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2020 Wild flowers keep spreading

2020 will go down as the year when normal life stopped, but wildlife did rather well, especially in the spring when there was so much less pollution from cars and airplanes. Many people pressed on with their wild flower plans.

1. Small changes can make a huge difference.
I have been involved in a lovely West Country valley where a number of small fields were cut early for silage and then heavily grazed, with no opportunity for wild flowers to flower, let alone set seed. The tenant farmer was all out for maximum grass production. Yet a plant survey showed that many of the meadows were full of wonderful wild flowers, with some damp banks full of devilsbit scabious which is really quite scarce. The landlords realised that they were missing out on all the wild flowers and other wildlife and so the farming policy has now changed. The wild flower meadows will now be cut for hay in early August which will allow everything to flower and most plants to set seed. This simple decision is going to have huge benefits. There will now be masses of nectar with insect numbers and butterflies building up. A small lake has been created and dragonflies will also build up. This will have effects all the way up the food chain, so bird numbers will also increase. Allowing wild flowers to actually flower does not sound that exciting, but it is, and I am sure the neighbours will notice!

2. A sensible long term management policy.
One of my favourite wet meadows is in the Lambourn valley and I first visited 10 years ago. There were a few Southern Marsh orchids, but little else. The meadow was topped and the cut material left in situ. Today the cut material is removed in September and the “thatch” of previous toppings has also been removed. Yellow rattle was introduced to weaken the grass and the wild flowers are doing better, but the orchids have been transformed . The southern Marsh Orchids are now numbered in several thousand, and in 2020 they were whoppers, some 18 inches tall, a truly spectacular sight.

3. Getting the management right.
Some years ago a one acre meadow was sown in front of a retirement complex, but it was not managed very well. It was simply topped by the local farmer and as above the cut material was left in situ. This benefitted the strong growing lesser knapweed which grew through it all, but the low growing species such as birdsfoot trefoil and ladies bedstraw declined rapidly. There was no yellow rattle to control the grass and docks were allowed to seed and to spread. New management has now taken over:
- Dead grass and old cut material has been harrowed
- Docks have been controlled
- Yellow rattle has been introduced in strips (1 in 4)
- 1000 x 9cm pots of a variety of species were planted out last autumn
We are all awaiting the spring with excitement.
Some other sites had yellow rattle introduced for the first time in autumn 2019 but because of Covid, the next stage fo the management programme has been delayed. The silver lining here is that it has enabled yellow rattle to keep on spreading so when the other species are finally introduced, grass growth will be well under control.

4. Wild flowers in gardens.
Most large gardens now have a wild flower meadow or are planning one. What is interesting is a trend to try and showcase as many wild flowers as possible actually in the garden, replacing the more traditional garden species. Chalk or greensand gardens have an advantage here. Options can include:
- meadow wildflowers
- woodland wildflowers wherever there are trees and shade
- a hedgerow seed mix for an area where a tidy up at the end of the season is all that can be provided.
- island shrub beds with 3 species of plugs planted in each bed, probably 12 plugs in all. This has given an opportunity to show case 24 species, which should look wonderful.

2019

Seed bank bonanza in 2019
I have been involved with creating new wild flower meadows for many years. What usually happens is that an initial number of species is sown and the occasional species then arrives unexpectedly, usually from the seed bank. However something quite out-of-the-ordinary happened in 2019.
The first sighting was in a 5.5 acre chalk meadow near Newbury (featured below) where yellow rattle was introduced with a good range of other wild flowers 6 years ago. In late June the meadow went pink with an estimated 1000+ pyramidal orchids. No pyramidals had ever been seen before! Around a month later I witnessed an 8 acre field near Henley which was sown to wild flowers two years ago and the whole field was evenly distributed with bee orchids, a rough estimate again being 1000+ .
In mid August I was inspecting a field in our village near Newbury, sown to wild flowers about 4 years ago, where a flinty bank appeared to have a different yellow in an area of approx. 10mx 10m. It wasn’t birdsfoot trefoil, so what was it? It was yellow wort, quite an uncommon annual, with hundreds of flowering stems. Finally and most exciting of all was the appearance of several hundred autumn gentian, a biennial, at the end of August in a former arable field near lambourn. This had been seeded with wild flowers 10 years ago and was now well established chalk grassland.
So where did these unexpected species come from? They were all orchids, annuals or biennials, all on the chalk, all with very small seed sizes. They must have come from the seed bank and if so, what were the weather conditions which triggered this amazing display? Had I not actually seen these four sightings, I would have considered them impossible. What it does suggest is that if we provide good conditions for wild flowers, especially on chalk with yellow rattle to control grasses and

A 5.5 acre meadow on the chalk was purchased by a small community and 3.5 acres is being turned into a species rich chalk grassland. There was originally a good mixture of grasses, with lesser knapweed, red clover and wild basil common in parts. 9 other wild flowers were present though scarce. The methods chosen to achieve this enrichment have been of particular interest.

In September 2013 a 2m strip was scalped and sown with yellow rattle as well as 22 other species at 1.5g per m2. Two cross strips were sown with the mowings from a good cowslip area nearby. Everything was then harrowed and rolled. These strips amounted to no more than 5% of the 3.5 acres. All of these species have established and have now spread to about half the area with the exception of wild marjoram which to date has failed to appear. Management is by cutting rather than by grazing. I looked at it last week and it looked very good. When it is in flower, it will be sensational. Yellow rattle has spread rapidly as it always does on the chalk and it encourages all the wild flowers since it controls grass growth. If the field had been on clay, yellow rattle would have had to have been established a year or two in advance of the wild flowers. It is now 6 years since the additional species were added, and sowing on 5% of the area demonstrates how cost effective this can be if the management is right.

REFLECTIONS ON 2018

There is always a huge range of fascinating situations which come up in my advisory work, so here are some of the commonest ones in 2018:

1. Soil type – although most people do not have a choice, chalk is best for diversity. If you are a farmer with low yielding land where there is thin chalk, this is the ideal place for wild flowers.

2. Surviving wild flowers – do not underestimate the value of existing wild flowers which may have survived on the edge of the site, for example on a steep bank which was difficult to spray. They will be well adapted to local conditions and should be encouraged to recolonise. Many sites I visit have literally no wild flowers anywhere, not even in the surrounding lanes, so we have to give them a helping hand to re-colonise.

3. Wet meadow success story – a particularly exciting story has been the restoration of a 3 acre wet meadow by a stream, where nettles and rank grass were the main interest a few years ago apart from a small area of less than 500m2 where a dozen species of wild flowers had somehow survived. Yellow rattle was introduced and has now has brought the grass under control, and a further 15 species have appeared from the seed bank. There was a single clump of the now scarce great burnet. We took seed from this and grew on a dozen plants which are now flourishing and spreading out. And of course the butterflies, grasshoppers and thousands of other insects have all recovered and are sensational.

4. Insect colonisation - remember that this does not happen overnight. We have a great example in our village (Winterbourne, north of Newbury) where a 17 acre cornfield was sown to wild flowers in September 2014. 4 years on in 2018 the former sterile cornfield soaked in pesticides had hundreds of meadow browns, hedge browns, skippers, marbled whites with many other butterflies and grasshoppers building up. These numbers will be translated into thousands in the next few years.

5. Seedbeds, autumn or spring - getting the seedbed right gets you at least halfway to success in establishing a wild flower meadow. You knock out all the weeds you can see, but what about all the dormant seed which you cannot see? If you prepare the seedbed in the late summer, dormant seed will germinate readily as the ground is warm. You can then take steps to reduce it. If you prepare the ground in the spring, it will be cold and nothing will germinate, so you have no idea as to how much dormant weed seed is lying in wait for you; this is why we always advise sowing in the autumn if possible.

6. Year 1 management – this is left to last as it is arguably the most important. Wild flowers establish at different speeds: oxeye daisies grow fast, cowslips very slowly. The answer to this unequal growth is to keep everything short in the first year, or at least down to 8-10 inches, by topping, mowing or strimming, at least until early July. But there is a problem: people are so excited by their wild flower seed actually growing that they are reluctant to cut it. You have to - just in the first year!

Happy wild flower growing in 2019

Yellow Rattle July 12th
This parasitic plant seems to be opening up amazing opportunities.

Our I acre wild flower meadow.
We now have a large area of yellow rattle which I have been harvesting to spread around the meadow and for use elsewhere. This harvesting is highly technical – stripping off the seed heads into a dustpan and then tipping the contents into a bucket. I need more seed for our orchard. I always think that getting the seed onto the ground as close as possible timewise as to when it would have dropped naturally, is best.

Orchard establishment.

The yellow rattle seed which I spread last autumn has worked brilliantly. I strimmed a few square yards and then raked in the seed. Wild flowers from 9cm pots will probably follow next year.

Our churchyard.

We have an unusual set of ancient grave mounds on the north side of our church, St James Winterbourne. The ants have built nests either rend of many of these mounds, so they look double humped. We don’t want to have to do too much strimming here, so adding yellow rattle seemed a good idea. It has taken hold and is spreading well greatly to the benefit of meadow saxifrage and ladies bedstraw.

New hedges.

I was shown a stretch of new hedge by one of my customers last week and yellow rattle was keeping the grass under control. Another novel use of yellow rattle!

Our one acre meadow. May 29th 2017
The yellow rattle now covers nearly a third of the meadow, spreading strongly down the slope, where it also has the prevailing wind to help it. You may recall that we rotovated a couple of 80m long x 1.5m strips through this meadow and sowed about 15 species which I had collected locally. The colonisation of cowslips has demonstrated remarkably well how yellow rattle has helped. The top rotovated strip is mainly in yellow rattle territory and the cowslip count was approx. 500. The other strip was mainly outside the yellow rattle area where Yorkshire fog was very strong. The cowslip count here was barely 150. It says it all!

A nearby spinney with a small meadow in its centre.
This was sown in autumn 2015 with yellow rattle in the seed mix but little appeared in 2016. I strimmed a couple of square metres last autumn and spread yellow rattle quite thickly in these areas. It has all germinated well. It is also appearing elsewhere but only in single flowers. What is interesting is that I also sowed yellow rattle on the edge of the grassy area in semi shade which was pretty rough and stony. It has grown really well here. The message is that where grass competition is poor, yellow rattle will get going quickly, but where the grass is strong, a much heavier seed rate is needed to make a bridgehead.

What these two small areas demonstrate is that you learn much more by sowing strips and then observing what happens both in terms of yellow rate which spreads the fastest and then how yellow rattle interacts with the other species to help them colonise.

Other trials with yellow rattle
a) 9m strips sown on power harrowed light land Autumn 2015. These look excellent with a forest of yellow rattle. The interest here is how quickly the yellow rattle spreads out from the original strips.
b) 9m strips sow on power harrowed heavy land with no grazing autumn 2015. The yellow rattle looked good last June but it seemed to have disappeared last October. I thought it had all gone but it is all there again this year. It will be interesting to see if it can survive. My experience of un-grazed situations is that it will survive on light land and chalk but not on heavier land.
c) Another nearby meadow on heavy land. This meadow had struggled to get yellow rattle established. Knapweed was fairly OK, cowslips were nil (which the customer particularly wanted ) and most of the other species were in short supply. Two 9m strips were sprayed off and the seed broadcast autumn 2015 with 5mm of compost scattered on top. The result: 100% with cowslips everywhere! This was my first experience of adding a thin layer of compost.

Our one Acre Meadow. March 30th 2017
Yellow rattle is growing strongly now in our meadow where we rotovated a couple of 80m x 1.5m strips in 2015 and sowed a variety of locally collected seed, approx. 15 species. Cowslips are always quite slow to get going. There were a few visible last year, but this year I have counted nearly 500 or 3/m. How many of these will be able to seed remains to be seen as the rabbits often snip off the flower heads. On the other hand, cowslip seed germinates erratically, so there will be more seed to germinate in the next few years if the weather is helpful, ie not too hot in the early part of the summer. It is very clear that the cowslips are thriving where yellow rattle has controlled the coarse grasses. Other species were beginning to show such as lesser knapweed, yarrow, burnet saxifrage, agrimony and devilsbit scabious. This is the good news. The not so good news is the number of dock and creeping thistle which our rotovating has activated, so some serious weed control will be required. It will be interesting to see which species are spreading out from the 1.5m strips.

Yellow Rattle, March 2017
Another growing season is nearly upon us, with several meadows which have been sown with yellow rattle. Plenty of unknowns still, but a pattern is beginning to emerge.
- Light land: broadcast yellow rattle before the sheep leave the field in autumn, seed rate 1g yellow rattle to 10m2 ( 400g/acre). It may be possible to add in seed of other species at the same time.
- Heavier land: grass in fertile fields / valley bottoms has the disconcerting habit of growing even better if it is power harrowed or roughed up without a much heavier yellow rattle seed rate. Only ploughing, inverting it completely seems to slow it up. Thus 1g yellow rattle to 2.5m2 is needed or 1.6kg/acre. Hence the idea of cultivating strips across the field so that you sow 1 strip in 4, reducing the cost by 75%. The yellow rattle has to be sown and well established before the other species are added, either as seed or as 9cm pots.

Trials in 2016 included:
a)
9m strips on light land (sown autumn 2015)where there were already 10 + species of wild flowers. Great results in 2016. This was sheep grazed in the autumn.
b) 9m strips on heavy land (sown autumn 2015) which looked good in June 2016, but was overwhelmed by the grass by the autumn. It was not possible to graze this field in the autumn, so I expect this field will be back to square one by this spring.
c) Our own trial at home where yellow rattle was broadcast in patches and horse grazed in 2014, with a couple of 3m strips rotovated through the meadow the following year for a wide range of additional species which were collected locally. The soil here is gravelly clay. All going well here, yellow rattle spreading well, but a fair bit of dock control needed as the rotovating brought quite a lot of dock seed to the surface. This is one of the risks you take when disturbing/rotovating old meadows.
I will be reporting on these three situations and no doubt others when I get round to visiting them in June.

Last day of May. Yellow rattle is in flower.
Yellow rattle is turning into a sort of wonderplant in that it reduces grass growth so that wild flowers can flourish. Our field is now full of yellow rattle coming into flower. The grass height is only 10-15cm high where yellow rattle is well established, otherwise it is 30-40cm high. It is clear from quite a distance where yellow rattle is active.
We have also sown yellow rattle in our churchyard where we have a fine array of old grave mounds which of course we cannot mow. Nearby, there is a wonderful area full of primroses and meadow saxifrage and some tough old grasses like cocksfoot. Well, the yellow rattle is getting its teeth into the cocksfoot which is great. As in our little meadow at home, yellow rattle is coming into flower. After a few warm days, we are now back in quite low temperatures with an unpleasant wind. Roll on flaming June!

20th April 2016
I inspected our small meadow this morning. The yellow rattle is starting to appear. Just! It is best to wait a couple of weeks and then it will be easy to see.
I had a discussion about mowing regimes last week which led to the following:
We usually think about cutting meadows at the end of the flowering period in late July. However, there is another regime.
Cut when the growth is well over the ankles and again sometime towards the end of May. Don’t bother to collect as in the spring there is enough biological activity for it to disappear, mainly thanks to little insect shredders! If the cowslips can be avoided, they will produce seed and help spread the cowslips quicker. This early cutting also helps to keep lesser knapweed under control if it becomes too dominant.
Cutting part of the area early will double the length of flowering , nectar etc. The uncut area will run out of steam around mid July, and the area which has been cut early will then recover and continue flowering right through until early September. The whole area needs then to be cut and collected.

12 April 2016
At last a warm day. The biting cold wind has gone (for now at least!) and sowing time for wild flowers will soon be upon us. It is never safe to sow before the blackthorn has finished flowering. It is in full flower with us now and we need some warm days to dry up the ground after the soaking we have received in the last few days.

I inspected the small clay area which I sowed last autumn. The front runners, oxeye daisy, common sorrel, ribwort plantain, self heal and yarrow were looking good and there were new arrivals - birdsfoot trefoil and ladies bedstraw. The other species will be along soon enough. I went searching for yellow rattle, the grass parasite which controls grass growth, but no sign yet.At last a warm day. The biting cold wind has gone (for now at least!) and sowing time for wild flowers will soon be upon us. It is never safe to sow before the blackthorn has finished flowering. It is in full flower with us now and we need some warm days to dry up the ground after the soaking we have received in the last few days.

I inspected the small clay area which I sowed last autumn. The front runners, oxeye daisy, common sorrel, ribwort plantain, self heal and yarrow were looking good and there were new arrivals - birdsfoot trefoil and ladies bedstraw. The other species will be along soon enough. I went searching for yellow rattle, the grass parasite which controls grass growth, but no sign yet.

25 March
Blue skies and warmer days may make you itch to get out and sow your wild flower seed, but the blackthorn has yet to flower, although it may be just starting. The blackthorn winter, the name given to the period when blackthorn is in flower, is often cold and wet and wild flower seed may rot if sown before this time. Once the blackthorn flower is over and the green leaves appear, you are much safer to sow.

I was visiting a site in Sussex on heavy clay last week, which was to be sown last autumn, but the rain never stopped and the land turned into a quagmire. It is now to be sown this spring. The area looked good with most of the perennial vegetation killed off with herbicides last year. Some grass had crept back over winter, so a final spray will be given and the seed will be sown probably in mid April. The farmer explained that he was not going to be as busy as he thought, because corn prices were so low that he was not going to sow any spring crops. “What’s the point of spending over £400 per hectare on a crop when you are not going to get back more than £350”. Growing arable crops on heavy clay is difficult at the best of times.

I had a quick look at a small area I sowed at home last autumn. The usual front runners were all their, ribwort plantain, oxeye daisy, sorrel, yarrow, self heal , and the odd meadow buttercup. The other species will follow in the next few weeks. I am particularly looking out for yellow rattle which will control the grass growth.

 

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Charles Flower Wildflowers . Bussock Hill House . Snelsmore . Newbury . Berkshire . RG14 3BL