A meadow in the front garden

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My patch of front lawn is now being grown as a wildflower meadow, and wildflower meadows have to be managed. This blog describes my new mini meadow and how I prepared it for the winter.

Orchid & trefoil
Orchid amongst birdsfoot trefoil, Sylvia’s Meadow nature reserve, East Cornwall

As the gales and showers of autumn had already kicked in by the start of October, I was well aware that the time had come (or gone past!) to finish preparing it for winter and the coming spring. A late window of opportunity appeared in the form of a sunny day yesterday, tempting me out of doors, tools in hand.

A wildflower meadow in the front garden
I let the grass grow, and my own wildflower meadow created itself!
(July 2019)

When Plantlife launched ‘No Mow May’ last summer, I decided to join in and leave my front lawn to grow, apart from a comma-shaped path so that I could walk around it.  This was slightly daring, in that other people live along this road, and there is a pavement where they can walk past and either admire the healthy abundance of plants all along the front and in the lawn at the side, or tut the untidiness of the verdant scene. I hoped that the comma shape of low grass was enough evidence that the strategy was deliberate.

Birdsfoot trefoil not yet flowering
Birdsfoot trefoil, not yet in flower

When I took part in the charity’s ‘every flower counts’ survey during the Bank Holiday weekend at the end of May, there were some buttercups and quite a few speedwells flowering in the ‘no mow’ area, but according to my ‘Personal Nectar Score’, the patch didn’t support many bees. This seemed wrong to me, as there had been a nest of bumblebees at the back of the lawn last year, feasting on birdsfoot trefoil. What’s more, I could see that a huge number of birdsfoot trefoil plants had grown up once again, taller than before, and were now in bud.

As the summer went on, the front garden became a mass of yellow, with greater birdsfoot trefoil dominating and hiding even the grass. Some colourful orange hawkweeds joined in, attracting different insects too. The trefoil and hawkweed flowers continued right through until late summer, gradually diminishing in number.

Front garden full of trefoils
My front garden in July, full of birdsfoot trefoil flowers
Garden trefoils
Another look at the birdsfoot trefoils in the front garden, interspersed with seeding grasses

I waited until late August when they had mostly gone over and then, having just learned to scythe at Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s Churchtown Farm Community Nature Reserve, I approached the front garden with my garden scythe. This was a punier tool than the handsome wooden Austrian ones procured by David May who runs the Wild Allet volunteers (see https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/volunteering-opportunities), but it did nevertheless have a long handle with a scythe blade at the end and I was able to give it a bit of a sharpen.

Scythe maintenance lesson from David May
Scythe maintenance lesson from David May at Churchtown Farm Community Nature Reserve

At first, it seemed as if I had scythed down a decent area of lawn, but it turned out that many of the felled grass and trefoil stems had actually been knocked down rather than cut. It was a bit of a thick thicket for my humble blade. So I tried a different tactic: I set the mower to its highest possible setting and, using my well-developed gardener’s muscle power, pushed it around the small garden, leaving a diminished patch in the middle where the last couple of trefoil flowers were still blooming around a small witch hazel tree.

Yesterday (3rd October) was the sunny day when the last bit of meadow had to go. There were no obvious insects around, and a lull in the autumnal wind and rain, so I got out the lawnmower once more to finish the job, cutting down any straggly bits of long grass with garden shears.

Long-handled shears
Long-handled shears

An advantage of cutting in October (later than normal) is that there seemed to be fewer moths sheltering amongst the tall grass stems. Perhaps some have died, and some are overwintering either as adults or in another stage of their lives (egg, caterpillar or pupa). It must be tough when your larval foodplant and shelter is ruthlessly cut down by another creature, so I hope they are sheltering somewhere safe.

Burnet moths thrive in meadows, their caterpillars feeding on clovers and vetches and pupating on grass stems
Burnet moths thrive in meadows, their caterpillars feeding on clovers and vetches and pupating on grass stems

I don’t think it mattered much that I lopped enthusiastically and cut down one of the last couple of trefoil flowers, because elsewhere I’d made sure that we had a succession of blooms into the autumn.

A late honeybee was climbing in and out of one of the many fuchsia flowers, and the sedums had turned to a vivid pink, to supply nectar to other late-season stragglers. Welsh poppies still bloomed, along with a mass of ivy flowers, a bugle plant, some white and pink heathers, the Leycesteria formosa bush, a mass of bright yellow potentilla flowers (their bush looks dead and wiry for the first half of the year, then suddenly comes alive and resplendent just as I begin threatening to dig it up), and some verbenas and other late flowers in another area left for bees and other wild things.

Bee in fuchsia flower
Spot the bee emerging from the fuchsia
The potentilla explodes into life in late summer

Most of the long grass and old trefoil stems ended up in the lawnmower’s capacious grass box, or so I thought … there was a whole wheelbarrowload of cuttings to go into the compost heap. However, as the rugged machine struggled its way around the garden, still on its highest setting, I noticed that it was leaving some small piles of mashed up, matted plant matter. I fetched the rake and began raking the lawn too. A heaped wheelbarrowload of rakings later, I realised that raking had been a very necessary part of the job.

Grass in wheelbarrow
Barrow of freshly cut grass, ready to compost
Raking the cut grass and thatch on 3rd October
Cut grass in wheelbarrow
Cut grass in the wheelbarrow mixed with moss and trefoil stems

The whole endeavour was turning into a win-win. The compost heap was very full, ready to slowly decompose and turn into wonderful stuff for the garden over the winter and beyond. The fresh green grass stems would help speed up the process by heating up thanks to active bacteria, aiding the composting of the tougher, drier bits in the heap, which included hay and cardboard. Raking the ground was scarifying it, meaning that the lawn would be refreshed, abled to ‘breathe’ and absorb moisture and nutrients more easily. A particularly vital part of the scything day with the conservation volunteers had been the raking. If you don’t rake up the hay in a hay meadow, you will find yourself transforming it into a slimy, matted nutrient-dense field where only the tough plants get through to the sunlight. The seeds that are being dislodged from a varied range of flowers and more tender grasses and herbs never make it to the ground, and wildlife suffers.

Back in the front garden, I raked up quite a bit of moss. Now, I do love moss, whether in the countryside or in the garden. It’s lovely and soft to touch, and it’s so beautiful (and divided into a range of lovely species) if you look at it closely. It seems to somehow ‘create’ soil underneath itself, presumably made from last year’s growth, as you’ll find out if you have moss forming on a hard surface such as a path and you leave it for a while. It stays green in almost all conditions, especially through the winter, and in summer too, unless the ground is in baking hot sun. However, my lawn was now supposed to be a wildflower meadow, not just a moss and grass garden.

As well as reducing moss cover, the raking meant that some of the strong grass was scraped away, leaving spaces for more delicate wildflowers to grow. It was the day after the Callington Honey Fair, where I had been given a free packet of wildflower seed mix that was distributed by the Devon Greater Horseshoe Bat project (the project is in the Tamar Valley, and partly on our Cornish side of the river). The fact that Callington has been holding annual Honey Fairs since 1978 is significant. The fair was actually begun in the thirteenth century, when royal market and annual fair charters were launched by Henry III, according to the Lions Club of Callington https://www.callingtonlions.org.uk/honeyfair/thehistoryofhoneyfair.html

Devon Horseshoe Bat project leaflet
Devon Horseshoe Bat project’s free wildflower seeds, given out at the Callington Honey Fair

The original annual fairs soon died out, sadly, but in the nineteenth century, the Tamar Valley was well known for its market gardens. Growers transported flowers and fruit east to London, thanks to the (then) excellent rail links from the area, so the Honey Fairs were perhaps re-established due to all the flower growing. You can still find remnants of exotic daffodils and snowdrops in some of the local hedgebanks and remnant orchards.

The old Honey Fair must have fallen by the wayside again, perhaps with the demise of the market garden trade, but thankfully it is now thriving and expanding each year. Callington Lions have been running the Honey Fair since 1979, inviting a funfair for the evenings, along with a daytime range of trade and charity stallholders along. There is a display of children’s art, plus teas and entertainment. I am delighted to say that whereas I haven’t noticed any geese at the Tavistock Goosey Fair, you can talk to local beekeepers, look at bee exhibits and buy plenty of bee products at the Callington Honey Fair.

Honey Fair produce
Honey Fair produce

This year I bought spiced honey mead (there were samples to try first – this one was particularly delicious), honey cider vinegar (clearly containing the vinegar ‘mother’ that swirls around inside like a misty spirit), a jar of honey from the famous Cornish black bees containing real honeycomb, and another jar of the same local honey containing walnuts (my favourite). I also bought a bottle of local apple juice, made from apple trees whose blossom supports and is pollinated by the local domesticated and wild bee populations. Last year I bought some pure beeswax for furniture polishing, a beeswax candle, a honey skin care cream and some jars of honey in different shades of gold. The uses of honey and other bee products are many and various, falling into the categories of food, drink, home care, home decoration, health and beauty, and no doubt more.

The Honey Fair is significant because it shows that local people are proud of their relationship with the land, and glad to be helping the local environment and the planet by encouraging flowers to bloom and trees to blossom. They are growing and buying local products that help rather than destroy the natural world and celebrate the area’s heritage. This makes me proud to be a member of the human community, just for a while anyway, until the next worrying environmental news report.

I’m delighted to say that bee homes for solitary bees such as the placid, blossom-pollinating red mason bee, were also on sale at the Honey Fair, amongst a lot of what I saw as a load of plastic kitsch, tooth-rotting sweet treats, dog beds, hippy clothes, junky toys, home and garden bits and bobs, including lovely handmade craft items, miscellaneous tools and things made of iron, plenty of the inevitable and much-celebrated pasties, street food including interesting stews and some huge and tasty Welsh cakes, and more. I didn’t buy a bee home, only because I can make my own. I have hollow canes from the Leycesteria bush, some old bits of bamboo, and my husband’s new drill bits for making suitable bee tunnels in blocks of wood.

The free wildflower seed mix specified sowing on a 2m2 patch of weed-free cleared ground, which I don’t have, but I scattered and trod a few of them into my bare patches and saved the rest for a more suitable location, or maybe even for seed trays or modules for plug planting later. One of the keys to successful planting for pollinating insects (which include bees, butterflies, moths, hoverflies, common wasps and some beetles), is creating a long season. Bumblebees, whose fur enables them to emerge earlier in the season than the rest of the bees and wasps, will benefit in particular. Here in East Cornwall we have a few flowers in the countryside all year round, particularly hedge and woodland-edge species such as red campions. While raking, by the way, I discovered the first flowering primrose of the new season(!).

First primrose… in October!

With such a catastrophic decline in flower-rich meadowland, and the 2019 State of Nature report yielding more bad news today, I hope that the early – as well as late – bees will benefit greatly from my flowering trees and shrubs, the clover and daisies in the lawn, the flowers in the border, the flowering ivy and my new little wildflower meadow.

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