Tag Archives: Plant

Chalk grassland: Europe’s rainforest?

Sometimes places that look barren or dull can be full of diverse wildlife, on closer inspection. I am a bit of a tree fan, so it’s always been the woods of Box Hill, with their rare box trees, that have excited me. While the grassy slopes of the hill have appealed to me aesthetically, I assumed that the real wildlife was elsewhere.

The grassy slope to the summit of Box Hill
The grassy slope to the summit of Box Hill

A recent walk up the hill on a sunny day made me suspect I might be wrong.  What, from afar, looks like boring old grass, is actually a huge variety of plant species, including many different flowers. And these plants were buzzing with insect life.

An orchid and moth
Chalk grasslands are home to a huge range of plant and insect species

A bit of reading up on the subject has confirmed that my earlier assumptions were well wide of the mark. Chalk grassland, grazed by sheep and unfertilised, is one of the UK’s richest for plant and insect diversity. The poor, thin soil, and regular grazing, means no single species can dominate.  A square metre of chalk grassland may have up to 40 different plant species, leading to some calling it Europe’s answer to the rainforest.

The chalk grassland slopes of Box Hill
The chalk grassland slopes of Box Hill, looking towards the woods

This diversity of plants gives food and shelter to a wide range of insects.  41 different types of butterfly have been found on Box Hill, including some of the rarest in the UK. I didn’t even know there were that many butterfly species in Britain.

Chalk grassland is in itself quite rare. It is an internationally important habitat and is a priority in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.Besides the North and South Downs there aren’t many other large areas of chalk grassland left. Much has been lost in the last 50 years due to changes in farming, (intensification including use of fertiliser and over grazing), encroachment of scrub where grassland isn’t grazed, and development of land for other purposes. Only 1% of the Surrey Hills has remnant chalk grassland cover.

Looking south from Box Hill
Looking south from Box Hill

There’s been quite a lot of controversy locally about a recent Court of Appeal judgement allowing some chalk grassland to be turned into an exclusive golf club. Neatly manicured, fertilised and herbicided greens and fairways are deserts compared to natural chalk grassland.

While it may not have the immediate feel of the wild that you get in woods or at the coast, chalk grasslands are rich habitats, and need protection. Losing chalk grassland means losing a unique and fragile ecosystem, which we will be poorer without.

Looking from Box Hill towards Dorking
Looking from Box Hill towards Dorking
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Creating a mini wildflower meadow

Being British I’m partial to a well kept lawn – I like playing croquet, and while I’ve yet to try bowls, I could see it being my sort of sport in a few years time. But while a lush carpet of green has it’s appeal, an untidy jumble of wildflowers is more my style, and requires a lot less effort than keeping the lawn perfect. Establishing a wildflower meadow is not just an aesthetic winner – having a variety of native flowers can attract lots of insects, while the seeds can attract birds like goldfinches. Having a variety of lengths of grass can provide shelter for a whole host of creatures.

So when thinking about how to make our garden a wildlife haven, creating some kind of wildflower meadow was high up the list of things to do. Our garden is pretty small, with only around 5m by 4m of lawn in the first place. Since Dr C wouldn’t allow me to turn all of that into meadow, we settled on around half.

We had a bit of a head start in creating a wildflower meadow as our lawn was not ‘perfect’ to start with. In summer there were buttercups (or a flower that looks like buttercups) that left to their own devices would happily take over. There were also (far too) many dandelions (although I’m not their biggest fan). So our first step was to let the grass and flowers grow uncut in that section of the garden, and let the buttercups expand.

Wildflowers often prefer poor soils, so grasses don’t out compete them. For a small section of the mini meadow we took off a layer of turf, and sowed a mix of wildflower seeds. You can buy ready-mixed selections from any garden centre, which is what we did. But if you’re up for a bit more research you could investigate which wildflowers are found naturally in your local area, and choose a selection based on that. There are a number of specialist suppliers whose websites provide helpful information about the range of native wildflowers and how to establish a meadow.

Being impatient (or as a kind of experiment, if you choose to put a more charitable interpretation on it), I also ordered a big batch of wildflower plug plants, and planted those in the rest of the meadow area.

Not being an expert in flowers, I’m afraid I don’t know the names of all the flowers we have in the meadow. To my shame, I haven’t even counted how many different sorts. What I can say is there are quite a few different species, which means that as soon as one type stops flowering another takes over. It’s only in the last few weeks that we no longer have any flowers in bloom in the meadow.

Encouragingly, this year we still have a good variety of wildflowers, despite not sowing or planting any new ones this year. Some of them are biennials that have survived from last year, while others seem to have seeded themselves from last year’s plants.

The plants grown from seeds seem to have done better than the plug plants, although some of them are still around. Next year I might try and seed another patch with more different types, for even more variety. But hopefully the meadow will, with minimal maintenance, keep renewing itself each year.

While digging up the turf and sowing / planting took a bit of work, the meadow is quite low maintenance (compared to a lawn). In the first year we had to water the new plants while they established themselves, but this year we haven’t had to do any watering, despite the dry summer. We ‘mow’ it with shears twice a year, and apart from that we leave it to its own devices.

The insects seem to love it, and goldfinches have fed from the seeds of some of the flowers, which is very satisfying. It’s also nice to see the tunnel the hedgehogs have created through it.

So if you’re looking for an excuse to be a lazy wildlife gardener, I would recommend creating a mini meadow.

Maybe next year I’ll try and work out which flowers and creatures live in our mini meadow!

How to build a mini pond

Frog
Frog

As a kid, I loved the pond in my parents’ garden. It was brimming with frogs and newts (and leeches). My brother and I spent many happy hours catching frogs (the tiny, just-got-legs ones were the easiest to catch, and the cutest – poor little froggies being chased by curious kids). So when I finally got a garden of my own, I was determined to build one.

Building a pond is a great way of increasing the value of your garden to wildlife. It attracts invertebrates, amphibians (who eat slugs – horay!), and can be a vital water source for birds and mammals if it’s designed well. As I mentioned in my first post, our garden is rather small, and since Dr C objected to me turning the whole lawn into a pond, I had to content myself with a mini-pond. But even a tiny pond can be really valuable to wildlife.

Living in England’s equivalent to the Champagne region, the obvious container for our pond was half an old wine barrel, obtained from our local vineyard. Old tin baths, belfast sinks and other similar containers can also make good mini-ponds.

To make it easier for hedgehogs and frogs to access, we decided to recess it, so the top was about level with the decking. Dr C valiantly got on with the digging while I tried to clean up the barrel. After several scrub-outs, the water was still turning wine red, so as we didn’t want drunk frogs, we decided to line it with pond liner.

Once the pond was in place, we used old bricks and stones to create different levels within the pond. This is important so frogs and hedgehogs can easily climb out, and birds have a shallow bit to bathe in. When we had the landscaping sorted, we put the pond liner over the top and stapled the edges to the top of the barrel so they didn’t move.

Creating different levels in the pond
Creating different levels in the pond

We added a couple of handfuls of pond compost, and then filled it with water from our water butt (if you’re using tap water, you have to let it rest for 24 hours so all the chlorine can evaporate off, before adding any plants or creatures).

Picking plants for a small pond can be a bit of a challenge, as you need to find something that won’t spread too much. We managed to find a dwarf water lily for surface cover (most water lilies like to be planted quite deep), and then picked a couple of native oxygenating plants plus a small iris for the edge. Waterside Nursery have a good range of wildlife friendly pond plants.

Newly planted pond

Newly planted pond

I’ll save telling you how the pond has fared for another day, but here’s a sneak preview…

The mini pond
The mini pond

If you’re keen to have a go at creating your own pond, the RSPB provide some good guidance. Waterside Nursery’s website also contains lots of useful advice about building a wildlife pond and picking the right plants.