By Christine Mackay. Christine is an allotment holder in Scarborough, UK, and works with the land-share organisation Growing Opportunities.
After many years of watching programmes by David Attenborough and other superb wildlife film-makers, it was inevitable that my first venture into gardening was for wildlife rather than food-growing. As a child I was thrilled to find a common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii) on the drying green and lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis) by the privet hedge. Fortunately our garden was never exposed to chemicals and largely left to its own devices, thus enabling me to be inspired by such discoveries.
With the aid of Chris Baines’ book How to Make a Wildlife Garden, which includes very helpful plant lists, I was inspired to create a pond and plant nectar-rich flower borders and a native hedge.
When I acquired an overgrown allotment it provided an ideal opportunity to combine a new interest in food-growing with my love of gardening for nature. I set about creating two ponds, one using a liner and another from an old bath, and established many butterfly and bee-friendly plants, including numerous species native to the United Kingdom. Around the ponds these include purple and yellow loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria and Lysimachia punctata), devil’s bit scabious (Succisa pratensis), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), marsh marigold (Caltha palustris), sweet woodruff (Galim odoratum) and yellow flag iris (Iris pseudacorus). The iris has proved a bit too much for my small pond and is probably best avoided unless you can restrain it in a container. It is worth noting here that both native and non-native plants have the potential to become invasive. For example Lythrum salicaria is considered a problem species in North America.
Red campion. Photo: Christine Mackay
Left unattended, the ‘weeds’ that invade my vegetable beds are most likely to be red campion (Silene dioica), borage (Borago officinalis), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), forget-me-not (Myosotis) and feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium). I still find it difficult to bring myself to remove these to make way for crops but you can have too much of a good thing!
I am always on the lookout for more beneficial plants to increase the biodiversity of my plot. If I see a plant that is attractive to hoverflies or other flying beasts, I try to establish it wherever there is a suitable space. I love the sound of bees droning whilst I potter and they certainly need all the help they can get to thrive and keep pollinating our crops. I do not rely solely on native species as there are so many naturalised flowering plants that are every bit as worthwhile. These include Michaelmas daisy (Aster), borage, Jacob’s ladder (Polemonium caeruleum), lavender (Lavendula spica) and ice plant (Sedum spectabile) to name but a very few.
Feverfew. Photo: Christine Mackay
As a general rule, the simple open flowers most often found in old cottage gardens are better for insects than exotic double-headed types. Part of the fun is to create a border with a long season of colourful flowers with a good mix of perennials and annuals (including edibles such as herbs, chard, chives, salads and parsley). I have found that there is a lot of skill involved in this and I am still learning. Judicious pruning, thinning out, tying back and arranging plants appropriately by height and spread are required; I have lost plants through competition for light and space.
It’s always nice to discover flowering plants that have established themselves. I now have selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) after finding one plant and letting it self-seed and toadflax (Linaria vulgaris) seems to appear from nowhere. To keep things in balance, consideration must be given to where flowering plants can become established and they should be removed if they are competing for nutrients and light which would be detrimental to crops.
Corncockle. Photo: Christine Mackay
Companion planting is a big subject in its own right. Of the flowers that I like to grow in my vegetable beds, one of my favourites is corncockle (Agrostemma githago). It grows well among broad beans or other taller crops and its beautiful deep purple flowers are held at the top of slender stalks. The large black seeds can be saved, readily germinate in the vicinity and easily transplant if they are watered in well. Field poppies (Papaver rhoeas), with their rich red flowers, always look good against the foliage of leaf crops and even better combined with marigolds (Tagetes and Calendula). I like to sow smaller nectarrich flowers among crops that are attractive to hoverflies and bees such as candytuft (Iberis umbellata), carnival mix (Nemesia) and nastrurtium (Tropaeolum majus). Clovers are favoured for combining with crops in vegan organic systems and are much loved by bees. Likewise, many green manures such as phacelia and mustard are very attractive to insects if they are allowed to flower. The poached egg plant (Limanthes Douglasii) is good to grow, especially among fruit bushes. It readily self-seeds, competes well with weeds, provides lots of early nectar and is easy to remove if it starts to take over.
I like to plant flowers that attract ladybirds and lacewings. These include plants with small flowers such as fennel (Foeniculum vulgare), parsley (Petroselinum hortense) and yarrow. To build up a population of beneficial predators it is helpful to provide them with shelter, especially for overwintering. I avoid the temptation to be too tidy in the autumn and leave plenty of dead stems of various sizes for them to hide in and various sized dead wood and leaf litter around the ponds and in the borders. I have seen some great-looking insect houses which provide a feature of interest – a sort of art with a purpose.
Marigold. Photo: Christine Mackay
Through the Growing Opportunities land-share project, two community groups are developing a neglected garden in the centre of Scarborough. An area has been set aside for raised beds and compost boxes. Sections of lawn that have not been turned over to cultivation have daisies, and fox and cubs (Hieracium aurantiaca), a member of the daisy family with bright orange flowers. This presents an opportunity to add more flowers and create a small flower meadow to encourage mini-beasts into the garden. There is potential to create nectar rich borders on either side of the footpath.
The planting of a wide range of flowering plants and herbs as part of a chemical-free food-growing system will make it more inviting to beneficial insects and predators. Gardens become more attractive and diverse, and provide additional useful material for making compost. Contact with nature is good for our mental wellbeing, and the more habitats created, the greater the range of positive interactions with plants and animals that are made possible.
Cultivating using vegan organic methods is inevitably better than chemical-based methods. But with a bit of extra knowledge about which flowering plants to add and creating wildlife corridors via ponds and borders, a veg patch can support an impressive range of species and gives you a nice glowing feeling that you have helped provide food for many more mouths than human ones!
This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 29 (Summer 2012), p22.