Monday, 10 December 2018

Autumn on the wildlife allotment

The year has gone really quickly, summer is just a dream now and winter is coming. But so far we did not have any prolonged cold weather here. We had some very early frosts in September which blackened the Dahlias but surprisingly did not do much to the Cosmos which were still standing in October.

There were quite a lot of lovely warm days, a reminiscence of summer. Many perennials kept on flowering well into late autumn such as the autumn asters and Bidens heterophyllum. Others which had suffered in the heatwave started to flower again such as Astrantia major. But autumn was still quite dry and the few rainy days did not do much to relieve the drought.

Dahlia merckii flowering on the allotment
Dahlia merckii, Verbena bonariensis and seed heads of Echinacea purpurea
Kniphofia 'Mango Popsicle'
Aster pyrenaeus 'Lutetia' flowering in September
The allotment on a sunny morning in September

On cold and sunny mornings I liked to get up early to photograph the seed heads and grasses on the allotment which looked beautiful covered in dew. I especially love the grass Eragrostis elliottii which has a lightness and airiness, not found in many other grasses.

The cloud-like seed heads of Eragrostis elliottii look beautiful on a cold morning in autumn
Calamagrostis brachytricha, also called Diamond grass, sparkling in the early morning sunshine
Spiders like the seed heads of Inula magnificum and Veronicastrum virginicum

Bees were quite active until October, especially the Common carder bumblebee (Bombus pascuorum) was quite abundant.  I have even seen a solitary bee, the Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria), which normally has just one generation which is active in spring. You normally don`t see it in late autumn. But this year there were several bees flying around on my allotment, visiting flowers. They must have been confused by the weird weather we had this year.

Common carder bumblebee on a Berkheya purpurea flower
Another Common carder bee visiting a Cosmos flower
A Drone fly (a  type of hoverfly) drinking nectar from aster flowers
I was very surprised to find some Ashy mining bees on my allotment in October

I was glad the allotment hedgehog survived the summer heatwave, partly probably thanks to the ponds on my allotment which offered much needed fresh water. The foxes were frequently seen as well, always looking busy. For a long time I had not seen the little wood mice which used to live on my allotment and I already feared that the cats might have finished them off. But luckily they are alive and well, happily residing in one of my compost heaps.

Here is a little video of some of he nocturnal wildlife on my allotment including the hedgehog, a little wood mouse and foxes:

Below are some more pictures from the allotment:

Seed heads and grasses
Cosmos is still flowering in October
Seed heads of Echinacea purpurea, Verbena hastata, Alliums and grasses
Panicum virgatum, also called switchgrass, looks very pretty in autumn
Bidens heterophyllum is still flowering in October
Annual Coreopsis with the grass Hakonechloa macra in the background
Kniphofia caulescens flowering in September
Aster flower (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii) covered in dew
Astrantia major started flowering again in September and is looking very pretty after a frosty night

Thursday, 29 November 2018

A visit to Great Dixter in early May

I first read about Great Dixter, the famous garden of the late Christopher Lloyd in East Sussex,  a few years ago and was fascinated by the colourful and bold plant combinations and the naturalistic planting style. I vowed to myself that one day I will visit the garden and see for myself what so far I had only seen in pictures.

In early May this year the time had finally arrived, I was working close to the garden and had a few hours to spare, the sun was shining, so what better things are there to do than visiting a beautiful garden.

It was early May but the garden was already so lush and colourful, with tulips and alliums, poppies and forget-me-nots and many more spring-flowering plants vying for attention. I especially liked the lime-green flowers of Smyrnium perfoliatum which were dotted all over the garden, a biennial plant which self-seeds easily if it likes the conditions. Lime-green Euphorbia palustris was another showy plant which I have now planted on my allotment. Another pretty plant with tiny pink flowers was the poppy Papaver dubium ssp. lecoqii var. albiflorum (a rather long name for such a small plant) which I have not seen anywhere else so far. The emerging flowers of giant fennel (Ferula communis), a huge umbellifer from the Mediterranean, were an impressive sight and its feathery leaves provided a beautiful backdrop for many of the other plants.

Smyrnium perfoliatum and red tulips
Euphorbia palustris, a spectacular plant
The small pink poppy with Smyrnium perfoliatum

The large areas of wildflower meadows in different parts of the garden were beautiful and just starting to come into flower with wild orchids, buttercups and blue Camassia. I could see a lot of yellow rattle in the meadows which must have helped to weaken the grass. As the vegetation was generally on the short side I assume the fertility of the underlying soil must be quite low as well.

I was impressed by the diversity of plants in the meadows  and would have liked to do a vegetation survey to see how many species per m2 I could come up with. But I was there to enjoy myself, not to work :-). 

Green-winged orchids in the meadows
Beautiful wildflower meadows

Camassia is naturalised in some of the meadows, I am trying something similar on the allotment now

It was also interesting to see that some plants which others would regard as weeds were left to naturalise in some places such as cow parsley, but which worked really well as a light and airy backdrop for more showy plants (see picture below).

Alliums, poppies and forget-me-not with a background of cow parsley

I would be nice to be able to see Great Dixter at different times of the year as I am sure that every few weeks it will look different. The tropical garden was still in its winter sleep in early May and many of the later perennials were just starting to grow.

Below you can see some more pictures of the garden.

The Sunk Garden, there were actually newts in the pond in the middle of the garden
The pretty pink poppy again, here with the umbellifer Orlaya grandiflora
Alliums, tulips and columbine
Poppies, alliums and cow parsley
I am normally not a fan of topiary but here at Great Dixter it fit perfectly, containing the wilder plantings in the middle
Giant fennel (Ferula communis), one of the signature plants at Great Dixter
Allium 'Purple Rain', white honesty, giant fennel and columbine
The Peacock Garden with sweet cicely, Euphorbia and meadow rue
The High Garden with alliums, giant fennel, honesty and many perennials and grasses
Phyllostachys nigra, a very showy bamboo
Columbine and honesty, a pretty picture in pink

Friday, 23 November 2018

The perennial wildflower meadow

Actually it is not a proper meadow but more like a mini meadow as I don`t have the space for a full-sized meadow. But nevertheless the small meadow patch has quite a good diversity of flowers and attracts many different insects and other invertebrates such as spiders. I have even seen frogs and a wood mouse in the meadow.

There is also a second meadow patch near the compost area which is even smaller but which also looks quite pretty in summer.

The second mini meadow in mid-May
The same meadow at the end of May...
...and in June

Germander speedwell
Now in their 4th year the meadows have settled down, the diversity of plants is slowly increasing, weeds are non-existing now and maintenance effort is very low. I started both meadows on bare ground as I found it easier to develop the meadows from scratch and not having to fight against vigorous grasses taking over.
I mainly established the meadows by planting a mix of plug plants which I have grown myself from a variety of meadow seed packets from the garden centre. I have also scattered some seed in the gaps. Most meadow plants have established well such as knapweeds, bird`s-foot trefoil, germander speedwell, lady`s bedstraw, yarrow, clovers, ox-eye daisy, field scabious and grasses such as sweet vernal grass, crested dogstail, red fescue and quaking grass.

Ragged robin flowering in May
Bird`s-foot trefoil
Ox-eye daisy and yellow rattle
Ox-eye daisy and quaking grass

If you want to start your own meadow the grasses to avoid are yorkshire fog, cock`s-foot and perennial ryegrass as they are too vigorous and would soon take over. You cannot go much wrong with the flowers as long as you stick to proper meadow plants.

Yellow rattle germinating in early spring
Three years ago I sowed seed of yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor)  I collected myself which was a huge success as the grass was kept under control nicely to leave more space for the flowers to grow and establish.Yellowrattle seed has to be as fresh as possible as the seeds are not viable for long. Best to collect the seeds in late summer and to sow them in autumn as they need a period of cold weather to be able to germinate. They also like to have a few gaps in the meadow sward (which can be achieved by scarifying with a rake or similar) and don`t establish well in a thick sward of grass.
Once established the plants will self-sow as long as there are some open areas for the seeds to germinate.

Yellow rattle is also popular with bumblebees

Maintenance of the meadows mainly consists of cutting twice a year (and removing the cut plants to keep the nutrient intake as low as possible), once some time in August and a second time at the beginning of winter. If the winter is very mild I cut a third time at the end of winter as I want the meadows as short as possible before they start to grow again in spring. For late winter and spring interest I have planted the wild tulip Tulipa tarda which has pretty yellow and white flowers low to the ground and flowers in March. These are followed by white Camassia leichtlinii and Verbascum phoeniceum which flower in early May just before the first meadow flowers are opening. Between June and July the meadow is in full flower with ox-eye daisies, clover, bird`s-foot trefoil, buttercups, yellowrattle and many more meadow plants flowering followed in August by knapweeds, yarrow, devil`s-bit scabious and wild marjoram.

The meadow in April
The meadow in early May

June with ox-eye daisies, bird`s-foot trefoil and sorrel flowering
In July knapweeds and field scabious are flowering
Black knapweed and ox-eye daisy

The meadow never gets any fertiliser, ideally the fertility of the soil is slowly decreasing as I cut and remove the plants at least twice a year. Lower fertility will keep grasses in check and enhance the diversity of flowers as no plant is getting the chance to take over.

Verbascum phoeniceum flowering in May
Bird`s-foot trefoil and red clover
Camassia leichtlinii and Verbascum phoeniceum
Camassia leichtlinii
Red-tailed bumblebees like the bird`s-foot trefoil
Small tortoiseshell drinking nectar from field scabious
A hoverfly (Syritta pipiens) on an ox-eye daisy flower
Fox-and-cubs (Pilosella aurantiaca)
Leaf-cutter bee drinking nectar from fox-and-cubs
Long-horn beetles like the ox-eye daisy flowers
A crab spider waiting for prey

At the moment the meadow is in its winter sleep, cut as short as possible. In late winter the plants will start to grow again, the first flowers will open and the meadow cycle starts again.

Autumn on the wildlife allotment

The year has gone really quickly, summer is just a dream now and winter is coming. But so far we did not have any prolonged cold weather her...

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