With so much to look at in the garden over the last fortnight, why devote most of an overdue post to meadow management thoughts? Simply because it’s difficult to rival the beauty and diversity of a traditional hay meadow, and they’re increasingly rare habitats both nationally and globally. If you read this outside the UK, do let me know whether your country still has any of this type of managed grassland with flowers.
(Our high meadow in late May, with the first flower heads of sweet vernal grass, Anthoxanthum odoratum, beginning to add to that lush leaf green). Compare this to last year’s image, in late June, of the same field, to show the progress being made.It’s tempting to think that they’re a marvel of nature, and in a way they are, but more specifically their very distinctive flora depends upon the long term interaction between man and larger grazing animals, providing just the right growing conditions for a diverse range of grasses and other flowering plants, to blend together. As I started writing this morning, I’ve just received a post from Christine at Croft Garden on the natural delights of machair, which is a variant of this concept found in coastal areas – particularly North West Scotland. Click here for the link to this wonderful piece.
Before reading this piece I’d also recently discovered the centuries old traditions of hay meadows and their management in the Transylvania region of Romania. There is a beautiful evocative article from The National Geographic (by presumably the same Adam Nicolson who was brought up by Vita Sackville West and father Nigel Nicolson at the iconic Sissinghurst garden in East Sussex, and is married to British wildflower champion Sarah Raven), which you can read by clicking here. This confirms the point that without annual mowing, and the removal of a hay crop after many of the flowering plants have set and dropped seed, combined with appropriate grazing, the meadows are quickly colonised by shrubby species and revert to the dominant natural plant populations of scrub and then forest within just a handful of years.
What particularly struck me about this piece was the simple, frugal existence of these, hay making by hand, Romanian small holders (most with no more than a few acres of land). And also the awareness, knowledge and appreciation that they possess of the plant diversity in these upland meadows. Apparently even young children can identify about 50 per cent of the nearly 150 different flower species in a typical meadow. Try asking the typical Brit, young or old, to identify 10 common wildflowers, and I bet the success rate would be in single percentage figures.
In addition, the hugely varied plant tapestries described in the Romanian meadows were thrilling. Often as many as 50 different species of grass and flowers can be found within a single square metre of meadow turf. How do our gardens compare with such intermingling richness? Who would dare to, or indeed succeed in, cramming so many plants into such a small area? And with no supplementary fertilisers!
This ecosystem of intermingling, and self-seeding, plants where no one form is sufficiently vigorous or dominant to out compete its neighbours, is surely the clue to a naturalistic effect within a garden. Unlike the vastly more frequent, clearly defined block of a bit of this, next to a block of a bit of that. In a much more manicured way, such simple plant intermingling was what really struck us all those years about some of the formal plantings at Monet’s garden at Giverny, and provided the impetus for our own journey into impressionistic planting trials. A few of our current effects are shown below to illustrate how tricky it can be to achieve anything to match nature’s ways. …Just now, our biggest realised mistake, was to allow some of the taller geranium cultivars (unlike the short one above) into the impoverished rocky substrate of our man- made magic terrace garden. They’re simply too tall and early into vigorous growth, and thus swamp their shorter companions. So right now, Fiona has, with huge effort, been ripping them out, and we shall use the more benign stork’s-bill, Erodium manescavii as a more refined and less invasive alternative. At last, I’ve raised enough seedlings as replacements.
The Transylvanian hay meadow flora diversity supports, not surprisingly, a hugely vibrant and diverse insect and higher animal fauna, and in large part it still exists because the terrain is too steep for reseeding. In addition, a mistrust from the farmers (and the cost) of artificial fertilisers, means that many meadows have developed their own ‘natural’ floral patina over centuries of such literally hands on management, using simple heirloom wooden tools, to gently shift the hay around after manual scything.Our own future King, HRH Prince Charles, has created a little section of Transylvanian type wildflower hay meadow at his Highgrove garden, (click here), and is keen to help support this fragile habitat, currently under threat as the appeal of such ‘primitive and impoverished’ rural living, in an increasingly progressive Romania, wanes amongst the younger generation.
You can even book a holiday at a guest house that Prince Charles owns in the area to explore this very special environment. Click here for the link.
But closer to home HRH Prince Charles has also been passionate about preserving the UK’s old hay meadows. It’s often quoted that 97% of traditional hay meadows have been lost from the UK in recent years, and last year as a project to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation, he established the Coronation meadows initiative.Click here for a link to the Carmarthenshire page of the website. The simple aim was to establish a nationwide collection of traditional meadows which could be visited by the public, enjoyed, and be potential plant and seed refuges for this type of once common habitat. Since our local meadow at Cae Blaen-dyffryn was only about 20 minutes away, and is described as having the greatest population of butterfly orchids in Wales, we thought we should visit.
Locating it was tricky, and there is no easy nearby parking place, but walking back along the road from where we managed to snuck the car off a right angled bend, brought us to a, for now benignly uninspiring, 9 acre plot set quite high up in the hills to the South of Lampeter. (Possibly a little higher than our own 800 feet above sea level High Meadow). But looking more closely, the tell tale signs of plant diversity revealed themselves. The white flowers of pignut, Conopodium majus, fringing the small hawthorns, yellow rattle’s, Rhinanthus minor, crinkly leaved upright stems pushing up everywhere fulfilling its vital grass weakening, hemi-parasitic role, along with the lower growing pink flowered lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica. And every so often, the tell tale glossy bulb like leaves, some spotted, of the orchids. We shall revisit in a few weeks for a more exciting floral vista.
Interestingly, this meadow is managed by the Plant Life charity, and its acquisition was sponsored, I notice from the information board, by Timotei shampoo. This board gives a clue as to why such meadows are now so rare that some county’s Coronation Meadows are simply roadside verges – simply no areas of representative meadow fields remained within those county borders.
It is an expensive, weather affected and labour-intensive option to go the annual hay crop route, with no use of artificial fertiliser. For much commercial agriculture, the practice has been long abandoned. Reseeding with more vigorous and productive varieties of grass has become the norm, with heavy grazing and earlier cutting for silage or haylage, and much application of artificial fertiliser. The flowers rapidly disappear, as does the dependent fauna.
Carmarthenshire is indeed fortunate in retaining many traditional small upland hay meadows. In part perhaps because they are managed by smallholder, hobby ‘farmers/stewards’, which indeed best summarises our own status. But driving back from Cae Blaen dyffryn along the tiny lanes to the East of Gelli confirmed another more recent threat to such meadows.
Forestry. In a little known initiative, the Welsh Assembly Government has created a plan to plant 5,000 hectares of new woodland, every year, for the next 20 years. Read more (click here), and it appears that the aim is for such new woods to be placed on steep, and currently under-managed land. But barely a mile from us, on perfectly level, and historically meadow type pastures, the trees have gone in.At least broad-leaved species have been used. Though how well the many obvious ash seedlings will fare is open to debate. Driven, I guess, by significant grants for planting together with low management costs over many years, for some farmers this may be an economically attractive option. I understand that this particular development has been made by an absentee landlord. Which therefore probably makes perfect financial sense. But how to save the hay meadows?Throughout the UK, environmental stewardship schemes help to support wildlife sympathetic farming practices, but apparently only the higher level stewardship schemes are likely to encourage farmers to retain hay meadows as a financially viable option. And there simply isn’t enough money in the kitty to have a significant effect. So, it does seem that the survival of many of the remaining hay meadows, certainly in this part of the world, will depend on enthusiastic stewards who see a value over and above any commercial decisions, in maintaining this natural but manmade, with its almost symbiotic ecology, for personal and long term aesthetic and wildlife benefits.
The above view from last July (note the still large beige areas devoid of living vegetation, simply killed by fallen over rank grass, from the previous season) shows how well the meadow has greened up with self sown plants in just a year. The image below is from mid May 2014. I’ll repeat the image later this year to show the extent of mid season flowers.
So our high meadow is already being transformed, and recreated from its flower barren, intensively grazed, earlier existence with more flowers than ever this year, and the yellow rattle at last is establishing in local pockets throughout the turf.
Our lower and much wetter meadows which support a different range of wildflowers has presented much more of a challenge with extensive rush overgrowth. Throughout the UK rushes seem to have benefited from the wetter, and generally milder, conditions of recent years, and present a real management challenge. Last September, above.
(Late May 2014, after 1 spring cut, and 3 weeks post spraying with a selective herbicide).
Simply cutting, or even heavy grazing, is unlikely to limit their progress, and rather like our geranium cultivars in the garden, they are a dominant plant species, out competing pretty much anything else. So, after much deliberation we have opted this spring to apply a selective weedkiller to the worst sections of our lower meadows, following on from last year’s autumnal, and then an early spring, cut using our BCS 615SL Powerscythe.
Interestingly, Transylvania has a very different climate to West Wales with just a third of our annual rainfall, and predictable hotter summers, so my guess is that rushes do not present the same issues there. The decision to use a herbicide was made easier by an imminent change in legislation. As from 2015, it will no longer be permissible to purchase any agricultural plant protection chemicals, without first obtaining a certificate of competence in its application. You will need a different certificate for different means of application.
So for us it would require a course at an approved centre, then registration to complete a test, and then taking an exam which would hopefully result in a certificate of competence.
The cost of all this would be well over £450, excluding the travel costs, plus possible overnight accommodation. The cost of the selective herbicicded sufficient to treat several acres of rushes is currently about £45.
It seems to me likely that very few smallholders would contemplate shelling out this sum. So what would the options be going forward, if you have a rush problem? Presumably the ‘powers that be’ anticipate we would call in a suitably qualified contractor to apply the chemical. But one of the things we’ve learned here, is that any weather dependent task, may have very limited windows of opportunity to be successfully completed. In the case of rush treatment it needs to be applied early in the year – ideally late April to May, when there is vigorous new rush growth above surrounding foliage, and you need at least 12 hours without rain after application for optimum success. Even with good weather forecasts, you might only know on the morning in question, that today is the best time to spray.
Now ring your contractor, and get him to come within a couple of hours, along with all those other smallholders? It’s not very likely to happen, is it?
And in our case, vehicle access to the fields is inappropriate for much of the year. They are just too soggy. The 2 wheeled BCS 615 SL power scythe scores highly here, being much lighter than either ATV/Quad bike, or even worse a tractor and equipment, so little surface damage is created after just a few days without rain.
So, I’m guessing that even if chemical control was thought to be a reasonable option, in future it will simply not be practical or financially viable. Inevitably there is short term disturbance of the fauna, after cutting and spraying, but I still managed last week to take this distant image of a pair of cuckoos which have used the electricity supply lines across the lower meadow every year as a convenient perch to survey the field below, for possible meals, or host nests. (2 hours after publishing this post, Fiona and I stood close to this spot for 15 minutes, whilst the midge clouds gathered, watching the female cuckoo move from her wire vantage point to the tops of each of the piles of rushes. With remarkable efficiency, systematically shifting around the field, barred beneath like a sparrowhawk, she moved around the filed, no doubt hoping to spot a potential host nest for her egg).
I’ll update in future years just how successful, or not, our attempts at managing these fields have been. For now, we have grass returning, wild flowers have already colonised the ditches very well, and for the first time in the 20 years that we have owned the property, the fields actually look like damp meadows, rather than soft rush mono-cultures. Maybe we shall manage to leave these fields to future owners in better nick than when we took over stewardship?
Perhaps in a few years it may even be possible to take off a hay crop. The last thing we wanted to do was disturb the soil structure or surface, by ploughing or rotavating since this would certainly bring a huge number of viable rush seeds to the surface. As in Transylvania, left un-managed such fields either become rush infested or move beyond that stage, to wet willow and birch sump thickets. A nearby meadow is managed in alternative fashion by an annual burn off in early spring. No grazing ever takes place here, but the near mono-culture has become one of very tall coarse tussock forming grasses – seen below last week with early season lush regrowth just a few weeks post burn.
In the magic terrace garden, the Nectaroscordum/Allium siculum are beginning to open their pretty striped flowers. Native to Sicily and Bulgaria, these seem to be one of the few ornamental alliums which thrive here, and and are widely recognised as being great nectar source flowers. I can’t detect an obvious scent, but ‘Sicilian Honey Garlic’ (siculum denotes its Sicilian origins, Nectaroscordum covering the nectar and garlic attributes) or the equally appropriate ‘Mediterranean bells’ does have garlic scented foliage if crushed. If you peel up the petals, and poke a tongue tip in to the flower’s base, you experience a wonderful sweet taste hit – but I was then left with a strong garlic after taste that lingered in my mouth for most of the day. For now though, it’s just our local wasps that are homing in on the flowers, as a nectar source. Getting some images of this proved tricky since the wasps are speedy feeders, but eventually I worked out that a worm’s eye view really was best to capture those rare cross legged wasps (hold the camera at arm’s length, and trust that things are in focus). I’m hoping that other insects will visit in due course, or our plans to plant more Nectaroscordum on the other side of our favourite outside lunch terrace table, may have to be revised as being a bit risky for diners.
One of the benefits of my recent bout of creaky joints has been to re assess how much back and knee bending takes place on a typical day in the garden. And in an attempt to reduce this, we’ve tried a couple of new tools to see if they help.
The 2 pronged very narrow weeding fork made by De Wit of Holland has proved a huge success. It’s certainly pricey for what it is, but it seems well made with a lightweight ash handle and just two sturdy forged prongs, so any effort is very concentrated. It’s already been used for removing weeds from the gravel yard, creeping buttercups, and small unwanted geranium seedlings from amongst herbaceous plantings (where its narrow profile is invaluable, and the force which can be exerted with a slight twist on those 2 prongs is brilliant). It’s even been useful for hoiking out surplus leeks and cabbages from seedling rows for planting elsewhere. And being conveniently shortish, it doubles as an extra stable prop when the urge to bend over to hand weed just becomes too great. Suffice to say that both Fiona and I are often fighting for it. We may need to buy another.
Finally, after a fabulous, though overall fairly gloomy May, moves into a similar start to June (just 75% of last May’s light measured by our PV system), some images to follow, of more colour from the garden over the last fortnight.