A Little Knowledge…

I had a great weekend, brushing up my little knowledge. On Saturday I was at the mighty Bumblebee Conservation Trust’s (BBCT) members’ day in Cardiff, then yesterday had an equally engaging time at the Tree Conference in Frome. I heard a range of presentations, all give by people doing invaluable – and often unheralded – work.

We had two fascinating external speakers at the BBCT do. Andy Salisbury is the head entomologist at the RHS, and Liam Olds is an ecologist working for Buglife. The Trust’s own science supremo, Richard Comont, also spoke.

BBCT Members' DayAndy is the brains behind the work the RHS has been doing on plants for pollinators, which is still a project in progress. We’re now getting an idea about which plants different pollinators like. Liam has been looking at old coal tips in the south Wales valleys. They turn out to be extraordinary biodiversity hotspots. We’ve only recently begun to understand how important brown field sites can be. Richard – among other things – gave us the preliminary results from this year’s Bee Walk. This is the only data set of its kind. Established in 2008, it gives us a pretty good picture of what is happening to bumblebee populations, relying on figures from a growing band of trained volunteers re-walking the same transects.

Frome tree conferenceThe Tree Conference got me thinking, too. I loved Dr Martin Bidartondo, engaging expert on (impossible to spell) mycorrhiza. These are the underground fungi which are essential to trees, effectively extending their root systems and swapping sugar for minerals. Martin has started to map them across Europe – a Herculean task. His initial results are fascinating, and reinforce our understanding of the damage pollution is doing to our forests.

Lastly, Isabella Tree recapped some of the key themes of her recent book, Wilding. Isabella was the least unheralded of all the speakers! I’m a big – although not unreserved – fan of rewilding*, and it has arrived at the perfect time to influence debate on land use post Brexit and the dreadful Common Agricultural Policy. The big idea at Knepp – Isabella’s estate – is wood pasture. It’s amazing that this – in retrospect – obvious idea was only recently posited at all. Less than 20 years ago everyone thought historically forests were thick, dark and impenetrable, with closed canopies. Now we understand they were much more likely to be open patches of broadleaf woodland punctuated with pasture and scrub. A range of herbivores grazed and rootled around in them. Hugely biodiverse, hugely attractive and instantly appealing. This is a key idea, not least because of various large scale planting initiatives going on at the moment.

There was a theme running through all these presentations. These are all really important topics and areas of discovery. Which plants do we plant for which pollinators? How important are brownfield sites for wildlife? What are bee numbers doing? What is going on with fungi? What should a forest be? We are only now just starting to grope our way towards these answers.

What little knowledge we have about what happens outside our own back doors. How poorly resourced such work as we are doing is. I’ve felt this again and again over the last ten years. Ironically, we used to know the answers to many of these issues, but we have forgotten or ignored them. We now promote and pay for schemes with quick and high visual impact, often based on the wrong premise and often influenced by self-interested lobby groups.

Time is running out. We simply must focus on the science and throw money at it. Now.

*More on this anon.

Garden Flowers For Bees

Perfect For PollinatorsWhen people ask me to recommend garden flowers for bees I usually point them at the excellent Plants for Bees by Kirk and Howes. Like most of us, though, I often wander through the local garden centre to buy plants for the garden. I try to buy flowers which are good for bees and other pollinators. I had thought that the RHS “Perfect for Pollinators” badge was a definitive guide to help me. Not so, apparently – nor are a number of other similar schemes and labels.

A study has just been released by the excellent Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at Sussex University. They spent time in local garden centres where they found that “there were many recommended varieties that were unattractive or poorly attractive to insects, and some non-recommended varieties that were very attractive”. The report also points out the difficulties of recommending many different varieties and hybrids in the same plant group, many of which have misleading pictures on their labels.

Poor for bees and pollinators
No Thanks
I was aghast, to be honest, although it did confirm what I had suspected for a while. How can you say that two wildly different cultivars are both as attractive to pollinators? It explains why some “bee friendly” of “butterfly friendly” flowers in our garden here have disappointed. Roses are a very good example; the open single types of rose – closer relations to wild roses – are very different and much better for pollinators than the popular modern “English Roses”.
Dog rose - bumblebee
Yes Please!

So what’s the answer? The study suggests seeing which plants at the garden centre insects and bees visit most, which seems good advice. Ask yourself too how any self respecting pollinator is going to access the nectar and pollen of the flower you’re looking at.

The labels are a guide but nothing more.

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

Native and non-native plants

AstersToday’s papers reported on an RHS study which looks at “whether the geographical origin of garden plants makes a difference to the abundance and diversity of garden invertebrates.” According to the Independent:

“The idea is solidly out there that if you want native insects you should only plant native plants*. That’s been the advice for years. Initial analysis shows this is not the case,” said Mr Salisbury, though he cautioned there was much more detailed analysis to be done.

You might expect this conclusion from the RHS, who are hopelessly compromised in areas like these, and you might expect me – a seller of native plants – to get cross about it.

It’s difficult to comment on the paper as I wasn’t invited to the meeting at which the preliminary results were leaked, despite asking to be. I’m not in any sort of position to comment on the project’s methodology or whether its conclusions are right or not, which in itself is not very clever (the people who were there – like Buglife – seem dubious).

I do think the way they are presented perpetuates the polarization of this argument. Why does it always have to be natives versus non-natives? Why not mix the planting up in a garden? Excuse the language, but it’s utter bollocks to say “The idea is solidly out there that if you want native insects you should only plant native plants”. The idea isn’t solidly out there at all and, of course, isn’t necessarily so, although the reverse is – if you don’t want insects only plant (certain kinds of) non-native plants.

And this is the danger; the way this is presented is potentially disastrous. “British wildlife… can thrive on non-native plant species” is the way the Independent has reported the story. Of course it can – some wildlife can thrive on some types of non-native species. And I don’t think they’re suggesting 300 year old hay meadow offers the equivalent habitat to a selection of bedding plants from B&Q. Or maybe they are?

It might suit the project’s authors to sensationalize its findings when they are properly released, but we’ll all be the losers when they do.

*Native plants are species which arrived in Britain after the last ice age without human assistance, by the way. This surprisingly includes species like Raspberry!

Urban Greening

I surprised myself when I managed to struggle through the science “O” Level for non-scientists – “Physical Science”, it used to be called. It did teach me to respect proper science though, and I reserve a special admiration for scientists at the top of their game who can explain what they’re up to without causing the kind of sensory shutdown induced by Mr. Ball the biology teacher*.
I heard one on Wednesday, at the RHS’s first annual John McLeod lecture. Diane Pataki is a sparky Californian academic whose interest is urban greenspace. She’s based in LA, which has its own peculiarities (not least folk nicking her monitoring kit), but some of her work has very practical application for us in the UK.
Perhaps the best reason for planting a million trees in LA, which is what they’re doing, is that there is a really nice correlation between the percentage of tree canopy cover and daytime temperatures. Trees shade and reflect and absorb radiation. Diane reckons that they will be able to reduce daytime temperatures by a whopping 5 degrees (Fahrenheit), which will mean a 15% drop in electricity usage as everyone switches their aircon off. 15%! She’s also worked out which trees to plant too. Among other considerations, different species have vastly different transpiration rates and low water using species like the Honey locust (Gleditsia triacanthos) and Jacaranda trees don’t necessarily grow the slowest.
In LA, of course, water use is a real issue, and very much an ecosystem cost rather than a service – so this kind of work is important in mitigating it. In the UK it’s more likely that too much water – and arriving too quickly – is a concern. Urban green spaces can certainly moderate stormwater run-off and absorb groundwater.
I hadn’t thought clearly about other societal benefits, which Diane grouped under Provisioning, Regulating and Cultural. This might be old hat to some of you, but it was thought provoking for eco-newbies. Local varieties of fruit trees, for example, tick all sorts of boxes in all three areas of “ecosystem services”; food (provisioning), climate/water (regulation) and aesthetic/sense of place/heritage/etc. (cultural)
One area where the message was more equivocal was carbon sequestration. It turns out you would have to plant gazillions of trees to make a minor dent in a major city’s carbon emissions. What was encouraging, though, were calculations showing the difference between playing fields and wildflower meadows. I’d assumed the emissions from the kit needed to manicure lawns meant they were less friendly. Well yes, but there are other problems with them too. First off there’s the fact that undisturbed earth absorbs much more carbon dioxide. Secondly – and most importantly – is the Nitrous Oxide (struggles to interpret notes at this point) produced by fertilisers, which is a particularly pernicious greenhouse gas. These are the fertilisers which are good for lawns and bad for meadows. Hurrah! We like this.
Diane didn’t talk much about habitat, which to be honest is a given.“Woodland edge” (in the UK often approximating to “suburban garden”) is top for a wide range of fauna.
Hats off to the RHS for putting the lecture on, and next year’s deserves wider airplay than a 2 minute slot in the Today programme (N.B. John Humphries, this isn’t “gardening”). It was a shame, too, that the introductory and closing remarks didn’t mention the RHS’s own Urban Greening initiative and sounded more like an appeal for the church roof fund. Mr. Ball would definitely have approved of Diane Pataki, though. I look forward to reading a proper write up in The Garden.

*not entirely fair. Mr. Ball was a very nice bloke.

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!

Obligatory Chelsea blog

I had a fascinating 3 days at the Chelsea Garden Show earlier this week, courtesy of Hilliers. What lovely folk – and while I’m on the subject, congratulations on your 66th consecutive gold medal, a record which makes you the horticultural equivalent of Don Bradman. Hilliers have been fantastic partners for our Meadow Anywhere seed project, and fingers crossed my hopeless attempts at helping on the exhibit haven’t persuaded them I’m bloody useless…

I’ve been known to grumble in curmudgeonly fashion at shows, but it seems churlish to here as I had such a rewarding and entertaining time. Let’s just say I really liked Nigel Dunnett’s show garden and really didn’t Diarmuid Gavin’s. ‘Nuff said. I got a huge amount of the show personally, and not just in terms of my own education (I can now recognise the beautiful Sinocalycalycanthus, even though I still can’t spell it). As a networking opportunity it was fantastic, and I’m looking at a whole bunch of new ideas, tie-ups and projects as a result of just wandering around and chatting to people.

For the outside world Chelsea is a great marketing opportunity for one of our best and, seemingly, most undervalued industries. I still don’t understand its economics at all; we regularly sell trees which cost more to get to the customer than they do themselves. The value and quality we get from our top nurseries is as extraordinary as the choice, and events like this are a rare opportunity to showcase them.

The show’s diversity isn’t just restricted to the exhibits and exhibitors, but it also attracts visitors from all over the planet. I was reminded of Jane Owen’s FT article on Taipei’s massive flower show earlier this year:

Michael Balston, a member of the RHS Council (governing body), created the garden to “remind the world through the quiet diplomacy of horticulture that the UK still exists”.

Don’t Bugger It Up

I had a great time at the launch of Buglife’s “Get Britain Buzzing” campaign at the Royal Society this week – video below – shame about Bill Oddie and that annoying bee quote that’s NOT Einstein, but otherwise very good, and I rather liked his alternative name for it (geddit?). The central message from the charismatic and engaging Germaine Greer was interesting. She sees the need for a change in social attitudes towards pollinators like the kind of change we have seen over a generation towards drink driving. Why, she asked, are children so interested in bugs and yet by the time they’re grown up see them as a nuisance? Pollinators are the good guys, and we should welcome them into our gardens – more than that, we should learn to take pleasure from them and the ecosystems we can create.

This is only a slightly different angle to the one I have banged on about in articles like this one in the FT, Nectar Pointers. Listening to Anne “The Bad Tempered Gardener” Wareham on Radio Four a couple of days ago I was absolutely sympathetic to her irritation with the heavy expectation on her from earnest conservationists and grow your own fans to be a “worthy” gardener. People don’t garden to be worthy, and nor should they. They shouldn’t do what they think is the right thing for wildlife; they should do what they want to do and create what gives them pleasure. The knack is to persuade them that the two things objectives coincide – to change their aesthetic. Perhaps we can do this by making it socially unacceptable to have decking like we’ve made it socially unacceptable to drink/drive (!), but I wonder if we haven’t got a better chance to make people think it’s just ugly. A good example is lawns; I bet within 10 years a flowery lawn will seem much more attractive than the manicured stripy job so beloved of lawnmower and selective weedkiller manufacturers.

I’m sure attitudes towards pollinators will change – are changing. We’re still a long away from getting there, though. If you want to see how far just go to Chelsea next week. These big gardening shows – another of my bugbears – still have “eco” or “biodiversity” areas. Why? Can’t the RHS, a real opinion forming institution, be brave and quietly embrace these ideas into the mainstream? That’s the way to facilitate change – make beautiful “wildlife friendly gardens” just appear the norm, without making a big song and dance about it or patronising people. I try and avoid talking about “wildlife gardening” and biodiversity for this reason in the context of gardening – it’s alienating to a lot of folk in the same way that “eco building” is.

I’ll be at Chelsea on Sunday/Monday/Tuesday promoting native planting and the very beautiful “Meadow Anywhere” at the Hillier’s exhibit, trying not to be worthy.

Chelsea, Chelsea, I believe…

I saw The Fratellis at Glasto a couple of years ago, and their “Chelsea Dagger” has been going round my head all week. A cracking song.
Much of my time over the last few days has been focused on a very different and somewhat less gratuitous Chelsea, as the flower show looms. I spent Monday at an event organized by the RHS at Wisley (for which a big thank you) learning about field trials with the jolly corps of the Garden Media Guild. Lovely people, incidentally, and on message – in contrast with one of the speakers – but that’s another story, and the equally lovely RHS has only just about made it into the 20th century, so it’s excused.
Anyway, as you can imagine, the journalistas are beginning to focus on the (sorry, THE) gardening event of the season, with an excitement which this year I share. Having been a paying punter a few times over the years, I’m now helping Hilliers out with their stand, which will feature the Meadow Anywhere seed packets we supply them with. This is an ace project, which among other things has so far raised £4,000 for each of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and Butterfly Conservation. Anyway, we are growing a collection of planters for the stand. I say “we”, but actually one of our suppliers is (before you panic); Herbiseed’s Steve Morton is doing all the hard work for us, and I visited him at a secret location in Berkshire on Tuesday to do a quick check on them. How are they doing?
These planters are going to make everyone wonder why they bother growing anything other than micromeadows in their back gardens. See you at Chelsea.

Hampton Court Show

Floral Marquee, Hampton Court showThese days I upset myself by spoiling perfectly nice events by plunging into a familiar kind of off-putting eco censoriousness, which is as tedious for me as it must be for the people who are subjected to it. So if you want to miss the tedious bits of last week’s day-I-messed-up at the Hampton Court Flower Show, then skip straight to the picture of the Eryngium.

How can I explain what upset me? It wasn’t so much the “garden centre” element, although the Country Living Magazine Pavilion, as a symptom of it, was enormous – and furnished me with three pairs of very good value stripy socks, so I shouldn’t complain. Each to his own, it’s a free world, commercial pressure, etc. etc.. No, I think what upset me are the missed opportunities these shows represent.

Regretting that second pint

Some examples. There was an enormous gushing Magritte like pink penis – sorry – tap – which was my favourite design feature of the show gardens (along with the Falmouth College garden), apparently raising awareness of overactive bladder syndrome. There were a lot of other water features too, and according to the catalogue no less than 17 water feature suppliers’ stands, pitched on the straw coloured grass. Was there a single supplier of water butts or water saving devices there? No. Grey water irrigation systems? No. Reed beds? What about green roofs? You’re having a laugh. Holiday Inn (“implementing sound environmental practices”) sponsored an interesting but modest area called Sustainable Gardens, to “showcase themes relating to the environment and biodiversity”. I guess the other show gardens didn’t? Er…well, now you come to mention it… Certainly the Legoland garden wasn’t a very helpful advert in the International Year of Biodiversity. Of course there has to be a commercial logic to all of this, and it’s absolutely critical not to take the fun out of gardening, but PLEASE can the RHS not treat “the environment and biodiversity” as somehow seperate issues to mainstream gardening, and fully embrace and promote them. It needs to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk. HoneybeeThey could at least start by vetting exhibitors and managing a tiered rate system according to how “eco friendly” they were. They might even actively solicit certain types of exhibitor. I wondered if biodiversity was a consideration in judging the show gardens (I loved the Bradstone Garden at Chelsea, for example, which showed how it can be done)? Does anyone think about the overall impression the show might create? Organisations like the RHS are the kind of opinion formers who need to be at the vanguard of a new paradigm shift.
Right, that’s that off my chest. It was lovely to see all sorts of people at the show. The BBKA were there, and honey bees from their demo hive were much in evidence in (some) parts of the Show, although I wonder how many punters noticed there were no butterflies about. Anywhere.

My main pleasure as a non-designer is to wander around the small nurseries, who can be a delight. Downderry Nursery’s stand in the Floral marquee – top – was lovely. We hope to be selling lavender supplied by them soon. Owners Simon and Dawn Charlesworth are very much on side when it comes to bees; I bumped into Simon originally at LASI, with whom he’s trialling different types of lavender. I also hope to start selling Hellebores from Harvey’s Garden Plants, who also look like just the sort of folk we ought to be promoting. More anon. Jekka’s Herb stand was lovely too – and rather more swamped in bees than the Copella Bee Garden.


It was nice to meet Jake Hobson, one of our suppliers, who imports Japanese ladders and tools and sold me the most beautiful pair of secateurs. I had a nice chat too with the man at Clear Water Revival, who nearly sold us a swimming pond when I was affluent. Lovely company, great product. It would be good to supply them with native aquatic plants. Talking of which, I loved the locally based Dorset Water Lilly company, and other favourites included the Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight. I hope you all had a good show. As to the folk selling bronze butterflies on wires, good luck to you too – soon they’ll be the only butterflies your customers will see.