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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.