Monday, 13 October 2014

Nothing conserves like poverty

A short but poignant quote from my "book of the moment". "Meadowland, the private life of an English field" is a proper page turner. The author, John Lewis-Stemple gives us a week by week account of the comings and goings in his Herefordshire meadow. You'd think, wouldn't you, that it would be quite a tiresome read, but no. John paints such beautiful pictures with his words that the different habitats, weather conditions, plants and creatures come to life and I almost feel as though I am walking beside him across the field.

Is poverty a great conservationist?

Do you know, I agree with John, nothing does conserve like poverty.
Think of some of the most beautiful places you know. Dartmoor, the Scottish Highlands, the Peak District, The Burren. It's very difficult in any of those areas to make a living from the land. The soil quality is just not good enough to grow food crops or the agricultural grasses that fuel milk production. Nor even forests of pine destined to become coffee tables, pallets and matchsticks. If farming and forestry doesn't make enough money, there is no cash to invest in fertilisers or herbicides to "improve" the land. What happens to unimproved land? Nature finds a balance, that's what happens.
The Burren where nature has populated the land with a wide variety of wildflowers

Now compare unimproved wild spaces with our closely manicured and very beautiful gardens.
The kind of garden I'm thinking of has a patio beside the house and another seating area at the bottom of the garden. It has a lawn, an ornamental tree, a wooden boundary fence, raised vegetable beds, herbaceous flower beds and a few planters dotted around. Most likely filled with those double begonias that are so eyecatching in summer. There is a medium sized pond inhabited by graceful koi carp. No aquatic plants have escaped their voracious appetites but no-one can deny, they are magnificent creatures.
The gardener here likes an extent. They have bird feeders dangling from a pole in front of the kitchen window. But no natural food for our feathered friends. Aphids and caterpillars, slugs and snails are actively discouraged. Without aphids there will be no ladybirds or lacewings. without slugs, the frogs will starve.

What does a garden cost?

According to Emma Townsend, writing in the Independant in May 2014, the average Brit will spend £30,000 on their gardens over a lifetime. Crikey! Well that certainly rules out poverty. Gardeners like to invest in their outdoor rooms and I don't blame them. I've not added up what I spend. I daren't! but even though my garden is nowhere near as beautifully manicured as some of the gardens I've visited it, it's certainly not as biodiverse as it would be if it were left to its own devices
My garden costs me money for seeds and plants, compost and fertilisers, tools and equipment and of course, if I charged for my own labout, it would cost money for that too. It gives me peace, sanctuary, tomatoes, apples, raspberries, gooseberries, flowers, eggs (there are chickens at the bottom of my garden), veggies and exercise.
My garden offers wildlife a bit of pollen and nectar, a few safe places to shelter, slugs aplenty, aphids and caterpillars, trees to perch in and chicken food to pilfer. There's a mini-wildflower meadow created using Meadowmat wildflower turf as part of an experiment to see if wildflower turf is better than wildflower seed (it is). This is popular with spiders, slugs and frogs....and my two grandsons who like to hunt for spiders slugs and frogs.
My "other" garden is part of the family farm that can't be ploughed. It's more or less allowed to naturalise. It offers me blackberries in summer, birdsong, food for my honeybees, crab apples and sloes (I love sloe gin)
In my "other" garden, where no money is spent, there are countless species of crawling, slithering and flying minibeasts. There are several different species of bumblebees, goodness how many flowering plant.s, butterflies, birds, mice, shrews, a fox den, a badger sett, roe deer, muntjacs, rabbits, hares......the list goes on.
So John Lewis-Stemple is absolutely correct. Nothing conserves like poverty. But strictly between you and me, much as I love nature and welcome biodiversity, there are some bits of biodiversity (foxes, badgers, deer and pigeons) that I really would prefer to stay in the countryside.

Friday, 11 April 2014

Which flowers are best for butterflies?

A walk in the woods reveals a host of yellow butterflies

Yesterday afternoon I loaded my 3 dogs into the back of the van, grabbed my camera and headed off to the woods.  The weather was warm and sunny and as soon as I opened the van door I was struck by the scent of the mahonia-like flowers that grow wild in this area.

Stupidly, I got caught up in the moment and left my camera on the passenger seat as Spud, Rosie, Lola and I made our way through the gate and into the wide "rides" of Thetford Forest. We call them rides in Norfolk, in Hertfordshire where I grew up they were called fire breaks. 

Red dead-nettle.  My husband thinks it's a weed.
The butterflies disagree.
In recent years the forest rides have been managed in such a way as to encourage wild flowers to thrive; and it seems to have worked. There are red dead nettles, tiny blue speed wells, dandelions and a myriad of different grass species. But the real spectacle was not the wild flowers, beautiful as they were; it was the butterflies that really captured my attention.

The bright yellow brimstones were in abundance and I'm pretty sure I saw a common blue or two. I did see a lonely orange-tip too.

Comma butterfly.
I found this picture on
Flying in and out of the trees were several " brown jobs".  They were too high and too fast for an amateur like me to identify but then, joy of joys, one settled, just for a second and I could see the distinctive wing shape of a comma butterfly.

Returning home, I made a brew and took it out into the garden to ponder how I could get such a wonderful display in my own back yard.

Butterflies in the Garden

Honesty growing in my garden - brimstone and orange-tip butterflies seem to love it.
I do have brimstone butterflies in my garden, they like the honesty that grows under the apple tree.  I also get small tortoishells visiting the herbaceous borders.....I think they hibernate in the tool shed. Likewise peacock butterflies and the dreaded cabbage whites are frequent vistitors

Later in the year the sedums, the asters and the verbena bonerensii will bring butterflies in their droves

But as usual, me being me, I want more beautiful butterflies...(but not if they're planning to lay their eggs in me brassicas)!

So I consulted a few see if I' m growing everything I can be growing to attract butterflies.

Good plants for butterflies

Purple and yellow seem to be the butterfly's' favourite colours with pinks and whites coming close second.  They seem to ignore reds.

Don't be afraid to leave a few weeds here and there.  As I saw in the woods, red dead nettle and dandelion are popular with butterflies. We just need to re- tune ourselves to thinking " wild flower" instead of "weed".

Think on several different levels....only last week I was treated to a display of small tortoishells feeding high on a willow tree. Shrubs, trees and hedgerow plants are valuable too.   Have you got a shed? How about covering it with sedum matting to bring in lots more pollinating insects.

Attracting adult butterflies into your garden is great....but remember to have food plants for their babies too.  This is where native plants come into their own. Caterpillars are very fussy eaters!

A list of food plants for caterpillars

Birdsfoot trefoil is a valuable nectar plant for bees and butterflies.
It's also a laval food plant for some butterfly species.
Birds foot trefoil....for dingy skipper caterpillars
Tall grasses, preferably native species.  For skippers, gatekeepers and meadow browns. Moths too.
Stinging nettles are favoured by the peacock butterfly, the small tortoishells and the comma.
Garlic mustard and/or Honesty for orange-tips

These don't sound like very exciting plants to have in a garden, but a swathe of long grass can look stunning - especially with a path mown though it......or even a maze - if you have room.

Garlic mustard is a fairly innocuous looking plant - it likes damp shade, so allow some to grow under the hedge or behind the shed.  You never know, you might grow to like it just as much as the brightly coloured wallflowers and sweet williams that are blooming at the same time.

Honesty is beautiful.  I thoroughly recommend it.  Not least for the silvery penny-like seed heads that shine out on dull autumn days.

A list of flowering plants to attract adult butterflies

Ageratum.   Pink or blue flowers.  Not frost hardy but great when used as summer bedding.  Grow it from seed to save money.
Allium...the flowers from anything in the onion family are super.  Chives are a super butterfly food that double up as a culinary herb.  Again, they're easy to grow from seed.
Aubrietia. A very easy to grow, perennial plant often found on walls and in rock gardens. Purple flowers in spring and early summer.
Bellflower There are lots and lots of different types of these.  The native harebell is exquisite. I've just sown seeds for a taller variety in mixed pinks, whites and blues.
Birds foot trefoil. A native species that is too often overlooked as a garden plant. Cheery yellow flowers on a low growing plant. Also great for bees
Peacock butterfly feeding on buddleja.
My colleague Debs took this picture in her garden

Buddleja. The butterfly bush. It's a must. If you don't have much room , try one of the new dwarf varieties.
Daisy.  All too often we dismiss these jolly blooms as being lawn weeds. They're lovely. Especially in containers.
Honesty. An easy to grow biennial with purple flowers.  Because it is nectar rich and is a laval food plant, honesty supports the whole life-cycle of the orange-tip butterfly.
Scabious. Bees love it, butterflies love it, I love it. Every garden and every meadow should include scabious.
Small tortoishell butterfly feeding from a scabious flower

Knapweed. Ignore the name, it's not a weed. It's an important plant for our pollinators.
Marigolds...but not the double-flowered ones. Butterflies can't fight their way through the petals to get to the nectar.
Sweet William. My granddad's favourite.
Yarrow. The native one is beautiful, then again so are it's cultivars. Ask at the garden centre for achillea. You can't go wrong with it.

Encouraging butterflies into your garden is rewarding and it's not difficult.

If you have enough room, a mini-wildflower meadow could be just what you need.  A 50cm wide strip of native flowers and grasses beside a sunny wall, a hedge or around the lawn will bring you many happy hours of butterfly watching for very little work.

Take a look at this video and you'll see how a mini- meadow was planted in my garden. I'm not in the film though....while the boys were working hard I was out shopping for doughnuts.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Wild flowers for remembrance

Speaking as someone who lives next door to the village churchyard, I can be confident, that in Feltwell at least, flowers feature heavily in the way that we remember loved ones.

Bunches of freshly imported colourful hothouse flowers are arranged and rearranged by some of the graves on a weekly basis.  Traditional holly wreathes are lain every Christmas and every November brings a flush of remembrance poppies. Each family has their own way of remembering. Me? Rather than bring cut flowers to a memorial, I prefer to connect memories with the flowers where they're growing.

Bluebells carpet a woodland floor
A bluebell wood, no matter where it is, brings memories of  Nanny Brown flooding back.  As a small (ish) child we would walk across the fields and through the woods to Goose Green where the bluebells carpeted the woodland floor every spring.  Nanny Brown would bring a picnic and we'd enjoy our sandwiches and iced gems before traipsing home with handfuls of sticky stemmed blooms to cram into jam-jars on the kitchen windowsill.

Sweet Williams remind me of Granddad Brown and I always grow them in my own garden as a reminder of the times we spent together in his garden.  Tying wigwams for runner beans and grubbing around in the dirt harvesting new potatoes with my cousins.

Granddad Brown with his first Great Grandson way back in 1988

This spring I have sown a patch of heartsease, the wild pansy, in honour of an amazing gentleman.  We'll call him DW. DW passed away in October aged 93. A good age, no one can say he was taken before his time, and his was a life well lived.

DW, just like Granddad Brown was of a different generation and represented a better time.  A time when young men were taught respect, honour, tolerance and loyalty. They fought for their country, they worked hard to support their families, never even considering any reliance upon the welfare state. They were always well turned out. I never saw DW without his tie fastened just so and his boots polished.

I met DW when I was 30 and he was 70. He was a true countryman. He understood why bees are important and knew where to look for pheasants eggs. The weather held no mysteries for him, neither did the ways of man.  We worked together for 6 winters before ill health kept me at home. I had the healthiest respect for him, and for his "mucker" Percy.

Somehow, heartsease, the Victorian's flower for remembrence seems a more fitting tribute to DW than gaudy chrysanthemums or sellophane wrapped carnations. 

Percy was of a similar age to DW. they had both fought in the Second World War, although not together.  I never heard DW ( or Granddad Brown) mention their wartime experiences but Percy did once, and only once, confide that he had been captured by the Japanese as spent time as a prisoner of war. He considered himself lucky because unlike many of his comrades, Percy had 2 pairs of socks.  One pair protected his feet while they walked and walked and walked.  The other pair saved his life ....... He ate them.  Poppies are for Percy. 
Poppies remind me of an old friend who survived a spell as a POW

The Victorians invented their own language using flowers instead of words.  I guess I have done the my own little way.

Plants are one of my favourite ways to remember people, occasions and special places.  Sometimes their scent will bring back a memory (new mown grass takes me back to Bayford Primary School when in summer time the grass beside our classroom window was cut by a tractor and gang mowers), sometimes the colour or the setting will remind me of something (or someone) or other.

I wonder - do plants and flowers help Alzheimer’s patients in the same way?

Meadowmat for Remembrance

If you are thinking of planting some wild flowers in memory of someone or something special, Meadowmat's Passchendaele Poppy Mix is well worth a look.  Not only is it stunningly beautiful and easy to grow, each sale will raise money for the Royal British Legion to help support people like Granddad Brown, DW and Percy.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Meadowmat - Wildflower Blog - Wild flowers for shade

Finding native wild flowers that will be happy in that shady spot in the garden is no mean feat.  Here's a little blogpost that lists some of the likeliest candidates and suggests different methods of establishing wild flowers in the shade.

Meadowmat - Wildflower Blog - Wild flowers for shade

Thursday, 16 January 2014

When to plant wild flowers

A blog post from the Meadowmat website explaining the different ways of establishing a wild flower area and what time of year suits each method best.

Meadowmat - Wildflower Blog - When to plant wild flowers