JEREMY CLACKSON reports on the rapidly growing problem at the side of many of the borough’s roads
As Mayor of London, never let it be said that Sadiq Khan doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet. Because everywhere you look around Croydon, at roadside verges which are supposed to be in the care of Transport for London, and there’s rapidly growing tufts of summer grass that would be worthy of the most unplayable rough at any Open golf championship.
It is symbolic of the drift in Sadiq Khan’s Mayoralty, as he struggles with stressed budgets at TfL, the collapse of the scheme to Oxford Street pedestrianisation, mounting questions over housing delivery and, sadly, proving unable to staunch the scourge of knife crime across the capital.
The May local election poll that was reported on election night by Inside Croydon did give Khan the backing of 49.7 per cent of the borough’s voters who said, two years into his term, that he is doing a good job, against 21.2 per cent saying he was doing a bad job.
If that same poll was conducted again today, might the numbers be different, after a bad month for Khan and six weeks of summer growth on our verges?
City Hall’s TfL is responsible for the A23 and the A232.
In Croydon, the A23 runs from Coulsdon to Norbury, including the Purley Way.
The A232 runs from West Wickham to Waddon, including the Wickham and Addiscombe Roads.
The verges have been left uncut for months and are growing, as Oscar Hammerstein II would have had it, as high as an elephant’s eye.
The grass outside Shirley shopping parade’s Trimmers has certainly not been cut. A No1 is long overdue.
Waddon’s Labour councillors have told their residents that TfL hopes to start cutting the verges by the end of this month. If true, it will be a welcome relief for some residents living near the Purley Way, who claim that the overgrowth is starting to block the paths into their homes.
There are some who argue for less frequent cutting of roadside verges, because it allows a more natural feel to places, can help foster wild flowers, and saves money. Around Croydon, there’s little evidence of any roadside nature reserves, though it is clear that money is not being spent.
TfL’s budget is in a mess, with subsidy from government withdrawn and Khan’s flagship policy of a fares freeze causing his officials predictable problems in finding funding for all their responsibilities.
Cutting Croydon’s verges are clearly not a priority for Mayor Khan, who yesterday confirmed that he will be seeking a second term in City Hall. How well that goes may hinge on matters as mundane as Khan’s letting the grass grow – it’s local issues on people’s doorsteps that motivate voters.
Voters don’t like to feel neglected, and unkempt, untouched grass verges send all the wrong messages.
Anthony Mills: We could be on the verge of providing a wildlife haven
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Well if they do cut the grass and remove the bindweed in June this will be 11 Months since they did ANYTHING on the A232 along Chepstow Road and into the gyratory system by the Town Centre.
Grass cutting – they need a hedge trimmer down the centre reservation
Somewhere under it all there were decently planted bushes
Its a total disgrace and reflects badly on Croydon, not TFL
Isn’t there an interesting question of how far TfL or Borough Councils do need to insist on a very old-fashioned short-back-and-sides for every piece of land? Or perhaps you’d like the streets with the newest power-fashion for men – the shiny shaved bald bonce?
Let me suggest another approach. Because I’ve been rather taken by landscape gardeners who go for grasses. For example the Dutchman Piet Oudolf, who – at least from photos – seems to have inspired some wonderful garden designs.
As well as on the Highline in New York.
And aren’t there a range of very important green issues? We seem to be at serious risk of losing bees, butterflies and a whole lot more. Maybe these verges are refuges?
Maybe the days have passed when local Councils chopped, uprooted, sprayed and poisoned every bit of greenery. Except for regimented beds. So perhaps some virtue emerging from the necessity of financial meltdown.
Yes, of course ornamental grass is fine, Croydon planted some on the road through Croydon – then promptly forgot about it such that it is now grass covered and surrounded by all manner of weeds. The trees that we planted look very little better with no TLC.
OK, look after the butterflies, but at the same time keep the place with just a little order – After all its June, should there not have been just one trim and clean up by now, a sort of long back and sides?
It is the same down in Sussex. I and several neighbours cut the grass verges outside our properties but some choose not too. Personally I think if it’s in an urban area it should be cut more frequently but out of town or district centres then long grass etc must be better for plants, insects etc.
I do wonder if this is a ‘thing’. We’ve just spent a couple of days in the prosperous city of Maastricht, and remarked on the unkempt nature of the grass verges, but then observed blokes with strimmers on the case in other spots. Another day, another country, much the same was going on in the town we stopped for lunch and this evening, in yet another country (you don’t have to go far to change countries round here) the grounds of our hotel in a small town in Germany would, if they were a wheat field, pleasure Mrs May tremendously.
I wonder if any professional horticulturalists would care to comment?
I worked as an NHS Gardener for 32 years, beginning in the days when hospitals had their own sports pitches, bowling greens, glasshouses. We produced 10k wallflowers and 10k geraniums each year for annual bedding and had fleets of mowers. In the latter half of my working life I came to hate and despise the stupid waste and destructiveness of the acres of manicured lawns. As resources dried up, the mowing schedues stretched, and some places were inadvertently missed. I once found a lawn in June at the back of a therapy unit forgotten for some months. It was a remnant of a sward that was original to the hopital’s founding, 95 years old, colonised over that time by species tolerant of the dwarfing that mowing induces. In that sward I counted 26 plants in flower at once, not including the dozen or so grass species. It was spectacularly colourful and beautiful, and a pure example of the diversity that has become so damagingly lacking in our industrially farmed countryside. Just as suburban gardens are now the primary refuge for wildlife, so road verges, a massive public estate, have been the subject of a campaign for some years to restore a habitat of meadow plants that has largely been removed from the wider countryside, and a habitat what’s more that is continuous and linked, to combat the ‘island” effect of isolated remnant refuges in the coutryside. http://plantlife.love-wildflowers.org.uk/uploads/documents/Road_Verge_Campaign_full_guidelines_2015.pdf
There is of course a necessity to maintain sightlines, clear views of traffic signs, and pedestrian access. Mowing or strimming narrow edge strips and paths through long herbiage serve to further acentuate and define such areas and demonstrate that they are intentional, not a result of neglect. And regular cutting, essentially on the hay meadow model, is required to prevent scrub invasion and maintain the environment for smaller less vigorous plants. At work I hated mowing bees and other pollinators, which love clovers and birdsfoot trefoils, and the asteraceae daisy-type flowers, and would mow round them, to the fury of the Head Gardener. But eventually even a died-in-the-wool greenkeeper came round to accept the glory of a lawn full of flowers, a true millefleur sward, rather than a featureless, boring and sterile green carpet everywhere. Go to many stately homes and public gardens and see how they have embraced exactly that kind of management now. So let the verges be, look for the common spotted orchids growing in profusion by, of all places, the M25/A22 roundabout, enjoy the abundance until the flowers have seeded and they are mowed at traditional haymaking time in August. We will all be the better for it. Anthony Mills. Dip.Hort.[RHS]; Tech. Arbor.A..
Hi, further to replies above, I am glad to note that most inside Croydon contributors are not the “short back and sides” grass cutter brigade. I also love and appreciate the benefits for nature–and for us– of letting the grass and wildflowers grow– in towns as well as countryside– where it is feasible and appropriate.
As a young landscape architect in the 1980’s, with some planners and parks officers I went to Amsetlveen, a suburb of Amsetrdam, and saw the wonderful roadside verges of poppies and other wildflowers. The Amstelveen praks department even went in and rotavated some of the verges to allow the poppy seeds to grow each year from bare soil, which they need as they are plant that grows abundantly in disturbed ground and in cornfields, but not so much in meadows. It was wonderful to see, the display of abundant colour — but I then also realised that the good folk of Holland are generally neater and less litter-creating than the inhabitants of England.
More recently, I have seen hundreds of rural UK grass verges on country lanes and main rioads likeswise, covered with woildflowers and a wide variety of native grasses. Some areas are where the wild flora have been for hundreds of years, but others are only a few years old, either having been seeded with native grasses and wildflowers, or are places where wild flowers have self-seeded into conventional highway grass verges. Take a bare chalk motorway bank, wait a few years,and you will soon get Ox-eye daisies, mauve scabious, yellow vetches, cowslips, and even rare orchids appearing as if by magic, their seeds having blown in on the wind from some other, maybe distant, place.
All that these verges need, to become dreams of wildflower colour and beauty, is to be managed correctly. This is actually simple.
The grass (with the wildflowers growing within it) needs to be cut , and the cuttings removed , in late Summer or in Autumn. This cutting and removal of the cut vegetation is in most cases necessary , in order to stop matted vegetation from rotting down. If left to grow, it eventually collapses and rots down, stifling the wild flower plants , and stopping their seeds from growing.
Over time, it also enriches the soil, which encourages the growth of coarse grasses that push out and outgrow the wild flowers. Most wild flowers need poor soil to thrive.
One of the sites shown in your pictures looked very wildflower rich–the one in Wickham Road with raikings behind. To me, the wild flowers and fine grasses looked very attractive, more so than an area of close-mown grass. They added life.
Some of the other photos showed far less appealing views of unkempt, coarse(ish) grasses, with no wild flowers. Typically, such areas have been mown for decades and decades, and many will have had their soil “enriched” with urea and poo from dogs, which adds nitrogen. After decades of this, the wildflower component is depleted, so when left to grow, these areas look rather dull, and lacking in floral colour.
My feeling is that it would be worth giving all suburban and the bigger urban grass verges, an experimental period of 3 years, during which the potential for creating streetside meadows can be assessed. In many, the wild flowers will be there already, but miniaturised by mowing, and waiting to pop up and flower, if given a chance by the council and the grass cutters.
The perimeter metre or so of all such areas, alongside paths or roads, should continue to be close -mown, for neatness and to act as a visual picture frame, setting off the controlled wildness of the main or “middle” meadow area. This avoids any look of dereliction , as it all looks purposeful.
Wild flowers can be introduced successfully by planting them in wintertime as “plugs” (small plants with a well developed root system about the size of an adult thumb, or, in a few cases, by adding seed in the Autumn.
New areas can be cutivated and seeded with a conservation mix of fine grasses and wild flowers seeds, or turfed with a seeded turf of the same mixes. I saw one such area looking very beautiful on a housing estate near Tower Bridge in Southwark. It was not a littery environment, perhaps why it looked so good.
The key thing about a wildflower meadow is that they need to be cut, and the long grass and flowers removed. This must be done in late summer on soil-rich, damper sites, or in September or October on drier sites such as those on chalk…… just like a traditional hay meadow where the sward is cut, raked off and collected, and taken away as fodder for cows or horses.
As long as the wildflowers are allowed to flower (Spring and Summer) and then to set seed (Summer /early Autumn) , and the seed given enough time to dry off and then fall to the ground BEFORE the area is cut and raked off, the wild flora will grow and thrive, and can go on doing so indefinitely, as long as the yearly cut and rake takes place, and takes place at the right time. .
If grass is left to collapse and rot down, even on bone-dry chalk sites, the decaying mat of grass stalks and leaves wil rot down and smother the wild flowers, and will also enrich the soil with nutrients, which will favour the coarse grasses, not the desirable fine grasses and their wildflower companions, so the late summer or autumn human intervention by a mower and raker (not a strimmer ) is essential. Strimming just pulverises all the vegetation and leaves a mess that rots down , so strimming should only be done if the cuttings are dried and raked off the next day.
Having looked at and loved wildfowers ever since having my “Observer Book of Wildflowers” aged 9 or 10, and with the benefit of a further 50 plus years (so far) to see verge areas (mown and unmown, with and without wildflowers), over many decades, in the UK and abroad, is that in the UK, litter and abuse by people is the key factor which determines the succcess or failure when it comes to busy urban sites. Badly timed or poor horticultural management ( mowing too early, leaving the cut material on, or “no mow” policy ) are the things that stop rural sites from realising their wild flower potential, which is very sad.
The more urban and the smaller sites, such as those in town centres or suburban shopping areas, particularly where such grass areas are few in number, inevitably get trampled by people, and sadly tend to be more litter-prone. They might also be used for dog exercise, more so than the more suburban, more extensive sites.
In small and busy urban sites, unless someone takes over the area and invests much time to pick up litter, protect the wild flower areas and enage in “guerilla wildlife gardening” , it is probably best to stick with short-mown grass, but even so, mini-meadows within these can be successful . Islands of long grass can be left in the centre of conventionally-mown grass areas, to see “what happens”. Wiggly wide lines , oval or kidney-shaped areas like this can then be enriched to deliver a jewel-like bounty of wild flowers to most sites, with a bit of money to buy and plant the wild flower plugs or seeds, and the commitment from the maintaining grass cutting contrcators to avoid mowing the resulting meadow areas until Autumn.
Why should town dwellers be deprived of seeing and smelling colourful wild flowers and green and brown grasses and their elegant seed-heads gently moving in the breeze? In our busy urban world, to see natural colour and forms must surely be therapeutic, and spiritually uplifting?. Wellness is not just for the gym !
Oh… waht about cost?
I think that in most cases , particularly with larger areas, if the correct machinery is used, an annual cut and rake off of the grass is going to cost no more than the traditional fortnightly cutting of grass that takes place nowadays in most UK parks.
Savings should be possible, but the key thing is to ensure that litter-picking is carried out regularly, to avoid any hint of dereliction.
Lewis White Chartered Landscape Architect Coulsdon
I realise that this article is over two years old….but what an absolute load of tosh!!!! Our native biodiversity is decreasing at an alarming rate, long unmown grassy verges and the like are exactly what we need to help our struggling insects and wildlife!!!
Some might look ‘messy’ so why doesn’t the council sow them with a wildflower mix, which will create lovely carpets of colour in the summer. As well as helping the wildlife, leaving grassy margins long can have huge benefits for the council, as they won’t need to pay to maintain them as much!
The mindset of some of the people in the old comments is worrying…I hope that by now many people are looking for easy way to ‘green up’ our urban areas.
Totally agree with Lewis and Anthony in the comments 🙂