We could be on the verge of providing a wildlife haven

CROYDON COMMENTARY: By not cutting the grass verges alongside the borough’s major A-roads, Transport for London might – perhaps unwittingly – be providing a valuable new home for plants, insects and other wildlife, writes ANTHONY MILLS, pictured left

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 10,000 wallflowers and 10,000 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.

Well-tended parks, as Haling Grove in South Croydon once was, offer little by way of bio-diversity

As resources dried up, the mowing schedules stretched, and some places were inadvertently missed. I once found a lawn in June at the back of a therapy unit that had been 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 what’s more a habitat that is continuous and linked, to combat the “island” effect of isolated remnant refuges in the countryside.

There is, of course, a necessity to maintain sight lines, clear views of traffic signs and pedestrian access. Mowing or strimming narrow edge strips and paths through long herbiage can serve to further accentuate and define such areas and demonstrate that they are intentional, not a result of neglect.

Un-cut road verges could prove to be a last refuge for many types of wildflower

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.

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5 Responses to We could be on the verge of providing a wildlife haven

  1. Alan Stanton says:

    Years ago we were briefly on holiday in Vancouver. They had what seemed a brilliant scheme called “Blooming Boulevards”. It was initiated by some residents. The city – seeing a good idea which might also save money – licensed it. They were worried about safety. e.g. sight-lines. And roots not damaging underground cables. But subject to these and other constraints they gave it the go-ahead.

    On our return to London I suggested that our own borough (Haringey) might copy this and several other Canadian ideas. They promised to “get back” to me; and of course I’m still waiting.

    Nudged by Anthony Mill’s great article I looked it up. Seems to be still going strong.

  2. Mike Webb says:

    OK, Anthony, I quite understand the point, but using it as an excuse for non maintenance is hardly fair, though perhaps what one might expect from such authorities as TfL.

    What is so creative about bind weed?

    How does this justify the planting of grasses and then allowing them to be “overtaken” by other plants many of us would call weeds?

    Shrubs were planted in the central reservation of Chepstow Road, then they were removed and different ones planted (all at our expense of course!) Now those second generation shrubs are overgrown and need TLC, but non seems forthcoming, so do we just wait until they become a traffic hazard and are also removed?

  3. Lewis White says:

    Inspiring article by Anthony. Particularly that part about the green keeper who changed to love wild flower carpetted lawns!

    On Mike’s points above, I don’t know the roads he mentions, but I am wondering if he is referring to the planting of taller, ornamental grasses rather than lawns.

    I must say that planting shrubs or grasses in narrow central reservations can be borderline in terms of feasibility. Litter in such places is usually as severe problem, due to the habit of UK drivers to throw bottles and fast food containers out of the car window. Lorries mount the kerb and run over the beds, flattening plants, and rutting the soil

    The locations are dry and dusty even without such abuse by coke can and tyre. Often central recerves are very narrow, with a small volume of soil in the narrow beds between the kerbs. This makes plant growth harder, and falure more likely, as the narrow bed cannot receive much rainfall, and will dry out quickly as the sites are hot and exposed to winds.

    Bind weed can be imported in soil used in new landscaping, if the soil is “as dug” and has not been properly selected, and screened. It can also grow from a tiny piece, over years, to cover whole beds (the Purley Cross junction of Brighton Road with Eastbourne Road is a classic case)

    All new planting needs to be chosen wisely, with tough, hardy, dense, well-foliaged plants that can survive and thrive in the location. They need to be planted into beds that are prepared properly, adequately supplied with humus, and then mulched well to keep soil moisture in, and stop weed seeds from germinating. A well-designed and mulched shrub bed can exclude most weedgrowth , but still needs timely intervention to remove those weeds that pop up, and remove seedling trees like ash and sycamore whose seeds “helicopter in” to alight on the soil inside a shrub bed. To remove any such young tree is at best very difficult and at worst pure hell / and /or impossible, as these trees root deeply within a year, and intertwine with the roots of the shrub planting.

    Try weeding or removing cans from a mass-planted rose bed ! Not fun.

    All new shrub beds and ornamental grass beds needs to be established with watering in the first spring and summer season, mulched generously at time of planting, (with 50mm minimum thickness of matured bark) and then weeded properly. Not just in year one and two, when there will still be gaps between the new plants, but every year that the bed is in existence to remove thoise opportunist weed species that get in and grow..

    I very much agree with Anthony that the budget reductions have in many cases led to a “conservation friendly” approach with reduced mowing and more wild flowers. Sadly, when it comes to keeping shrub beds and planters by the roadsides free of weeds, there is no substitute for hand labour, which has never been cheap . In the 1970’s and 80’s we in local authorities used strong residual weedkillers like “Casoron” and “simazine” as Anthony will recall (probably with a shudder) to keep the ground bare of weeds between the shrubs, without the need for hand weeding.

    These residual herbicides are no longer in common use, so we revert to the need for timely and adequate –and costly– hand weeding.

    TfL and all UK Local councils have to continue to reduce landscape maintenance regimes and budgets.

    It would be a total environmental tragedy and public heath disaster to stop new tree and shrub / grasses planting in highways, as we really need it — to green and beautify the streets, offset the tarmac expanses, and cleanse and cool the urban air.

    As part of the design, It is important to avoid squeezing the landscape into tiny central reservations and planters, as the plants can’t thrive. Landscape needs space– surprsingly little, but enough for root systems as well as the visible plants to grow,

    Training for landscape staff at all levels, including designers , managers and groundstaff, is needed to ensure that the best design and maintenance is delivered. Landscapes are living, and need not only good planning and plant selection for sucess but also need to be looked after, preferably by well-trained and properly paid management and maintenance staff who have the horticultural knowledge and skills, plus enough in the budget to do the proper job…… old-fashioned hand weeding it may well be.

    Lewis White
    (a landscape architect who worked for 3 London Boroughs from the late 70’s to 2016 in landscape design, implementation and establishment)

  4. Alan Stanton says:

    Entirely fair comment, Mike.
    Bindweed, Japanese Knotweed, overgrown and weed-choked planters. In Haringey we have ’em all! Plus people who see planters and flowerbeds as litter trays.
    But then a council option often seems to be having nothing – removing raised beds etc.

    Maybe the Vancouver schemes offer a possible alternative? Or perhaps there are successful similar schemes in the UK which don’t depend entirely on public bodies.

    Admittedly my wife and I were in Vancouver for only a week, But we were impressed with their can-do approach. to such problems. A key difference seemed to be that they were pro-gardens and greening AND and assumed that their job was to encourage local communities to roll up their sleeves and help..

    For example please have a look at the link below. Not so much at the details, but what it shows you about attitudes. Are Canadians so different? Their Council says: “Ultimately, street gardens benefit the entire city.”

    Beautifying your Boulevard and Street.

  5. Marie Pace says:

    I completely agree. Personally, I like the bunches of wild grasses and flowers filling up the central reservation on Gravel Hill, I enjoy spotting splashes of colour when I am stuck in traffic… leave Nature be!

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