consumers, producing inappropriate mixes and hurting the development of our own wildflower seed production. As are Dr. Dines’ comments.
Tarring all “commercial suppliers” with the same brush suggests he may be ideologically motivated. It would be great to think NGOs are able to tackle meadow creation. Sometimes they do, to great effect, but not on the kind of scale we need. There’s often no reason for them to be interested in the projects which come up. Nor do NGOs have the manpower, knowledge, time, expertise and necessary equipment to supply and seed large scale sites. We need to encourage specialists in this area and pay them.

Plants for Bugs

Last week the RHS published the first paper from its “Plants for Bugs” four-year study in the Journal of Applied Ecology. It’s an interesting read, not least because so little research has been done in this area. According to the RHS website the key messages for gardeners are:

The best strategy for gardeners wanting to support pollinating insects in gardens is to plant a mix of flowering plants from different countries and regions.

Emphasis should be given to plants native to the UK and the northern hemisphere, though exotic plants from the southern hemisphere can be used to extend the season (there are a greater proportion of exotic plants flowering later in the season compared to UK native and northern hemisphere plants) and provide nectar and pollen for some specific pollinators.

Regardless of plant origin (native or non-native), the more flowers a garden can offer throughout the year, the greater the number of bees, hoverflies and other pollinating insects it will attract and support.

This is all good stuff, and I absolutely agree with it. But – and you knew there was a but coming – I do have two complaints about the way this is being spun.

First off, there’s a question of emphasis. The accompanying social media blurb from the RHS says:

Native plants alone may not be the best option for supporting pollinating insects in UK gardens!

Well, yes, but non-natives alone DEFINITELY aren’t. I can’t see the headline reading “Exotic plants alone are definitely not the best option for supporting pollinating insects in UK gardens” Perhaps I’m just being over-sensitive, or perhaps not. The RHS are hardly likely to discourage people from growing exotic cultivars, after all – it’s what they do.

Secondly, identifying what provides the “best” nectar and pollen for certain pollinators is very helpful, but it’s not the bee all (geddit?) and end all. Take butterflies, for example.

Like some solitary bees and many other “bugs” they have developed relationships with very specific plants. In the case of butterflies it’s as food plants for their caterpillars; Yellow Brimstone caterpillars eat Buckthorn, for example. I know some butterflies and moths can adapt to non-native plants, but not all. It’s also true that some of our own insects like non-native plants for non dietary reasons; the wool carder bee just loves Stachys byzantina, with which it lines its nest.

In other words, choosing plants for bugs is not just about native v. non-native or pollen and nectar. It’s more complicated than that. As usual.

Honey bee
One of our honey bees enjoying a non-native scoff from Geranium ‘Rozanne’, a favourite in the garden

When Tree Planting Sucks

On the radio today I was gratified to hear Oliver Rackham talk about the dangers of the globalization of the tree business, as I blogged about here nearly a month ago. It was also interesting to hear him talk about some other less than positive aspects of the recent fashion in the UK for tree planting, which has meant we now have as many trees as there were in the Middle Ages. Isn’t this a good thing? Well – er – not necessarily, as I’ve increasingly thought too.

1. There is always a tremendous hurry and lack of adequate cash about grant aided planting which means trees are often imported, increasing the danger of spreading pathogens and parasites and reducing the genetic variation of the plant population.

2. Inappropriate tree species are routinely introduced. There’s a “one size fits all” mentality about native tree selection, which seems very odd. In the world of wildflower plants, which shares many of the same problems, we always try to supply seed mixes appropriate to the sites where they will be sown, for example.

3. The groups of trees which are planted do not constitute woods. In particular, no-one bothers to establish an understory, which means they have less value for biodiversity than they should do. Demand for woodland bulbs is amazingly small and their purchase is never covered by woodland planting grants, for example.

4. This issue is compounded by planting densities being too high, which blocks out any light reaching the plants on the ground.

5. We sometimes establish these plantations, with limited ecological value, where more interesting habitat previously existed.

I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that the Ash tree crisis throws up an opportunity to discuss some of these issues. I’m sure tree planting IS a good thing, but we need to review how we’re doing it.

Sackcloth and Ashes

There has been understandable anger about the government’s handling of the Ash tree crisis in the UK, but I wonder if it is partly misdirected. Trying to pull up a biosecurity drawbridge by banning plant imports seems to be at best a Canute-like reaction. We should do what we can, of course, but what we need is a better longer term pre-emptive strategy of prevention. We can at least slow the spread of disease by changing perception about the importance of the provenance of plants and seed and labelling them properly for consumers. This would buy time to formulate a more effective response to a problem which may then never even reach us.

We are much better at blaming each other for environmental disasters than we are at containing them. The size and complexity of these problems dwarfs the resources which government can throw at them. The scale of the tragic story of the American chestnut (Castanea dentate), for example, almost confounds understanding. A blight, probably originating from chestnut trees imported from Asia, spread like wildfire down the East Coast in the first half of the last century and killed up to an estimated 4 billion trees.

Of course plant pathogens and parasites have always spread and over time plant populations often recover from them, but their consequences can be so severe we should do everything we can to lengthen the odds of accidentally importing them ourselves. The Ash tree disease might have been blown here from across the Channel rather than relying on human agency like the American chestnut blight, but it might not. Trees and their diseases travel all around the globe and have done since the Romans started planting reminders of home around their Empire and importing exotic fruit into Italy. Horse Chestnuts, introduced here in the late 16th century from the Balkans, are now quietly bleeding to death in leafy London suburbs from a combination of a canker from the Himalayas and a leaf mining moth from Macedonia. Many pathogens and parasites migrate between species; Ramorum disease, currently killing larch here, is also found in rhododendrons. Even for the Australians, with their natural advantages of geography and population, controlling plant imports is difficult.

Bizarrely for such a common tree, enormous numbers of our native ash are imported into Britain. We want them cheaply and instantly available. Much planting is grant aided, and usually comes with the expectation that trees must be bought immediately and at the lowest price available. This is in keeping with the general attitude consumers have towards buying plants or seed. Unfortunately, as a consequence, plants and seeds have to be sourced from abroard. We need bigger and more profitable nurseries here, producing native trees, wildflowers, fruit trees and hedge plants. How can they be nurtured? Consumers have to be encouraged to think about tree planting as something which gives slow pleasure rather than instant gratification. If they are ordering a large number of plants or volume of seed they could be encouraged to do so a year in advance to give smaller growers a better chance of bidding for the business.

No-one buying plants or seed online or at a garden centre currently knows where they’re from or even, if online, who they’re from. There is a “specialist” site I know selling fruit trees, run by a firm of web designers. Most countries have provenance certification schemes for trees and wildflower seed from local producers, but unless you were a professional you wouldn’t know – or know to ask for a certificate.

When a prospective buyer searches for “native wildflower seeds”, “woodland trees”, or “conservation hedging” they might reasonably expect that the plants and seeds that they find are actually native (like the ones we sell!). The question of what constitutes “native” vexes ecologists all over the world and its answer varies, but however you define it, the “native” plants or seed the online buyer stumbles across are probably not. “Wildflower” seed mixes often even include species from the other side of the world; around the corner from us is a lovely spot which the owner thinks is a traditional English meadow as it’s full of wildflowers. They’re North American wildflowers. Is that a problem? It is if there’s anything invasive or diseased there, or if you’re trying to encourage butterflies, for example, whose larvae typically only eat indigenous plants.

This is where we can usefully educate and regulate. Oblige online resellers and nurseries to label the origin of their plants, in the same way that supermarkets do with food. Educate consumers to value locally produced seeds or plants and pay a decent amount for them. The precarious and unrewarding lot of local growers might then be improved enough for them to earn a decent living.
Globalism and biodiversity are unhappy bedfellows, but consumerism and biodiversity could get along very well. People will always buy native trees or wildflower seeds rather than collect them themselves, so we should make sure they know how to buy the right stuff.

Chelsea 2012

I’ll be taking part in my own Olympic event in 2012. We’re going to have a show garden in the RHS Lifelong Learning area at Chelsea to promote some of the things we’re trying to get folk to do. Gulp! I say “we” but I’m just going to be doing the signage and the running around panicking. The design and build is being sorted by the brilliant Phil Brown, and one of our suppliers, the equally brilliant British Wildflower Plants, are supplying the plants and doing the growing for us. We’ll do a splashy Press Release in the new year along with a whole lot of other stuff, but I couldn’t contain my excitement in the meantime, so by way of a taster here’s the outline of the design brief:


Habitat Aid aims to build a garden exhibit to show how diverse micro-habitats can be created in contemporary urban design. We will use British native plants exclusively but it will not look like a “wildlife garden”. We feel that “Wildlife gardening” is often marginalised because it ignores the aesthetic and practical requirements of the most important animal in the garden – its owner.

It is an important part of Habitat Aid’s work to create landscapes which are both attractive and functional for their users AND which also deliver biodiversity, focusing on plants and invertebrates. We are trying to put the creation of micro-habitats at the core of a design philosophy rather than offering it as an option.

The London Wildlife Trust’s recent survey, reporting increasing hard landscaping in the capital’s gardens, suggests that this approach should also include specific reference to SUDS and usage problems confronting urban garden owners – e.g. parking.

The Chelsea exhibit will also be used to promote key messages from Habitat Aid’s partner conservation charities, including Butterfly Conservation, Buglife and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, who are all keen to be involved in the project. We hope to make it interactive as well as educational.

I’m sworn to secrecy as to details, but it’s going to be very different to anything you will have seen before. Wish us luck!

Newsletter No.6: 6th July 2010

I was complaining about the cold (!) in May’s newsletter – I remember getting the coldest I have ever been on a cricket pitch that week – but it has carried on just as dry. I’ve been worried about the customers who bought plants or seeds from us over the last 9 months, so wrote to them asking how things were going. It seems the only worries generally have been with later spring sowings. In all likelihood these will be fine. We’re suggesting folk have a look at how things are doing in September, after a bit of rain.
That’s certainly been true at our demo meadow at Sparkford. We sowed two mixes there last autumn. A really nice mix sourced locally, just perennials and grasses, looks to be struggling at first glance but I think will be fine. The other side of the meadow, where we used a nurse of cornfield annuals (I know, it’s cheating), has looked amazing:

Archie's Meadow
We’ve been busy on the meadow front, also hosting a couple of courses for gardeners and landscape professionals, tutored by Sue Everett and Andrew George. Attendance was good, and I’m looking forward to next year’s already. I’ve been blogging furiously about meadows as well, which has kept me on my toes and, I think, shunted some traffic onto the website as well as perhaps offering folk an interesting resource.
My efforts on marketing elsewhere have been mixed. I still can’t make head nor tail of Twitter and I don’t think I’m using Facebook very effectively – I am currently running a “targeted” advert, which has had 2,702 impressions as I write but no clicks! At least that means it’s free… I’m pleased with our recent corporate videos though (including more meadow stuff!) and press coverage continues to be helpful.
In terms of product development, we have now listed the Mazzards we will be selling from this autumn, and I am pleased to have extended our range of native bulbs, courtesy of the excellent Shipton Bulbs in Wales. Right now I’m working on improving our lavenders and trying to SEO the herbaceous side of the site a bit better. We are involved in another nice seed project, this time with the British Beekeeper’s Association’s “Adopt a Hive” scheme. The seed promotion we supplied for Flowerworld’s bouquets for the Bumblebee Conservation Trust is now in Morrisons, which is nice.
That apart it seems to be a pretty quiet time of year. I’m off to Hampton Court for a bit of inspiration.

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 Landscape Man

A great coup for us last week. We were asked to come up with a native planting scheme and supply the plants for a large pond in Yorkshire for next spring’s Channel 4 series of The Landscape Man, presented by Matthew Wilson. Right up our street, but we only had 5 business days to do the whole thing… Undeterred, we parachuted pond consultant Hugh Roberts onto the site on Monday and had his planting scheme in our sticky hands that evening. Not only was he recommending a plant list, but there was also some bio-engineering to do to keep the pond bank from eroding. Landscape Man pond projectThe owner had been persuaded to use granite sets to line a section of it, which would have to be removed and replaced with preplanted coir rolls. We had all the plants and rolls on site on Thursday to film the planting on Friday. Hugh was then on hand to help Matthew with the planting. Phew! Thanks everyone, especially Lew from Dragonfly Flora and Hugh. The site will not only be absolutely stunning but also a huge boon to wildlife – just the sort of landscaping we’re trying to promote.

Place Names

Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) and Honeybee

Reading one of my Christmas pressies, the fascinating Dictionary of English Place-Names, it struck me how odd it is that we think of the “everyday” as being so unremarkable. We live in an area that’s been occupied for – well, at least 4,000 years – so it’s not surprising that we are surrounded by a rich and odd sounding collection of village names. We live in Lamyatt (pre Domesday Book, meaning “lamb’s gate”), next to Ditcheat (before 842, “gap in the dyke”, which was presumably on the Fosse Way running past the village) and Castle Cary (from the River Cary, pre Iron Age). We live on Creech (Celtic for “mound”) Hill, where there is an Iron Age fort that looks over to Chesterblade, derived from the Old English for “fort” as well. I’ve lived there for nearly 10 years and have an interest in archaelogy and local history, but hadn’t really thought much about the derivations of the words. I suppose it’s a fact of modern life that we’re not more aware of our surroundings.
I have the same problem getting people to think about buying native plants. Despite the fact that most of us couldn’t remember the last time we saw a wildflower meadow, because we treat these plants as commonplace we don’t bother thinking about them. Which is a pity really, because like the Cornflower I snapped in our cornfield annuals last year, many are no longer commonplace at all. At least our place names won’t go extinct – which thought gives me an excuse to play some Flanders and Swann…

Oh dear – I had hoped for a cheery missive to greet the New Year. Happy 2010!

Help for Bees

BBKA Calendar
BBKA Calendar
Today we’ve launched our historical herb collections, some of which might sound frivolous (Plague Garden?), but all of which actually have a serious intent. Although they’re a bit of fun, the collections’ historical context allows us to promote some unusual and half-forgotten herbs and native plants, and true species rather than less useful modern cultivars. All good stuff for pollinators, which is why half of the profit we make on them is going to either the LASI at Sussex University or the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. There are lots of good plants in the British Beekeeper’s Association 2010 (there’s a depressing thought) calendar as well, which I had a sneak preview of today. It seems like an ideal stocking filler for the beekeeper in your life, but perhaps more importantly there’s a lot of gardening advice here and information for anyone with a general interest in helping wildlife. Nice photos too. Profits all go to the BBKA; you can pre-order directly from them here.