Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Garden Wildflowers

Wildflowers In The Garden

'If it's a native of this country it'll be a doddle to grow it', seems a logical way of thinking about wildflowers. However, though we are expert at growing exotic things like Dahlias and a multitude of other species, we often fall short in our ability to grow something that proliferates in our own countryside (unless we think of marestail and dandelions - I'm the world champion at them without even trying). One of the main showgrounds of wildflowers is the field regularly cropped by  the farmer for hay. The reason for this is that each year the grass grows, using up nutrient from the soil. Then it is cut and removed for use on the farm, leaving a soil progressively less rich in nutrients - especially nitrogen. This is a boon to the wildflowers, because grass thrives on nitrogen and is subsequently less able to out -compete the other plants.

Hyde Hall Wildflower Meadow

Bearing this in mind, our wildflower patch should not be treated to the constant addition of organic matter and blood, fish and bone butties so loved by the foreigners, but actually allowed to become depleted of these goodies. Copying the hay farmer is one way of achieving this, but obviously that takes time, so it is sometimes recommended that we remove the topsoil to a depth of about six inches and plant in the relatively poor subsoil. This can be a massive task on a large plot, so the slower method may be used and helped along by the use of plants like hay rattle, which is semi-parasitic on grasses and consequently weakens them. An attractive plant in its own right, the ripe seeds do actually rattle when the pods are shaken. Other help is also at hand in places like The National Wildflower Centre in Court Hey Park, near Liverpool, where they display different growing techniques and mediums, while also offering courses and adult training.

Hay Rattle
Anyone not convinced about the merits of wildflowers should visit gardens like Harlow Carr in Yorkshire and Hyde Hall in Essex, where the displays can be mind-blowing. However, for me, the advantage of wildflowers is not simply in the aesthetics they provide, but in something far deeper: for example, at Fletcher Moss where I used to work, we changed the mowing regime in the meadow from fortnightly to once a year in late summer. The result was a proliferation of cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis). However, not only did we get the pretty flower but it was soon noticed that there were far more orange tip butterflies around. Orange tips rely very much on cuckooflower for feeding and egg laying, so the wildflower had encouraged the insect. If there are plenty of insects, birds are attracted to feed on them and if these insect-eating birds are around, there is also the chance that their own predators, like sparrowhawks and kestrels will be attracted.

Cuckoo Flower
Orange Tip Butterfly

And so we learn the lesson that all living things depend on other living things and the more we garden with nature rather than opposed to it, the richer our experience of the natural world will be.


  1. The photo of the poppy field at Hyde Hall is beautiful and makes me want to visit again soon. It seems to have been a very bad year for butterflies in the UK so more wild flowers seems a good idea.

  2. What gorgeous photos! I've spent so much time on my vegetables that I hardly have any flowers growing. It's a shame!