Re-wilding begins at home

Re-wilding is an issue which has recieved quite a bit of attention recently; I’m currently waiting for delivery of Feral – the recent Guardian article suggests it should be a fastinating read.

Much closer to home, I seem to be on something of a quest to populate our garden with native species. This is not intentional, ideological or idealistic, I just keep noticing species in the wild which would look beautiful in the garden and the trend continues! Whether these are shop-bought natives or wild-collected seeds, they seem to be steadily rewilding the garden. There are so many beautiful native species which could stand side-by-side with most ornamentals, especially in a ‘cottage garden’ style planting and there is the added benefit that they are evolved to live in the climatic conditions we have to offer.

Oxeye Daisy - an exuberant beautiful species which provides a nectar source for a range of species, a particular favourite of hoverflies
Oxeye Daisy – an exuberant beautiful species which provides a nectar source for a range of species, a particular favourite of hoverflies

The benefits of planting natives in your garden will be familiar to anybody who has read the literature produced by almost every conservation body you can mention; from the RSPB who (amongst other things) recommend fruit and seed-bearing species for garden birds; Butterfly Conservation who would advise a mix of native flowers and plants (nettles!) to attract butterflies; Bat Conservation Trust taking you into the twilight with night-scented flowers to attract night-flying insects to fall prey to the bats; and the Wildlife Trusts who offer free meadow-mix seeds to try to make the substantial footprint of our gardens a little more familiar to the vast array of wildlife which have developed in a country devoid of peony, choisia and penstamon.

Our garden is a rented house and I think that the landlord might be rather annoyed if we converted the established garden to scrub and meadow, so here are a few good ways to introduce more natives into your garden:

Plant up that tricky spot

Almost every garden has an awkward area, where nothing will grow because it is too shady, or too dry, or too steep. Your garden, however manicured and maintained, fits into a landscape, be it city, village or town – go out and see what grows wild where these conditions are found in the local environment. A particularly dingy area of our garden is now home to sweet woodruff (Galium orodatum), ferns (Dryopteris sp.) and forget-me-nots (Myosotis arvensis) which colour the ground green, white and blue through the spring. Now, towards midsummer, the yellow greater celandine (Chelidonium majus) is fading and the foxgloves (Digitalis purpurea) are flowering above them with the frilled leaves of monk’s hood (Aconitum napellus) promising deep-blue flowers later in the season. Admittedly not all of these species are common in the immediate surroundings in Lincolnshire but all flourish in the conditions.

We have a dense shrubbery, dominated by a glorious rose which I would never want to see go. But the ground layer below was largely bare. The shrubs are deciduous and it is only spring and early summer where the bare ground is visible and the light reaches through which immediately suggests where to look for inspiration – there are a host of woodland plants which have adapted perfectly to occupy this early flowering season, taking advantage of the period before the canopy leaves shade them out. Here we now have bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta), ramsons (Allium ursinum) and winter aconite (Eranthis hyemalis) flourishing in the spring with yellow archangel (Lamiastrum galeobdolon) towards the edges. I am particuarly looking forward to the point where the ramsons (or wild garlic) is established enough to begin harvesting!

Sadly not an image of my garden, but an example of the beautiful blue-and-white ground layer of bluebell and stitchword which flourishes in shady places which ornamentals often struggle to fill
Sadly not an image of my garden, but an example of the beautiful blue-and-white ground layer of bluebell and stitchword which flourishes in shady places which ornamentals often struggle to fill

Knowing your local area is a great place to start when looking for natives which will take; see something you like, look it up and see if you can source it. Better still, if you can, take seeds from your surroundings as local stock is most likely to flourish. Fields of sandy soils are often lined with viper’s bugloss (Lycopis arvensis) and evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) which are beautiful bold plants producing masses of purple and yellow flowers. They would be less likely to thrive in Grantham but would be ideal for anybody wanting to make a Thetford garden a little wilder.

Leave a patch to see what develops

The ‘weeds’ which trouble you will generally be those which find your conditions ideal. I will not pretend I don’t weed the garden, but I always leave a patch where I allow these species to grow unchecked, admittedly with a few additions of my own choosing. Here there is enchanter’s nightshade (Circaea lutetiana), broadleaf willowherb (Epilobium montanum), hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica), cleavers (Galium aparine), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), more forget-me-nots, nettle (Urtica dioica), red campion (Silene dioica) and bramble (Rubus fruticosus agg).

This is also the perfect place for rocks and logs to be piled; you need not worry about the appearance as they will soon be subsumed by the vegetation and will provide perfect shelter for a range of invertebrates, amphibians and other species.

This patch is not designed to be beautiful but it achieves it non-the-less, especially when the red campion is flowering against the dark green foliage. This is the corner where comma’s fly, where the frogs stretch and scramble after slugs, where the hedgehog first forages when leaving the compost pile and striking out on an evenings foray, where the blackbirds pluck blackberries in the autumn.

Resist the urge to perfect your lawn

The expanse of pure grass is quite an unnatural phoenomena and the effort to keep it pristine and free of herbaceous elements and bryophytes will exhaust if it does not defeat you. Why not embrace the floral diversity on offer?

Most people are familiar with the standard lawn species such as daisy (Bellis perennis), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale agg.), broad-leaf plantain (Plantago major) and clover (Trifolium sp.). I personally love the scattering of yellow, white and pink throughout the grass! Creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) is another which is often less than popular but mowing will result in low, yellow flowers which lighten up the damper patches.

Tiny thyme-leaved speedwell growing in the lawn
Tiny thyme-leaved speedwell grows well in lawns, being so low it can often duck beneath the blades of the mower

Other species which do very well in a lawn, despite mowing, are the beautiful purple self-heal (Prunella vulgaris), the delicate white mouse-ear (Cerastium fontanum), the tiny thyme-leaved speedwell (Veronica serpyllifolia). Other more bold species can easily be incorporated, especially if you plant the towards the edge and hold-off the mowing for a while; the delicate yellow cowslip (Primula veris) and striking purple-chequerboard of snakes-head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) would be obvious contenders.

Choose the impressive natives

There are a number of native flowers which really can stand side-by-side with the ornamentals in any bed. There are a wealth of native cultivars which have been bred to be more colourful or impressive such as the yarrows (Achillia millefolium) and geraniums (Geranium sp.) but others are well worth a look.

The impressive floral abundance of viper's bugloss - well suited to sandy soils
The impressive floral abundance of viper’s bugloss – well suited to sandy soils

Native cranesbill species such as the blue-flowered meadow cranesbill (Geranium pratense) and the pink-flowered bloody cranesbill (Geranium sanguineum) can contend with the more familiar garden cultivars; native pink’s and catchfly’s such as the cerise night-flowering catchfly (Silene noctiflora) are a match for the ornamental dianthus; the yellow flowering spikes of great mullein (Verbascum thapsus) resemble hollyhocks and any of the gentian family would grace a rockery beside the imported alpines.

Sourcing your natives

There are so many ways to incorporate natives into your garden, regardless of the size or design, and I have outlined just a few, a flick through a wildflower book is bound to give you more ideas.

One issue can be sourcing these species; collecting a small amount of seed from wild species (where they are clearly prolific and where it is appropriate) can be a good way to begin. Wild-collected herb-Robert (Geranium robertianum) now grows through one of the borders, remaining almost imperceptible apart from the delicate pink geranium flowers which pop up in amongst the leaves of crocosmia and phlox. The Kew Seed Information Database can be a great resource if you want to know the conditions or treatments that a particular species’ seed needs to germinate.

Unobtrusive herb-Robert flowers brightening up the foliage of a fuschia
Unobtrusive herb-Robert flowers brightening up the foliage of a fuschia

Sometimes collecting seed doesn’t work; despite attempts I have been unable to get greater stitchwort (Stellaria holostea) – a delicate plant with star-white flowers – to grow from seed. Here is where a range of native nurseries come in to play. If you live in Grantham, or anywhere nearby, I can thoroughly recommend Naturescape in Langar. Not only do they have a wide range of natives from all different habitats, they have some beautiful native-only planting displays which show you just how much can be done using the palette of our native flora (they also do mailorder if you live further away). Many other garden centres also stock a limited supply of natives now and I have found National Trust garden shops (such as Belton House just to the east of Grantham) to be a particularly good source.

Things to do in January Number 3: Grasses in the snow

Snow changes everything, if only for a few days. You can walk through the fields and see exactly who has been where – in which spot the blackbirds have chosen to dig for food, which gap in the hedge the rabbits run through, where the heron stalks along the canal in the early morning. Here’s a slightly unusual one but it struck me how obvious all the grass seed heads are when walking through the snow up to Belmount Tower. Usually half the battle with grass ID can be spotting the distinctive heads against the mass of green and brown around them but they stand out beautifully against the white. Here are a few which should be easy to see!

Cock’s foot – Dactylis glomerata

Cock's foot – Dactylis glomerata panicle

So called because of the spur which you can see at the base of the seed head, this grass is a common find where management isn’t too heavy. In this case, it is doing well in a field with a low level of sheep grazing but roadsides, wastegrounds and field edges are other good places to find it.

Crested dog’s tail – Cynosurus cristatus

Crested dog's tail - Cynosurus cristatus panicle

This is a common, tufted perennial grass which is finer than some of the more boisterous grasses such as the cock’s foot above or the tufted hair grass below. Its distinctive feature is a line which runs from top to bottom and, a little like a parting, the seed grows one way or the other. This is distinct from some other similar grasses which grow all the way around in a cylindrical cone, a little more like a pipecleaner.

Tufted hair grass – Deschampsia cespitosa

Tufted hair grass – Deschampsia cespitosa panicleicle

This grass is large and imposing, growing in a tussock and sending its seed heads up and out a metre from the base. Its leaves are a good give-away if you’re in doubt – squeeze the blade between thumb and finger and you will find that it runs smoothly in one direction but drags with impressive friction if you try it the other. This grass is generally found in damper ground – this could be alongside rushes in a marshy grassland or simply a part of the field where the water collects.

Purple moor grass – Molinia caerulea

Purple moor grass - Molinia caerulea panicle

I think that this grass is purple moor grass – another large, tussock-forming species which can be up to a metre tall. Like the tufted hair grass, it is often found in slightly damper locations and is most commonly associated with acidic habitats such as moorlands, as the name suggests.

Common bent – Agrostis capillaris

Common bent – Agrostis capillaris panicle

This is a common grassland species which is likely, along with crested dog’s tail, to be one of the main constituent species within this field. It has a fine, spreading panicle (the term for the entire cluster of flowers) and likes nutrient poor conditions. Again, its prevalence will be down to the right level of management (grazing) to keep the nutrients low.

The official grassland managers (with voluntary assistance from the rabbits and deer of course)
The official grassland managers (with voluntary assistance from the rabbits and deer of course)

Where to see bluebells near Grantham

There are a few woods around Grantham where you can go and see wild bluebells. I saw a few plants flowering as early as the end of March when we had the week or two of glorious weather, but the majority are looking beautiful now in May.

English bluebells in Belvoir Woods
English bluebells in Belvoir Woods

Belvoir Woods, accessed by footpath from Stathern, a village several miles to the west of Grantham, is a good location to see carpets of bluebells within the woods – this is where the photographs on this page were taken. The map below shows where within the woods the largest abundances can be found.

Location of bluebells in Belvoir Woods
Location of bluebells in Belvoir Woods

Belton House, the National Trust property to the north-east of Grantham also has them in their woodland beside the river. You need to pay entry to get into the house and gardens unless you are a National Trust member (but, it goes without saying, it’s well worth it!)

Location of Belton House, just outside Grantham
Location of Belton House, just outside Grantham

This Sunday, the 20th of May, Harlaxton College will open its woods to the public to see the bluebells there. The college is based at the large manor just outside Harlaxton, visible on the left of the A607 as you leave Grantham heading west. The college is an outpost of the American University of Evansville. Access is through the village and the woods are open between 1pm and 3pm.

Location of Harlaxton Manor, just outside Grantham
Location of Harlaxton Manor, just outside Grantham

For other locations of bluebell woods, why not check out the National Trust’s Bluebell Map here.

For more info on the difference between native and Spanish bluebells, have a look at my recent post here.

Wild Garlic

Wild garlic or Ramsons (Allium ursinum) is a wild member of the lily family which you can generally detect from about 20 paces as the scent of garlic fills the air, especially in parts of the country where it can cover the woodland floor. The damper river valleys and hillsides in Yorkshire and Lancashire can have huge swathes and you can even find it growing along footpaths beside arable fields.

It is less frequent around Grantham and tends to be more restricted to typical woodland floor habitat – it can be found in Belvoir Woods to the west and there are some good colonies beneath the trees at Belton House.

Wild Garlic in Belvoir Woods
Wild Garlic growing in Belvoir Woods

At the moment, the leaves are full and fresh and the buds are just beginning to form – in a few weeks the white star-like flowers will appear too.

The garlic is not just restricted to the scent either – it can be used in cooking where it adds a mild garlicey flavour, more subtle than your average cloves. The leaves can be wilted down and used, or the bulbs can be chopped and cooked in a similar way as you might use normal garlic or spring onion bulbs. But although it is legal to take the leaves of wild garlic, it is illegal to uproot the plant (as you would have to do to get to the bulbs) without the landowners permission.

If you do find a good source of wild garlic, a delicious recipe which I found on another blog is a recipe for pesto. This uses nettle leaves as a base but I have made it using wild garlic leaves instead.

I have also cooked the leaves as part of a risotto – if you chop them down and stir them in, they make a wonderful accompaniment with asparagus tips.  This recipe on the Guardian website would make a good base!

It should be fairly easy to grow in your own garden too, if you have a good shady corner. The seeds can be bought from a range of places; the Naturescape wildflower farm at Langar is a good local option if you would like to establish your own colony.