Life

A simple wildflower garden with a surprising success

A garden planted to attract bees and insects has starting is now visited by something else.

Everyone agrees the bees are in trouble. Popular opinion has neonicotinoids as the One Thing to Blame, though Australia uses neonicotinoids without colony collapse. It doesn’t have the Varroa mite, so it’s tempting to argue that Varroa is the One Thing instead.

In reality that’s not a great idea. It’s likely that the colony collapse is a bit more complicated than just a single cause and a combination of factors, like pesticides, fungicides, parasites and climate change all play a part. The great thing about all these is that they don’t mean I have to do anything. I could just be annoyed and feel that I’m playing a part by being publicly grumpy. That’s perfect for my skill set.

However, there’s something I’ve missed off the list and it means there’s something positive I could do.

I think it would be a bit hypocritical to complain about agricultural practices, while having a purely grass lawn – given that 97% of wildflower meadows have disappeared from the UK in the past century. It’s an excellent example of a shifting baseline, because if 97% of something goes missing you should notice. Instead we’ve accepted it as the new normal.

Flowers are not enough. Last year Annals of Botany published a paper that showed native bees have mixed success with flowers, because often the flowers are exotic. Some bees like foreign cuisine in the garden, but others don’t. So last year I decided to turn over a chunk of lawn to a wildflower meadow with a simple three-step plan.

  1. De-turf lawn.
  2. Scatter flower seeds, roughly evenly.
  3. Fill in any obvious bald patches with seeds later.

Step one was painful. I’ve seen them do this on television. They slip a spade or edging tool into turf to cut it into rolls and then use a spade to cut it underneath, rolling as they go. Not on this lawn. The ground varies between solid and boggy depending on how recent the rain was. I ended up hiring a turf-stripping machine which helped me find the lawn was covering rocks, bricks and slabs. It’s good news for wildflowers, they do well in poor soil, but it’s hard work to clear.

For step two I bought a packet with enough seed for 25m2 for an area that was slightly over 20m2. I also added some Welsh poppies, Meconopsis cambrica because I like them. I then forked over the soil to break it up and then scattered handfuls of the seed around.

I wasn’t expecting a great response that year, as it was quite late to sow. Ideally I would have done this late March or early April, but the growth of the plants was a great lesson in how fast some flowers can colonise an area. I added the seeds to the areas that didn’t have much activity at all and left it.

…and left it.

…and left it.

After the first work, it’s been the easiest gardening I’ve done.

For the first winter it looked patchy, but this year the native grasses and flowers have filled out the patch. Ox-eye daisy Leucanthemum vulgare and Yarrow Achillea millefolium were the big winners. I’ve left it still, so the tallest plants are about my height, but most are around waist-high.

meadow-med

I’ve not had much chance to see how successful the area has been with bees. It’s either been raining, I’ve been ill or else away for much of the summer. While I haven’t seen much of it during the day, I have seen the effects of it as I work at night, because I’ve seen things passing by my window. The footage below is pretty poor quality, it’s from my phone, but you can see the view from the garden with the meadow area on my left.

You might need to look carefully to see them, because they flap about on very brief flights zipping over the garden before returning to a tree. They’re Pipistrelles, a type of small bat. They’re around most nights of the year in the evening having a quick skim across the meadow to pick up insects. It’s hard to be sure how many visit, they tend to fly out one at a time, and they all sound the same on the batbox.

I’m fortunate living in a rural area that I get to see quite a bit of the food chain, from the flowers to insects to small birds to a sparrowhawk that manages to evade my camera. Planting wildflowers won’t just give you attractive flowers. Even a small area of just a few square metres could give you a lot more.

    • That’s a handy comment. I’m sure I’ve seen a paper recently that highlighted the importance of some non-Apis bees for pollination. I wish I could remember where as the authors argued that ‘non-Apis’ hid a lot of variety in foraging by bees.

      I have been thinking about Mason bees, but that may be because there are places selling nests for them. I hadn’t been thinking of bumble bees, even though they’re the ones I see (or at least recognise) most in the garden. That’s something to change when I write the Welsh-language version and/or a follow-up post here if I get the pond dug.

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