The Orange Tip

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Tag: meadow

Meadow Strips

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Given the success of last year’s annual meadow, despite sowing so late, I decided to repeat the process, however this time sowing either side of the central path up to the house.
The annual strips form new edges to the native and already-established perennial meadow through which the path cuts. My hope is that the annual flowers will add an extra dimension of interest, both by way of colour and the insects they will ideally attract.

To do this I began by measuring a 50cm death away from the path using a tape measure and scaffold plank, and then cut away the turf with a half moon. I then used a spade to lift the turf strips and stacked them over by the wild garden hedge.

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Once again I used ‘Pictorial Meadows’ for wildflower seed. The quality was excellent last year so they are very much tried and tested. I went for their ‘standard mix’, incorporating a few handfuls of additional seed I’d collected such as poppy, musk mallow and cornflower. As with last year’s process, I mixed the seed with sand in a bucket and sowed as evenly as I could, having soaked the ground first. Rather than rolling this time however, I just trod the seed in by foot. Hopefully the timing of the sowing; early in the season and with good weather, will deliver some decent results by mid Summer.

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Pictorial Meadow Catch-Up

Meadow doneIt might be slightly late in the year for an annual meadow review, but while the sky is grey and the leaves are coming down by the boat load it’s nice to be reminded of the colour that already seems a lifetime ago..

Back in April I decided to sow a stretch of annual meadow using a Pictorial Meadows seed mix. I’ve wanted to do this since arriving at the garden years ago, however the task never made it to the top of my things-to-do list quickly enough in Spring each year and so the opportunity was always missed. The length of ground I chose was roughly 16m x 2m and of the fairly free-draining, light soil indicative of this area of South West London.

Pictorial Meadows have built a reputation on providing high quality meadow seed and key advice services in a fairly new field of horticulture. Founded by leading naturalist garden designer and professor at Sheffield University, Nigel Dunnett, their client and project list is now extensive, including the stunning meadows commissioned for the London 2012 Olympic Park.

I chose a seed mix that would maximise colour and impact while providing a food source for insects in a fairly quiet and otherwise infrequently visited area of the garden. The mix was listed on the Pictorial Meadows website (www.pictorialmeadows.co.uk) as ‘Standard Annual’, which includes poppy, cornflower, toadflax, Atriplex and Coreopsis flowers.

Bare earthThe first step was to remove the top layer of grass and weed. As the garden houses probably the largest population of Alkanet residents I have ever encountered, there was some additional deep-root digging required in order to prepare the ground for rotorvation. Once rotorvated, I then trampled the soil and raked over.

Seed Seed with sandThe seed was then mixed with sand; this enables both a more even distribution when sowing, and a visible contrast with un-sown ground so as to indicate where you have scattered seed. I sowed my meadow in early June, which was far later than intended and consequently the strip only began to reach decent flowering around mid September. The ideal would be to sow around mid April, which I will be doing next year for certain. Regardless, however, the results were fantastic; nothing beats the sight of an annual meadow in sunshine. It draws you in and the colours absorb you to distraction. I think we must have some innate, deep-set connection with the cornflower meadow, perhaps reaching back to the cornfields of our ancestry.  To stand and watch it seems to chime with something within; I would highly recommend having a go, even if you only have space for a meter or two.

October Stacks

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This year I have to admit to up-scaling the mechanics of my meadow cutting process in a bid to save a bit of time and labour. I stretched to a power scythe (courtesy of the ever-frustrating eBay) which has made all the difference this year.
A power scythe or, ‘sickle mower’, cuts grass low at the base, pushing the sword through two crossing blades along a wide bar. The cut is very clean and surprisingly much less destructive to meadow dwellers (frogs, toads, nice etc) than other commonly used machines like strimmers and ride on mowers.
Although I was only able to get both the meadows cut by the time Autumn was settling in, we were lucky enough to have a few days sunshine to give the impression of a late Summer afternoon as I finished off the stacks.

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Meadow Moth

20130717-180119.jpgPleased to see the familiar Six-Spot Burnet Moth back in the lower meadow again this year, especially after such a stark Summer for both the moths and butterflies last year. In fact there are positive signs fluttering all over the garden now, thanks to the absurdly relentless sunshine of the last few weeks. Hopefully numbers will increase as more species are energised in the warm and able to find food; sustaining them through to egg-laying stage on host-plants found in the meadow.

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Cutting the Meadows

It’s much later in the season than I had intended to cut the lower meadows. The relentless rain meant having to push the cutting process back further and further, and with Autumn just around the corner the stems had thickened up and become tall and tough. The colours had also changed; dulling down to a wash of softer tones, equally as attractive as their earlier, more-vibrant form. Knapweeds, scabious’ and wild carrots now made up the primary structure of the plants, a welcome result of the postponed cut.

Wild Carrot

Common Knapweed

Musk Mallow

The lack of steady, regular sunlight this year has made the shoots grow very tall, falling over each other and forming a densely packed sward. So dense in fact that the strimmer is of no use, struggling to cut through the thick grass. So instead I went ‘old school’ this year and brought out the hand scythes. A scythe enables you to make a much cleaner and closer cut down at ground level. Great bundles of grass can be lifted at a time, resulting in little need of raking and and much easier stacking. A strimmer, on the other hand, will churn up the grass, separating it into smaller pieces much harder to remove entirely from the ground. As the key to successful meadow making is in the annual depletion of nutrients (nitrogen most importantly), it is essential that nothing is allowed to rot back into the ground, adding back fertility. For this reason the scythe is the ideal tool.

Old friend Andy came to lend a hand, taking it in turns to cut, lay and stack the bundles. This time with much longer, lateral bunches, the hay stack grew fast and tall.

Another benefit in using a scythe is the far lower impact it has on the nature living within the grass. A florally-diverse meadow literally hums with activity in the sunlight; awash with bees, hover-flies and butterflies. Beneath the surface, however, is a whole world of creatures; from enormous toads to tiny beetles. The damp habitat encourages slugs, which in turn attract toads. Grasshoppers and crickets thrive among the long, vertical stems, attracting lots of frogs. Last year I stopped counting frogs at 200, placing them in buckets as I cut the grass, and emptying them out into the borders, wood and pond. Because a scythe moves slowly and in one direction, the destruction of nature is brought down to a bare minimum, if any at all.

The other great thing about using a scythe is that is brings you down into the grass and into their world, enabling you to see it from another perspective. A strimmer has you stood up in the familiar position, detached from the motion of the machine, with a constant deafening noise. Without it you can move quietly through the grass, much more aware of the ecology that surrounds you.

Of the three lower stretches of grass I decided to leave the middle meadow to flower and seed for a few more weeks. Neatening the edges and cleaning up the paths on either side meant that it became a bit of a spectacle, which I like. It reminded me of Piet Oudolf’s rectangular strip of prairie planting at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde park; allowing you to view the enclosed contents and it’s purposes from all sides.

Concluding with some celebratory ciders (as is tradition..) the annual cycle can now begin again, with the hay stacked and drying for next year’s use, and the grass shooting up once more in Spring.

Taking in the Hay

Although a job somewhat overdue, the short stretch of sunshine a few weeks ago meant that I was able to finally collect up last year’s hay and store it away. Removing the outer exposed layer, I was really pleased to see how well aired the contents of the stack had been, enabling the cut to dry out and soften in the mound. It’s amazing actually, considering just how wet the preceding months had been.  I believe there is more of a traditional art to stacking hay in this way that, through strategic rather than haphazard layering, further enables it to dry out without soaking in rain water. I’m happy enough with this year’s lot for now though.

I was fortunate to have the kind assistance of Lucy Scott of Lost in London Magazine (a must for all country-at-heart Londoners: www.lostinlondonmagazine.com) for the afternoon. And so together we filtered the best of the grass into the smaller shed, where it will remain over the coming Autumn and Winter, gradually being put to use as chicken coop bedding.

Once the stack was empty I thought it was only fair to let the hens come down to have a scratch around the remaining base for any last hangers-on, before finally mowing it clean.  However, the ground won’t remain bare for long; the cycle begins all over again this month as the meadows are cut once more and are stacked to dry out for next year’s hay.

Popping Vetch

Some of the earlier flowering meadow species are beginning to set seed as their seasons are winding down. Of the more dominant players in the mix the most apparent are currently the ox-eyes (top), yellow rattle and the common vetch (above). All three began their blooms back in May and have more or less dictated the meadow colour scheme since.

With the sun low over the bottom meadow this evening Charlie and I made the most of the warm and went out to collect the vetch seeds, now ripe in their blackened legumus pods, to store and sow next year. Vetch plants have developed an ingenuous method of natural seed dispersal, allowing the pods to dry out under the sun on the stem until they literally burst open and twist, sending the seeds flying out in all directions. In his published diary, ‘Notes From Walnut Tree Farm’, the late naturalist Roger Deakin described the sporadic ‘popping’ of vetch seed pods in numerous entries. One of them reads;

‘Standing in the home meadow in the long grass, listening to the vetch pods cracking open in the sunlight and warmth after a rainy night. The rain has softened them, then the sun has blackened and hardened them, causing the pods to snap open like little springs’.

As we collected them into paper envelopes this evening, every now and then one would suddenly explode either in the hand or from within the paper, making us jump. No nicer endeavour on a warm Summer evening.

Meadows

The weather has been throwing as many different extremes around as possible over the last few months, and yesterday was pretty much the peak. We’ve had burning hot, dry days, long, wet weeks, extended cold periods and heavy, gale-like winds. The combined force of the latter two elements were what made yesterday so disastrous and almost impossible to work in. I was set on getting a recently weeded border bark-mulched; a deadline already a few days overdue. And so belligerently, and in a bit of a determined stupor, I busied about with the wheelbarrow beneath a creaking and groaning sycamore canopy as it dropped limbs and showered leaves all around until the late afternoon. The winds were unbelievably powerful and seemed to spring up from nowhere.

And so currently most of the garden is smothered in a litter of debris. Thankfully, however, I did manage to do a round with the camera the day before, when the sun was shining and there was something more like a breeze in the air. The meadows, particularly the lower three, have actually done very well this year, despite the haphazard and unstable weather, and much to my surprise and joy. The top meadow though, which is on shadier ground and with a slightly different seed mix, will need some work this year. Due to a large portion of it having once been a pond, the area is still fairly fertile and needs to be impoverished in order for the wildflowers to flourish. Consequently there are ever-encroaching nettles and alkanet patches which will need getting rid of and re-sowing. It’s always a slow process developing meadows, but there are definitely positive signs of change within the species make-up and diversity already. Interestingly, a big player in that top meadow this year over previous years has been the white campion, Silene latifolia. And so far, unlike last year, there have been no signs of ragwort at all (although it is still early days).

In about 2-3 weeks time I’ll be doing the June cut for all four meadows. This needs to be done once the flowers are beginning to set seed, and it will bring about a second run of flowering, before a final cut at the very end of the summer. It’s a huge task, but a satisfying one. So for now it’s a case of enjoying the view while it’s here.