National Meadows Day; Sowing Beauty or Tainted Love; Buttercups, Pizzas and Seasonal Invertebrates.

The first of July seems a long time ago.

Hay has been cut. Twice.

A shed has been built… Seeds have been shed – pale stem straws shimmering… 

Or catapulted, crisp, hairy and augured… Rain has fallen, at times heavily. Miraculously, those same, now sperm like storkbill’s embryos straighten, on sodden lichened slabs… Limp, and drilling nowhere. Marooned in puddles, until the sun’s dehydrating powers returns, to flex and bend and drive …The bullfinch chick chomps, between squeaky hinge monotones …Swallow chicks have grown. Daily…

… Have fledged …… And flown. The days are shortening, and are occasionally wonderful … … and sometimes glowering. Typical July here in upland Carmarthenshire, in fact. 

_______________________________

A significant threshold has been crossed this month, in that we’ve engaged help for the first time from Paul with decorating our chimneys, and from William with helping me construct a hay shed, designed in the nether regions of my mind, not even on the back of an envelope, for storing our big bags of hay. A fascinating exercise in frequent, practical, unanticipated problem solving, which occurred on almost every day of the build… By co incidence a report this week, click here, from the U.S.A. suggests that paying others to do your chores is the secret to happiness.

Really? We don’t actually consider either of the above tasks as chores, just part of the necessary process of trying to keep the place in good order, and leaving it in a better state than we found it. However we’re slowly realising we just can’t manage to get everything done ourselves, and some jobs are now physically a bit beyond us. So we’ve been very grateful for their help and effort, and hope that in William’s case, we can provide him with some regular work around the place as well as assisting him as he establishes his own business.

____________________

The first day of the month saw us opening the garden for the last time this year, along with walks through our meadows, since this year July 1st was designated as National Meadows day, for the third year running. This event has succeeded in raising the profile of wildflower meadows and we were pleased to once again be one of just 120 venues across the UK which held events to contribute to this process. It’s now a well known fact, but worth repeating, that 97% of all traditional wildflower meadows have been lost in the UK over the last 70 years, yet they are amazingly valuable ecosystems rich in plant, animal and fungal diversity. Click here for more on Carmarthenshire’s Meadows Group, set up to try to raise awareness of these environments in our county.

The last week in June was extremely disappointing with grey skies and rain, but the first of July dawned with heavy clouds retreating Eastwards, and sunshine returning… and in the end a very successful day was held with both our morning and afternoon slots pretty fully booked, with almost no car parking spaces left in our yard.

Visitors came from as far afield as Gloucestershire, Manchester and Swansea and it was particularly pleasing that whilst a lot were gardeners, some had a real interest in wildflower meadows, and were keen on learning a little more about our meadows and how we manage them. We always find the exchange of ideas, experience and knowledge which comes out of these events is one of the main benefits to us, and we often get just as much out of it as our visitors.

I was keen to share my enthusiasm as a cross over gardener, come meadow manager, of the complexity of life that a managed meadow represents. And a point I raised with both morning and afternoon groups as we walked round was the fact that our hay meadow now has three separate locally sourced hemi-parasitic flowering plants as constituents of the meadow sward. The first two of which are significant nectar rich flowers for our indigenous bumblebees ( Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus minor and Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica).

The third, and last to flower is the much smaller Eyebright, (Euphrasia nemorosa, etc.) which is really one of a large complex group of very similar looking flowers, and hybrids or species which even keen botanists can struggle to differentiate. Add in a few nitrogen fixing legumes – Birdsfoot and Greater Birdsfoot Trefoil, White and Pink Clover, and the myriad of, for much of the year, unobserved fungi and there is already a very varied matrix of living organisms, apart from the grasses and mosses which are a feature of our very damp climate.I posed the question to our many visitors, do gardeners know of any hemi-parasitic plants which are available, or commonly incorporated into garden planting schemes? I couldn’t think of any, and none of our guests seemed to be able to either. So there seems to be this real contrast between such an interconnected natural meadow ecosystem, on very poor soil, and a typical herbaceous planting scheme. The former has minimal external nutrient input, and indeed some significant natural plant suppression through hemi-parasitism, and regular removal of much of the vegetation through hay cropping and grazing. The latter has plants typically set separately and often much additional organic matter in the way of mulch or nutrient is added. This divergence between a natural, and a more contrived community, and their very different aesthetics, intrigues me greatly.

By the end of the day, we’d exceeded the total visitor numbers we’d managed in any of our previous years of opening, in spite of being open for fewer days, which was very pleasing. We’ve also now decided on our plans for opening next year, to take account of what we feel comfortable with. This will mean opening on very few days, in February to May only, though other dates will be available for groups of 15 or more. Please see the Visiting the Garden page for more details.

___________________________

As light relief from physical work, I’ve managed to finish reading James Hitchmough’s excellent Sowing Beauty book, which I’ve mentioned before. It is a fantastic piece of work, and one which I’d thoroughly recommend, though sections of it are quite technically written, and much of it is most obviously directed at designers, perhaps planning larger scale projects. However I love the detail with which he has researched his subject – of trying to recreate natural communities of plants, by sowing seed, rather than just using plants, and by trying to create long lived communities of plants which will coexist and thrive together. And where management time is vastly reduced over more conventional herbaceous plantings.

Many of his designs are mixes of species from different continents which would never actually be found growing together “in the wild”, but which all favour similar conditions. There are certianly concepts, and features in the book, which can be taken on board by any gardener – for example:… the need to carefully consider the different zones of planting conditions which occur in any garden, for example dry shade, dappled shade, moist shade, moist full sun, dry full sun,  etc….

… the critical role that herbivory by slugs plays in any maritime climate (particularly West Wales !). This doesn’t just affect which plants you may opt to grow, but also impacts on the long term sustainability of a plant population, since plants which may be slug resistant as adults, might still have seedlings which are very vulnerable to slug predation, and might be necessary to rejuvenate a planting design, once the original plants have, inevitably, died. Even if slug control is used, it was sobering to read that within 6 weeks of a slug treatment, recolonisation of an area by slugs will be significant.

… the sheer numbers of weed seed in a typical soil seed bank, (about 50,000 per square metre) and how at least 75 mm of some sort of mulch (he tends to prefer sand) needs to be used in his designs in order to suppress such weed seed germination whilst his selected plant species germinate and establish.

… a comprehensive list of spreadsheets recording actual measured variations in seed germination of well over 600 different species of potentially useful plant species, when grown under identical conditions – this can vary from less than 10% to well over 70% germination success.

… that regular irrigation or rainfall to supply moisture during the germination of a seed can be a critical factor in influencing just how high a rate of germination one can achieve with any particular species.

In his appraisals of natural meadow, steppe and prairie ecosystems from across the world, many plant species are flagged as having potential value to gardeners in the UK, and the book is full of useful links and critical assessments of where seeds or plants can be sourced. However, I have pretty much failed to find any source of a Pedicularis species, (there are over 350 worldwide) other than our native Lousewort. Similarly there are few sources of any Rhinanthus species (other than our yellow rattle) or Euphrasia species, of which there are 450. The concept of gardeners trying to incorporate hemi-parasitic plants is unlikely to take off anytime soon, it seems, maybe in part because for many of the continental members of these genera there is very little information on which plants they naturally parasitise, in their endemic range. And without the right host species, the hemi parasite won’t thrive.

About the same time as finishing this book, I’ve also picked up on the recent publishing of the crowd source funded research (by Goulson, Lentola, David, Abdul-Sada, Tapparo, E M Hill, of Sussex and Padua Universities) into the contamination of many commercially produced garden plants, with fungicides and pesticides. The investigation was prompted by a suspicion that many plants which gardeners were being sold as “pollinator friendly”, were actually contaminated with fungicides and insecticides which might indeed be toxic to the very insects visiting the flowers for pollen or nectar.

It’s worth following this link (click here) to read the whole paper, and its disturbing findings, gleaned by purchasing plants from 5 retail sources in East Sussex and then analysing both leaf and pollen samples for a range of chemicals, 8 insecticides and 16 fungicides, widely used by commercial horticulturalists.

Only 2 out of the 29 “bee-friendly” plants sampled contained no traces of such chemicals, and one was a daffodil, which generally have very poor insect appeal anyway. At the other extreme, Erica carnea, a commonly sold pollinator friendly heather contained traces of 10 different chemicals. The researchers discuss exactly what the implications of this cocktail of chemical exposure to bees might be, but the irony of marketing plants as appealing to bees, whilst simultaneously being tainted with potentially toxic chemicals is made clear.

This made me reflect once again how we humans fare with commercially grown fruit and vegetables, where we have no idea of what might be used on the crops out in the field. Click here for an attempt to highlight the most contaminated common fruit and vegetables, at least in the U.S.A. Of course as with the bumblebee research, it’s unlikely that there will be ever be significant funding provided by any commercial interest into further research into this. So consumers may prefer either to grow their own, or buy organically produced food perhaps, if they want to reduce such risks of exposure?

__________________________

I recalled a fellow meadow owner once telling me about a technique for ageing a meadow by counting buttercups. At last this week I managed to track down the research, originally carried out in 2009 by John Warren at Aberystwyth University. Click here to read the whole paper, which is enlightening and not too full of scientific jargon.

The basic premise is that you collect, or count, the flowers of 100 creeping buttercups, Ranunculus repens, which is a common grassland, and indeed garden, “weed” throughout much of the UK. A normal creeping buttercup flower has 5 petals, but aberrant flower mutations occur where there are more than this number of petals.

Warren explains that since the creeping buttercup largely spreads by vegetative means with runners, or asexual non seed reproduction, then for every one flower found with more than 5 petals, you can assume that the meadow is 7 years old. So if, say, you find 14 such flowers in 100, then the meadow is about 100 years ago.

Knowing that our meadows are likely to be quite old, we thought we’d try this out. You have to distinguish the creeping buttercup from other common field buttercups, like the meadow buttercup and bulbous buttercup, and apparently the accuracy of the system tends to break down after July (though frustratingly the paper doesn’t say whether this is the beginning or end of July!), since flower morphology naturally changes a bit with flowers produced later in the season.

Wandering back up from the bottom field we walked through our “Cae efail” (blacksmith’s field) and picked the first 3 flowers we found. Much to our surprise they all had 6 or more petals. Encouraged, we continued, and the final tallies below showed firstly that roving independently across the field we both seemed to find a similar ratio, of typical 5 petalled to more petalled mutated flowers. In addition you’ll notice that Fiona was a more efficient collector. I’d only got 18 and 30; she had 36 and 65, so an average of just over 36% of more than 5 petal flowers.A little maths implies a meadow age of well over 200 years…

Warren’s paper describes quite clearly how such an obviously visible macro mutation can be maintained within a population simply by vegetative means, and that by sampling populations from across the country from meadows of known age, the simple 7 years per mutant flower formula seems to hold good.

We were clearly at the end of the creeping buttercup flowering period when we performed the count, but this is definitely something we’ll try next year in our other fields. Being able to confirm that our meadows’ ages are closely linked to the age of the construction of our house, which dates to the early 1700’s or so, is very exciting, and confirms what a special opportunity we have here to restore at least some of the meadows to a more floriferous and diverse state.

____________________

Three occasional invertebrate sightings to record this month.

Firstly a number of Devil’s Coach Horse, or Common Black Cocktail, Ocypus olens, beetles have been spotted. These are aggressive, mainly nocturnal carnivorous beetles, and the largest of about 1000 species of “Rove” beetles in the UK, so called because they move around constantly when disturbed. You sometimes find them during the day if you lift a log or disturb them, in this case by cutting the croquet lawn.

If threatened, they adopt a scorpion like posture and will emit a foul smelling liquid from white glands at the rear of the abdomen… and have quite fearsome mandibles for catching their prey, and indeed self defence. Predators of slugs, woodlice, other invertebrates and carrion, they play a useful role in limiting the numbers of some of these in our gardens and meadows. Click here for more on their life cycle. I’m very grateful to several members of the CMG for identifying this beetle for me.

Why the common name? In Irish mythology, where it’s known as the Devil’s beetle, or Dar Daoul, it was thought to imbibe evil powers by eating the bodies of sinners, and then be capable of killing someone with just a look. People were encouraged to kill it if they found one, but with great care, because of its assumed mystical powers. Apparently the only safe way was to lift it with a shovel and hurl it into a fire.

Or even turn its mythical powers to your advantage – apparently some Irish reapers imprisoned beetles in the handles of their scythes to improve their scything skills.

Secondly another impressively relaxed, abseiling slug greeted me one morning this month as I tried to leave the house by the back door, first thing in the morning… Perfectly placed mid way between the door frames, I could just squeeze past the vertical slime thread either side, as the slug twisted and flexed its body as it slowly moved towards the ground…

Dropped” is just too active a word for it.Slugged” has the appropriate sense of slow, inevitable tedium about its gradual fall, but implies more effort than was evident.Slimed“, or even “Slimeseiled”  might be better verbs to describe something I’ve only witnessed once before, in June 2012. Click here for the link, and more explanation on the properties of slug slime which allows them to achieve this slow descent from height.

Thirdly, our latest effort with hay making proved typical of most here. A snatch and grab, where we had to get the hay cut and under cover within a maximum 48 hour weather window. Two days before we’d had 56 mm of rain, the clouds cleared, the still wet grass was cut and then needed turning 5 times in 36 hours to dry sufficiently before filling 55 big bags. Fortunately the cavalry arrived in the shape of Dave and Theresa to help us stuff and cart bags – we have a surfeit of hay so it’s great it can go to a good local home.

The first drying day was perfect – sunny with a strong breeze. Tuesday was more humid and oppressive with less wind and even the occasional spot of rain falling. More perfect in fact for the huge annual swarming of Black ants, Lasius niger…As always they congregated on the lime washed East facing stone barn wall, but not at all on our house’s South facing gable wall… They also seemed attracted by a horizontal white tarpaulin…and the white meshed synthetic fabric of the Big Bags, regardless of orientation … So in one part of the meadow we were plagued with swarms of ants which settled on us as well, and even bit, or stung, occasionally.

Later in the day when the bags were filled, and some remained out in the meadow, the ants were still there, but only on the remaining few empty bags lying on the ground, and on the empty top part of the half filled bag. No ants at all on the filled bags. Why the preference for certain white surfaces, and not others? I have no idea. It’s really tricky to find out much about ant physiology or behaviour on line – all the top ranked articles are simply about pest control. I also notice that the first time I recorded this event on this blog was July 27th 2011. Some natural phenomena here are much more predictable than our hay making. Click here for more on the Black Ant life cycle.

So whilst the drone ants die after their day’s fling, and any successfully mated princesses settle down to chew off their wings and continue their lives beneath ground for another year, or twenty, since this is how old some queen ants can be, we shared a communal post hay making pizza in by now glorious early evening sunshine, using the amazing UUNI Mk3. This stainless steel lightweight oven takes about 13 minutes to warm up to about 400 degrees C, and then cooks a pizza perfectly in 90 seconds or so on an included bake stone, using just a couple of handfuls of wood pellets. A really great contemporary British invention for any pizza fan readers out there.

Click here for more, and a video demonstration from its inventor, Kristian Tapaninaho, a Finnish born entrepreneur who lives in Edinburgh with his young family and was inspired to design it because there wasn’t anything else like it available at reasonable cost. UUNI by the way means oven in Finnish.

And I can confirm that on just its second outing, I was almost as slick as Kristian, and it makes for a great social event, as well as producing the best home made pizzas I’ve ever managed in decades.

Today the fields are wet.

The ants have gone.

The crows are scavenging.

Black, after black.

The UUNI rests, waiting for a refuel.

12 thoughts on “National Meadows Day; Sowing Beauty or Tainted Love; Buttercups, Pizzas and Seasonal Invertebrates.

  1. Hello from dry central Oregon, Julian! My daughter gifted me with Dave Goulson’s “the Buzz in the Meadow” for my birthday this June, and I have been happily reading about yellow rattle and varieties of bumblebees I have never known of! I am fascinated by the tons of information contained in his book, and intend to buy a book or illustrated guide to all the bumblebees, if I can find one, next! I have many bumblebees pollinating my lavender here in the east Cascades. Haven’ t SEEN a slug since I moved from the Portland area! Suzette

    • Hello Suzette,
      I too loved Dave Goulson’s book. Did you ever pick up that he went to the same small town grammar school as me and my brothers…Oh and Jeremy Corbyn, Britain’s current very left wing labour leader….quite a bunch of odd bods, pushed out by Adam’s Grammar School!
      But I loved his book too, and he’s been a real force for research here into pollinator decline.
      I can’t believe you don’t have slugs!!! But for ages I couldn’t work our how many plants which get treated as slug caviar here ( to quote Hitchmough’s phrase) ever survive in the wild….the answer of course being that either because of very cold winters (alpine type regions) or very dry areas (more prairie types), slugs just don’t have the year round breeding chances that they have here! We love Echinaceas, but they’ve simply no chance here as the slugs love them so much.
      Best wishes
      Julian

  2. As always love your photos and your words! Your Open Day looked great. Just read today that slug slime may be used instead of stitches…it would be lovely if slugs could provide something very useful for a change! I like the buttercup count- very interesting ….having some help on your land as given you time to count buttercup petals…a fair exchange and it is a much better activity to do than all those chores! Pity about all this rain that we are having…looks dismal outside ..hopefully it will brighten up next week! Fingers crossed!

    • Thanks Marianne,
      We escaped to Wrights today, and in the wet and grey driving home commented how we’d much rather have the rain and be able to grow things, than drier conditions and stryggle. And did you read Suzette’s comment about no slugs in the U.S.A.?
      Yes, counting buttercups is just the sort of pottering activity we used to do! Something to make you really happy, and of no value at all!!! Hope you’re all ship shape at last.
      Best wishes
      Julian

  3. Very interesting thoughts on buying pollinator plants. I certainly worry that increasing pesticide use in mass vegetable production (flowers or food) will lead to serious consequences. What to do about it all is much more problematic.

  4. I never know what I am going to find in your writing! The pizza oven at the end was a big surprise after the calming thoughts of wildflower meadows but , heh, it sounds really great. Now I want a pizza oven and a few moments ago I did not know they existed. Is this what makes our modern consumer driven minds work? Amelia

    • Hello Amelia, Thanks for the reply….I wasn’t sure about mentioning the pizza oven, but just in tonight after its third use this evening under cool skies with a spot of drizzle even, and I’m still really chuffed with the pizzas it turns out. Tonight we finished off with some amretti + sugar stuffed nectarines cooked in a cast iron pan in less than a minute, which worked really well too. Everyone seems to love the concept – it looks great, and the fact that it uses minimal pellets too, is a huge bonus. I’ve been making my own pizzas for decades, and they’re way better than any I’ve ever managed before….but there are a few practical tips which I’m working out on how to use it, and you mustn’t be put off by the flames which emerge from it at times!!! In your climate, I’m guessing you’d be using it most of the year! Maybe a future Christmas present???
      best wishes
      Julian

      • In addition, I straight away thought of trying Eastern flatbreads in the oven. It looks a similar version of tradition bread ovens. However, I’ve never made bread but there must be a first time for everything.

      • I’m sure Eastern flat breads or pitta breads would work equally well… Definitely worth a go bread making, Amelia….one of the most satisfying things I do, and have done for nearly 40 years now, and I’m still learning. But don’t use a machine – part of the therapy of bread making comes from hand kneading, I think.
        Best wishes
        Julian

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s