By Pauline Lloyd

Now I am going to tell you a story. It is not a bedtime story, so please don’t fall asleep! This story really begins in February 2009 on the day when I was offered an allotment. On that morning, my plot-to-be looked lovely in the sunshine, covered in nice, neat, green grass. Easy to manage, or so I thought. It was only when I tried to stick my fork into it that I realised that the nice grass was in fact solid couch grass. Several blisters later, I decided it would be a good idea to mulch it first. So a mulch was put down and left in place for about three months before I attacked the by then slightly weakened couch grass with an azada hoe. About a year later I had 16 x 4ft wide vegetable beds. I was also left with two unsightly mounds of couch grass roots, one of about 4ft high at the back of the plot and a smaller one at the front, which the Council insisted had to stay there.

My early allotment days were mainly spent trying to grow vegetables and trying to prevent the couch grass from choking them. So it was really only in 2011 that I started to think about how I could make my plot more attractive to wildlife.

Worth the effort

Dockbug, Coreus marginatus. Photo: Pauline Lloyd

My efforts are now starting to pay off and the wildlife is increasing. Recently I found a pair of toads lurking beneath some cardboard mulch, sparrows chirrup in the hedge nearby, frogs hop around in my strawberry beds and grasshoppers live in the long grass at the front. However, I’m still not satisfied because it all looks too tidy! Next year, I plan to mess it up a bit by adding some thistles and hollyhocks and it would be nice to make a pond like the one in my garden. Further improvement ideas keep coming to me.

I found the two couch grass mounds very unsightly and they wasted valuable space. In 2011, I unsuccessfully tried to grow trailing squashes on them. Then, towards the end of 2011, I scattered phacelia and oriental poppy seeds on the back mound and a variety of flower seeds on the front one. Around that time, I noticed a large tunnel had suddenly appeared that went all the way through the back mound. Probably the allotment’s fox, perhaps a badger, or maybe some very large rabbits? At least something was making use of that mound.

I can now report that the seed scattering idea worked well. By April 2012, the back mound was a mass of lovely lilac-blue phacelia flowers that were attracting many insects. Scarlet and purple-headed oriental poppies followed on from these. The phacelia foliage had successfully smothered most of the invasive plants on the mound and its flowers attracted numerous species of bumblebees, honey bees and ground dwelling bees, plus hover-flies, iridescent flies (such as green and blue bottles) and lots of seven-spot ladybirds and sloe bugs (Dolycoris baccarum). I also found another type of shield bug, known as a dock bug (Coreus marginatus), living in the grass nearby.

Busy bees and butterflies

The front mound now contains flowering evening primroses, oriental poppies, gladioli, nasturtiums, and verbena and more recently I have scattered foxglove and cowslip seeds on it, which should hopefully flower next year. Nasturtiums are especially attractive to cabbage white butterflies, providing food for their caterpillars. Usually, cabbage whites aren’t that welcome on allotments, but planting some nasturtiums could deflect them from laying their eggs on your brassicas. Trailing nasturtium flowers also look nice, attract pollinating insects and can of course be eaten. My evening primrose flowers attract night-flying moths, as well as bees and hover-flies during the day. Today, I saw a brightly-coloured, red, day flying moth landing on them. This was probably a cinnabar moth, or possibly a burnet moth, although I was unable to identify it exactly before it flew off. Verbena flowers are supposed to attract butterflies, although so far I haven’t seen any on them, just hover-flies and bees.

My allotment plot has always had a large population of ground dwelling bees, which live in little holes in the often cement-like ground. I saw one fly into its hole once and it quickly closed the door hole after it by drawing soil over the entrance so that it was no longer visible. Such clever little creatures!

I also have two wonderful nettle patches, which should attract laying peacock, red admiral and small tortoiseshell butterflies. These three species like to lay their eggs on freshly cut young nettles. I did see a small tortoiseshell butterfly examining the front nettle patch after the Council had cut the front nettles down in early July. I have also planted some flowering herbs to attract insects. Bees especially like to visit my flowering oregano, borage, thyme and chive plants and they also buzz all over my patches of white (Trifolium repens) and red (Trifolium pratense) clover. I did have hawthorn berries in my hedge, which would have provided food for the birds in the autumn. There were also plenty of insect-friendly, flowering brambles in that hedge. But both of these were unfortunately destroyed when the Council rigorously pruned the hedge recently. Oh, those jagged edges, will they become diseased?

It’s a wild world

Phacelia. Photo: Pauline Lloyd

Recently on a sunny day, I decided to visit the allotment, not to grow or harvest things, but to see what wildlife I could find living on the other plots there. Watch out wildlife, for here I come! I must confess I was expecting to find lots of weed-free rows of neatly cultivated vegetables and not an awful lot of wildlife. I was, therefore, pleased to discover that this was not the case.

Instead I found that quite a few plots were completely unused and were covered with an abundance of natural plants, usually described as ‘weeds’. Other plots were half-cultivated and half-covered with these natural plants. This is of course very good news from the wildlife point of view because an abundance of wild plants usually means an abundance of wildlife. Where the plots were being cultivated, their owners had often included patches of brightly coloured flowers such as nasturtiums, pot marigolds, lavender and comfrey that attracted insects. However, it was the unused plots that seemed to be attracting the most wildlife. These plots contained large clumps of natural wildlife-friendly plants and sometimes had patches of ‘garden flowers’, now growing like wildflowers. One disused, wilderness plot had super, majestic clumps of foxgloves and hollyhocks covered in bees and hover-flies. I also found mayweed, scarlet pimpernels and evening primroses growing there. Each unused site had different plants that were attracting insects. These included spear (Cirsium vulgare) and creeping (C. arvense) thistles, which are both brilliant for attracting bees, beetles, drone flies, hover-flies, butterflies and moths. Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea) adored by bees and hover-flies and covered in cinnabar moth caterpillars. Germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys), which the hover-flies liked, and common red poppies (Papaver rhoeas), dandelions (Taraxacum offcinale), smooth sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus), the pink-and-white striped field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) and also white hedge bindweed (Calystegia sepium). I noticed that hover-flies were highly attracted to the field bindweed flowers on which they seemed to be queuing up two at a time to feed. Other plants that were present and fairly common, but perhaps slightly less popular with insects, included forget-me-nots and stinky herb robert. I also found buttercups (Ranunculus), docks (Rumex obtusifolia), rosebay willowherb (Epilobium angustifolium), groundsel (Senecio vulgaris), ribwort plantain (Plantago major) and an umbellifer that was probably wild carrot.

On the prowl

I should perhaps include domestic cats in this list of allotment wildlife as they often wander through and hide in the long grass. Are they responsible for the trail of pigeon feathers by my plot or was that the mangy allotment fox’s doing? I, incidentally, saw the fox streak through the nettle patch behind the back mound the next morning, obviously unaffected by the poison the Council have placed in my hedge.

With natural spaces constantly being squeezed out by development and with climate change causing more and more problems for our wildlife, I believe that allotments are an important resource from the wildlife point of view and perhaps would benefit from being surveyed scientifically. However, it is important that allotments are not over managed and that they are cultivated in a way that is sympathetic to wildlife. So do bear wildlife in mind when managing your land. Try to cultivate your plot so that it provides enough food for your needs whilst simultaneously also providing extra habitat for wildlife to live in, possibly by leaving part of it unused. Why not plant some insect-attracting open flowers amongst or near to your vegetables and allow some green manure crops like clovers, vetches and phacelia to flower? Finally, do go easy on the weeding! And if the sound of bees buzzing all around you starts to make you feel a little sleepy, then why not have a little nap and leave the weeding for another day?

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 30 (Winter 2012), p14.