Tuesday August 11 2020




Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Parks and gardens

Posted on September 03 2014 at 1:33:43 0 comments


Mary Green takes a look at the wildlife found in public spaces.

I made a visit in July to Eades Meadow to see them cutting the hay. It looked and smelled wonderful, full of flowers still. They cut it quite early so they could take the baled hay to a range of fields around the Midlands, where they are using it to seed new wildflower meadows.

Now the fruit season is well under way. Some cherry plum trees are full of red and yellow fruit, some aren’t, depending on their flowering time, and crab apples are there aplenty.

Domestic fruit looks fine – not as heavy as last year’s crop, but I have apples, plums and damsons: three out of three doesn’t always happen!

Wildlife doesn’t only live in “wild” places, of course. Our parks and gardens are very important for providing the habitat for a variety of plants, insects and mammals. I have had a good look round our public parks and open spaces, and other people’s gardens, this year.

In July, I was asked to talk to the Friends of Kings Norton Park about the flowering plants in their park. Much of this large park is mown grass (used a lot for sports and play) with some formal planting of garden flowers and shrubs.

However, it also has lots of excellent native trees, some natural riverside growth, and a new wild flower meadow.

This latter was interesting, as it has only been let to grow for about 18 months, and has been helped along with some seeding of yellow rattle. (This, also called hay rattle, is an essential element of perennial meadows. It is parasitic on grass and helps other flowering plants get established).

Their “meadow” has a lot of lovely native grasses, beautiful in their own right but not of course contributing so much to other wildlife as they are not insect pollinated. (They do provide good seeds for birds.)

However, it also has meadow buttercups, plantain, sorrel, red and white clover, medick, lesser stitchwort and ragwort. In addition there is a lovely patch of knapweed and some St John’s wort. These two are not so common except in the wild, and lovely to see in the “meadow.”

The continuing success of this meadow depends on it being mowed at the end of the year and the cuttings taken away. If the resulting hay is to be fed to animals, they may need to remove the ragwort from the meadow, as it is poisonous to animals, especially when dried in hay.

If these wildflower patches are not mown annually, they can start to turn to scrubland.

Their other good wildlife areas were along the various small waterways in the park, where there is willow herb, meadowsweet, hogweed, cow parsley, butterbur, hemlock water dropwort – and some unfortunate incursions of Indian balsam, which they are trying to get rid of.

Unlike some non-native plants, this one stops native species thriving and spreads like mad. It especially likes fertile soil.

They asked me if it was a problem to have poisonous plants, such as hemlock water dropwort and ragwort, in a public park. I think there is no need to be concerned: so many of our native plants would be poisonous if eaten in large doses.

Foxglove is the classic one: its constituent digitalis is used for heart problems, but too much of it would be poisonous. Our parks, roads and paths are full of wild arum lily (cuckoo pint) with its poisonous berries, and iris berries along the canal are also poisonous.

At Alnwick gardens in Northumberland, there is a “poison garden” which you have to be accompanied into. It is not much different from things we see every day in our parks and gardens! The important thing is that children learn not to eat anything from the wild unless with a knowledgeable adult.

I compared this park to our own Meadows in Alvechurch. Our wildflower patch is well established now and has really varied flowers, including meadowsweet and knapweed in abundance and earlier lady’s smock and buttercups.

Around the edges of the park are true woodland areas, with wild garlic and bluebells in the spring, and plenty of blossom from hawthorn, horse chestnut and other trees. It’s a great place for wildlife as well as sport.

Even when parks are just mown grass, they can be wildlife-friendly if they have good trees and shrubs around them. Most native trees flower well if allowed to, and are very attractive to bees and other insects and, of course, nesting birds. We saw a green woodpecker in Kings Norton Park, and our own Meadows are full of bird life.

Many of the trees are historic monuments in their own right, like the ancient oak on the far side of the Meadows. Many parks, like ours, are remnants of old woods, and keep some of the woodland trees and plants.

Private gardens are generally good for wild life, certainly better than arable farmland. They vary a lot, though. Old-fashioned gardens with old-fashioned flowers are fine, but some of the recent trends for minimalist planting and “hard landscaping” are not welcoming for insects, birds and mammals.

Nor of course are mown lawn grass or close-clipped hedges, or weedkiller and insecticide. But many people plant native wild flowers, like English bluebells and moon daisies, and of course the weeds are wildlife!

It’s not difficult to make a garden wildlife-friendly. Plant so you have flowers throughout the year, especially the more open, single varieties, any of the plants with heads of small flowers (daisy and carrot family) and old fashioned herbs.

Have flowering hedges. If you’ve got room, hawthorn, holly or any other native flowering shrub is great, though of course you can’t cut it back hard or it won’t flower.

You can try cutting back a third of the branches every year in late autumn or winter: that way you will always have blossom and never more than three years’ growth. For a smaller hedge you can use rosemary or lavender: trim the flower heads at the end of the season and use them.

If you have a fence or wall, grow flowering plants along it. Climbing flowering plants like honeysuckle and clematis are great: so are stonecrop, houseleek, aubretia and toadflax on a wall. Even ivy helps, with its late flowers and berries.

Try letting some of your lawn grow longer and just mowing paths and sections to sit or play in. The long grass will be attractive and provide seed for birds, and other flowers like lesser stitchwort may colonise it.

Or plant a lawn with short flowering plants like camomile, daisies, clover, self-heal, cinquefoil – keep it a few inches in growth and they will flower and stand mowing and some treading on. Let a little stand of nettles grow, so you have the lovely butterflies of the red admiral, tortoiseshell, peacock and comma group, whose caterpillars all love them.

There are wildlife-friendly alternatives for slug deterrence (for example, some made from wool). Don’t use insecticides if you like butterflies and bees! If you buy compost, use peat-free, as the wholesale digging of peat is removing some of our rare wetlands and their wildlife. Make your own compost if you can.

If you want bigger wildlife, like hedgehogs, make sure your borders are not sealed by fences or walls – they need gaps to move from garden to garden. Put food out for birds in winter, near trees or shrubs so they feel safe. This will probably attract squirrels too, of course.

And a pond will attract not only water insects like dragonflies and demoiselles but also frogs and newts, and splashing birds in hot weather.

Allotments can also be a lovely wildlife haven, though not always in the way people want! In the Alvechurch allotments recently there were lots of lovely large white butterflies, but these of course carry the other name “cabbage white” because their caterpillars love brassicas.

But you do want bees and other pollinating insects if you grow any fruiting crops. These include tomatoes, courgettes, marrows, all the beans and peas, of course – all fruits.

Many allotment holders plant herbs, which are nectar-rich and very attractive to bees, including some lovely borage on Alvechurch allotments. There’s quite a fashion again for “companion planting” of flowers among vegetables. This is not just for beauty, nor just to attract pollinators.

Some flowers will be more attractive to pests than your veggies, and so distract them. Others contain natural insect repellents. Some attract the kind of insects which prey on the insects that eat your crops. It’s complicated, but mixed planting is a good thing.

I’m afraid there’s nothing you can do to deter rabbits though, except fencing, or to protect your soft fruit from birds except netting. But there’s plenty of room around the edges of allotments for wild flowering plants and shrubs, so long as people aren’t spraying insecticides or weedkillers.

Because the ground gets disturbed, there will often be the kind of flowers you get on arable land – poppies, bistort and camomile. And one allotment-holder here found a very interesting fungus this year, called a stinkhorn.

If you looked down on our area from the air, you would want to be able to see joined-up lines of flowering trees and plants, to help our wildlife thrive, and thus help with crop pollination and carbon capture. Have you joined up your bit of the link?

This is a poem I wrote during the Picnic in the Park for a local allotment holder:

Ode to an artichoke

Angela loves her allotment
And her allotment loves Angela
And so do her fellow gardeners
And she loves the sun and wind.
Because of her new hips and knees
She has raised beds. She tends them
Watering and weeding and watching.
Angela has an artichoke. One little plant
Last spring, it is now a triffid
Green all winter, buds have come already
You eat them when they are the size
Of the palm of your hand
Take out the choke and dip the leaves
In melted butter, sucking out the green
She watches them, waiting for the moment.
Angela’s vegetables don’t go over,
All around are beans, rhubarb and broccoli
And herbs – sage and chives full of bees
And flowers of course. Borage and marigolds.
Gladioli even. They love the allotment.
Vegetables love flowers around their roots
The more you plant the more they like it
Angela’s artichoke has a family
And so does Angela.

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