McMeadows

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.

2013 – A Good Year

2013 – a good year. Not just for us, but also for wildlife in the UK, which showed how resilient it is. A decent summer and we were rewarded with all sorts of excitement. Here we had our first colony of Tree Bumblebees and clouds of Clouded Yellow Butterflies. The Wagtail and Wren pairs which moved into the new house with us both had successful years too, as did the new honeybee nucleuses I brought in from a friend.

Bombus Hypnorum
Tree bumblebee and Phacelia
As well as re-establishing my apiary I’ve now got the bare bones of our garden and mixed orchard and meadow areas sorted. Raised beds everywhere as the (clay) soil is so brutal, and structure from some pleached hornbeam and Hawthorn hedges. Lots of veg and, of course, Hybrid Musk roses and bee plants in the “formal” garden, together with some of my favourite fruit trees. We have peach, almond and apricot, together with a vine, goji berry and some of the prettiest English apples there are. I’ve been tinkering around with green manure, which has been fun, and now have swathes of an attractive wild red clover, phacelia and Trefoil mix.

In the orchard are some pleasing oddities and some more of my favourite things, which mostly seem to have taken well.

Ditch through meadow areas
Ditch through meadow areas
The meadows are looking good too, with some interesting success stories (Forking Larkspur and Wild Clary), and I’m dying to see what my water obsession produces by way of flora. The pond is yet to hold water properly, but is getting there, and my borage and strawberry bed is coming on.

The house has been fabulous to live in, not least because we can light and heat it effectively for free. I’ve become a huge fan of renewables this year, not least because of the exciting work we’re doing with Good Energy and Solar Century. I just don’t understand why the take up of some of the schemes offered by the government is so low. I DO understand the backlash against large scale solar developments, despite their potential for significantly enhancing biodiversity. For the government to flip-flop on renewables and energy bills smacks of short term populism, however, and really damages the development of the industry.

Hookgate Cottage
Hookgate Cottage, with solar panels and wood burning range chimney.
It has been very tricky for us, for example, as we have to try to judge future demand for hedge plants and wildflower seed. Folk should be reminded that our retail energy costs are among the lowest in Europe.

This has been one of my major business related irritations this year. I’ve also been very irked by the luke warm response to the Ash tree dieback issue. There’s apparently too much vested interest opposing a requirement for plants to be sold with a label confirming their country of origin. When people buy “native British plants” they generally want native British native plants grown in the UK.

I try to remain apolitical, but I have to say the government has been very disappointing on this and on the other environmental issues I know a bit about, from neonicotinoid use to agricultural subsidies. This is particularly unfortunate at a time when conservation NGOs are struggling with funding.

In the private sector, though, things are moving in the right direction. Folk are becoming aware of what biodiversity is and what it means to them. Although bees have generated a disproportionate length of column inches in 2013 they have focused attention on issues like habitat loss and pesticide use, as well as reinforcing awareness of our dependence on the natural world. The current vogue for foraging has helped that too, together with an increasing sense of localism. What better way to celebrate local distinctiveness than through local food?

We are finding ourselves involved in an increasing range of projects, which reflect that interest. Some are pretty large scale; we already hope to sell around 10,000kg of wildflower seed in 2014, for example. Some are much smaller; I was delighted that we were recently able to help fund ARG’s work with sand lizards on the Merseyside coast. We’re enormously proud too of our work this year with Friends of the Earth, Noble Foods and the Co-op, to name but three of our customers.

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.

The Wacky World of Wildflower Seeds

It’s difficult making money out of wildflower seeds if you produce them properly. It’s risky, highly seasonal and difficult, and people don’t pay enough for seed as they don’t for plants; they can buy imports much cheaper. Much of the seed in wildflower seed packets is European (and sold sale or return), like most of the “native” hedging sold in the UK. People are now terribly confused about what a “wildflower” is; I know a lovely meadow full of North American wildflowers. Lovely, but not what I’m after, which are the sort of flowers you might find in a a traditional hay meadow, for example, supporting an attractive British ecosystem.
No-one seems to know how big the market for British wildflower seed in the UK is; Kew recently commissioned a piece of market research which came up with a resounding blank. I think there are maybe only 5 proper producers here, and lots of smaller folk who harvest meadows and sell that seed as a direct harvested mix. The industry doesn’t produce much wildflower seed in total, particularly in a year as bad as this. To give you an idea, I’ve been wrestling with a shortage of Yellow Rattle. Rattle is an interesting plant and an interesting indicator of how big the market is. It’s almost an essential for meadow creation, for reasons I’ve talked about before. If you were to sow it in an existing sward you’d do so at something like 0.5g per square metre, or 2kg per acre. I reckon there were only about 400kg harvested in the UK this year, enough for 200 acres. Nationwide.
Does this matter?
The problems with imported seed are twofold. As I’ve already mentioned, it means that people get confused between wildflowers and British wildflowers, regardless of where they’re produced. The “British” species that are sold might also be quite different from the flowers we have. Local populations of plants in the wild here look very different, let alone plants grown from Serbia, for example. It seems worthwhile trying to preserve local variation in our flora which leads to ecologists sometimes specifying locally harvested seed or green hay. This isn’t very helpful from the point of view of UK seed producers, ironically.

The folk that are out there making a modest living out of producing wildflower seed properly need to get these messages across to their retail and business customers:
1. Our seeds are high quality (test them like we do, and advertise the fact).
2. When you buy our seeds you get what it says on the packet.
3. There are good reasons to buy native British wildflowers…
4. …harvested in the UK.
5. You will need to pay us properly to produce them.
They also need to find ways of making their businesses more profitable. How you cope with being frantic for only three months a year I’m not sure. Harvesting and processing seed is difficult too; you need expensive kit with low utilization rates. Selling directly to small retail customers is probably not the way to go as it’s so time consuming. Rather than spending hours on the phone talking to consumers who need assurance or advice, perhaps use how to videos and online guides. Improve and expand your relationships with selected – not all – resellers (like us!).

Interesting challenges.

Newsletter No. 24: July 2012

Now summer is finally doing its stuff I feel strong enough to write a newsletter after a shameful hiatus. I’ll plead our new house build (what a nightmare that has been!) and being busy as well as the weather; it’s show season, and they always seem to take up more time than you think. I’ve been to Gardener’s World at Birmingham and the Hampton Court Flower show with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and our bumblarium, which even got me briefly on TV, although not in shot with St. Monty.

Meadows
If you needed any persuasion to start your own meadow, just find one locally and lie down in the sun, surrounded by the sound of bees (such as there are this year). More likely than not you’re not as lucky as us and don’t have one like this around the corner, which has provided huge pleasure over the last month.
It’s a perfect time to start preparing your site for plugs, seed or turf – don’t go off half cock in autumn!

Seed Packets
After the huge success of the Co-op’s Plan Bee wildflower seed packet give-away, we have also supplied Friends of the Earth with gazillions of packets to promote “The Bee Cause”. We’re working on a number of smaller scale projects for companies and charities too; have you ever thought about promoting your business or fund raising this way?

Wildflower Seeds

I gave some seed to a really nice bunch of folk at a Primary School in Essex last year. They were a HUGE success planted in a flowerbed, but unfortunately they didn’t let them reseed. My heart sank when I saw this recent entry and photo on their Facebook page:

“Today the children started to prepare the wildflower meadow.
They dug and raked the soil and found lots of interesting insects such as ladybirds ants and worms in the process!
I cant believe just how hard they worked as a team and we soon had the whole area cleared, well done to year 6. To their parents, sorry about their shoes, bit muddy ooppps.
We have two boxes of wildflower seeds so sow, which was another great find in the pound shop, and another packet of seeds are being delivered next week. These should be sown in the next couple of weeks as the weather warms up.
As you know we cannot post the photos of the children on facebook, so you will have to make do with pictures of the boxes of seeds!”

People like me obviously aren’t getting the message across. Sowing these seeds will no more give you a “wildflower meadow” than planting petunias will, I’m afraid. They’re not British species, they’re not meadow species, they won’t be British seeds and they probably won’t germinate anyway. I don’t know what the butterflies are on the packets, but they’re not British either, which is a bit of a clue. This kind of thing is a widespread issue; I went to Wisley last summer and popped into the shop there, only to find the RHS was selling lovely French wildflower seed.

Does it matter that any old wildflower mixes are being sold to consumers who think they are buying the right kit to establish a “wildflower meadow”? I think it does. I’m not qualified to make the ecological arguments about appropriateness, but I think it’s important that people get what they expect. There’s also the argument for supporting British suppliers. Quite apart from questions of provenance, I think most shoppers would be appalled to know where many of the seeds in packets sold in garden centres came from. We come across the same issues in other areas too; if I bought a mix of “native hedge plants” I think I might reasonably expect the plants to be British. The chances are, of course, that they’re not. It’s one of the things we make a song and dance about, and as a reseller we only sell British seed (and plants!) from British suppliers. There aren’t many about, but we try to provide geographic choice of origin within the UK as much as we can. We’re always on the hunt for new sources to add to our network of harvesters and growers, so if you know anyone local to you who produces seed please let us know.

Despite the alluring packaging, wildflower seed has had a bad press in recent times, which is one of the reasons why wildflower turf and plug plants are such attractive alternatives. I’ve often asked myself what the problems are that people have with seed, and I think they fall into three categories; preparation and management, appropriateness, and seed quality. How we can shorten the odds on making seed work for people and getting them to buy the “right” mixes?

Getting preparation and management right is just a question of persuading folk to do some research and have some patience. Carrying basic information on the website is one thing, but if I were tackling a reasonable sized project from scratch I would at least buy a couple of books, and probably get an expert in to give me a management plan. The cost of that sort of investment is tiny relative to the whole project. We’ve started to offer just that kind of service, particularly aimed at designers and landscape architects.

Making sure the seed mix is right is as much about making different options available as it is asking consumers the right questions about their site and what they want from it. A generic mix bought off the shelf may be completely inappropriate for your soil type, which means it will disappoint; it could also fail because the seed is old or has been badly stored. The good quality end of the market hasn’t done enough to let consumers know that their seed has demonstrably better germination rates than cheaper mixes, which consequently represent a false economy. We’ve started randomly testing our mixes through an external laboratory to give extra peace of mind, and offer a testing service as an option for larger orders too. It’s relatively inexpensive and I can’t imagine why more suppliers don’t do it.

There is a kind of trade body for wildflower seed – Flora Locale – who do a great job, but it’s specifically not an organization able to issue some kind of a kitemark. Perhaps Kew, who have started to get involved, might be interested in setting up some kind of a scheme and raising broader awareness of these issues. In the meantime we’ll carry on doing our best to try to, and perhaps most importantly raise appreciation of the aesthetic of what an ecologist would call “unimproved grassland”. At the very least it would be good to see more (British!) native plants in gardens in some form or other.

This blog also appeared as a guest blog for the The Grasslands Trust