Wildlife Gardening in September

N.B. If your new to David’s monthly column then please be sure to read the ‘setting-the-scene’ opening piece first.

Summer Meadow

We have just returned from a short visit to Devon. Wildlife was not our main preoccupation but we did manage to visit and view three wild flower meadows. I must say, they were a stark contrast to our own meadow and I am now more understanding of potential difficulties in meadow maintenance.

© Laurie Campbell: Devils Bit Scabious.

© Laurie Campbell: Devils Bit Scabious.

As you may well know already, the Forest Edge meadow is on clay-over-chalk soil. The garden is located at a height of around 100 metres, so is of modest elevation. Two of the meadows we visited in Devon were at the Garden House and a private meadow nature reserve at Shaugh Prior in the Dartmoor National Park, the other an NT property with a small ‘mead’ garden. All had mildly acidic soils and were virtually devoid of flowers. Our own meadow is flowering with great gusto: knapweeds, devil’s bit and common scabious, marjoram, ragwort, campanulas, St John’s wort, wild basil, oxeyes, other daisy family members and lots of wild carrots and similar plants, plus other species. Forest Edge is supporting butterflies, crickets and grasshoppers in good numbers, various bumblebees and numerous other wildlife. Nothing comparative could be viewed on the Devon meadows.

The nature of the soil appears to make an even greater effect on flowering potential than I had previously accepted. The lack of pollen and nectar supplies in the Devon meadows also explains why they could be cut at least two months before our own meadow.

It is usually sensible to establish local plants in meadows that are ecologically important or ones that need to reflect the vernacular. This is what has occurred in Devon, but as attractive features and pollen/ nectar providers they were not a good recommendation for meadow gardening. Under these circumstances I would, as an eco-gardener, diversify the planting to enhance the attractiveness to both insects and humans for a longer period. Finding such specimens needs a period of time exploring similar local or semi-local meadows.

Clearly this has been a difficult year for meadows. Water is often an important factor in limiting grass growth and, with constant deluges or showers; the grasses are lush this year. A rising water table will also import nutrients; further enhancing growth, and this was probably happening in one of the Devon meadows.

For a pure nature reserve increased grass growth may not be a problem at all, but for someone aiming at a garden meadow it is important to balance naturalness and flower power. Attractiveness is often enhanced by a lower than normal grass length, so controlling grass growth is crucial.

A pure down land sward, with thin soils and free-draining substrate, grows grass to only a few centimetres in height whilst the wetter Devon meadow was reaching a metre (and crashing).

Our own meadow has another two months of development before it is cut, whilst those in Devon were destined for cutting, with good reason, before the end of August.

The increased growth of our own Summer Meadow, and the possibility of similar weather conditions next year, means that I will additionally cut the bulk of our sward in May next year (not usually done) to reduce growth. This has to be achieved with some caution, as some plants may not bloom if cut then or may be lost altogether.

© David Beeson: Wasp spiders have moved into our garden in recent years.

© David Beeson: Wasp spiders have moved into our garden in recent years.

Our hedgerow

This semi-native hedge has good food supplies for wildlife this year and has thickened up. It will not be trimmed for at least another year, so allowing potentially more flowering and fruit next year. A minimum of a three year cutting regime is often recommended.

Within the hedgerow we have some buddleias. These are late into flower and, thankfully, are now covered in butterflies. There are: brimstones, silver-washed fritillaries, peacocks, plus white and red admirals. Elsewhere there are still three types of whites, meadow browns, gatekeepers and speckled wood butterflies on the meadow plants.

Wildlife Pond

The constant rainfall has maintained the water level in our artificial pond, thus ensuring that I need not top it up with nutrient-rich tap water. Three species of dragonflies are laying their eggs on the surface weed and patrolling around the garden. We have seen these aerial insects in greater profusion since the excess waterweed has been removed and clear water re-established.

Some of the grassy margins of the pond have been cut to lawn height. This action inhibits excessive herbaceous growth and encourages our southern marsh orchids to spread. The patch behind the pond has not been treated and has an exuberant flowering of hemp nettles, loosestrife and fleabane that are all good insect plants.

Spring Meadow

This is currently cut just as the main lawn, i.e. to about 2 cm. Its potential flower power is far from evident, but come next spring it will again turn into a flowery mead.

Main Lawn or Flowery Lawn.

The patches left uncut in the lawn, to encourage flowering, have now all been cut to conventional lawn height. This was not as I had anticipated, but the enhanced precipitation has kept the plants growing, unlike more normal Augusts when the soil turns concrete hard and plants almost hibernate.

The friable nature of the lawn’s soil has given our macho mole the chance to further extend its feeding burrow system. The result looks as if a group of African warthogs have ploughed the area. This activity is not altogether pleasing as we have B&B guests, sometimes amazingly in high heels, wandering over the area and crashing through and into the surface mole excavations. With regret, and no success, I am now employing a live mole trap in the hope of transporting the animal to an alternative venue.

© David Beeson: American Asters are good insect plants in September. We are happy to have these in our flower borders.

© David Beeson: American Asters are good insect plants in September. We are happy to have these in our flower borders.

Mixed Flower and Shrub Borders.

These have had a great year, with so much growth that weeds have no chance at all. I have spent around an hour weeding all year. But now there is some cutting back to be done, to remove untidy growth. The trimmings all end up in the compost heaps, of which there are around twelve (plus some unofficial heaps!). Ten composters are currently full to the brim and will have to be emptied before the Summer Meadow generates it tonnes of herbage later in the year.

A stoat is using the borders for it hunting territory. We occasionally see the animal, but its presence is more often betrayed by the ‘ground level predator’ warning cries from our resident birds.

The RHS Magazine

If any of you are members of the RHS, or have access to their magazine, you may wish to note my letter in the August edition (page 507). I would appreciate your views on the original article and my response. I have tried to correspond with Ken Thompson and to request the scientific paper(s) on which he bases his comments, but I’m being ignored.

My letter was more detailed, having been selectively cut for publication.

If the comments in the original article are true then there seems little need for nature reserves or garden meadows. All we need are gardens full of imported plant species.

David is an ex-lecturer in Environmental / Biological Sciences.
He has written for most of the UK gardening magazines, including the RHS.
Forest Edge’s garden has been widely covered in magazines and has been featured in a BBC’s Gardeners’ World special.
He also maintains a blog at https://nwhwildlife.org/