No Mow May

For several years, the charity Plantlife has been encouraging us to leave our lawnmowers alone during May to allow some of the diverse native plants which could be present in most gardens to flourish.  I’m an increasingly enthusiastic supporter, not just of #NoMowMay but rather of ‘no mow for most of the summer’ and it’s bearing real fruit in my small back garden.  The cynical amongst you might suggest that it is closely linked to my laissez faire approach to house and garden maintenance in general but I like to think it’s more active than that and I have certainly helped things along over the last couple of years with plug plants I’ve grown from seed and a few bigger plants from the wonderful Eggleston Hall nursery.

Of course many of the native plants in my garden (unkindly known by some as weeds) have come all by themselves. Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) and Jack-by-the-hedge (Alliaria petiolata), which appeared under the apple tree, provide welcome ingredients for spring salads and pesto and Welsh poppies and Herb Robert provide lovely splashes of colour, though neither are ‘lawn’ flowers. Since we first seeded the back garden some 23 years ago, Germander speedwell has provided an oasis of blue in the lawn through much of the summer – I could never bear to pull it out, even when I did try to keep the lawn tidy! It is being outcompeted now in places but is a tough cookie and will survive, I’m sure. It is joined by lots of scrambling Bush vetch and tiny Black medick where the grass is shorter.

Clockwise from top left: Herb Robert (Geranium robertianum), Welsh poppy (Mecanopsis cambrica), Bush vetch (Vicia sepium) and Germander speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys)

There have always been plenty of Creeping buttercups (Ranunculus repens) in the grass, which I gave up trying to control years ago but this year I also found Meadow buttercups, R. acris, for the first time, which must be a good sign.

Left to right: Ranunculus repens, R. bulbosus (from our local park, not the garden) and R. acris.

Other recent arrivals under their own steam are honey-scented Crosswort, one of the most appealing members of the bedstraw or Rubiaceae family, and Cuckoo flower, named for the time of year when it first appears.The Rubiaceae are a particularly diverse plant family of some 620 genera including trees, shrubs, herbs and epiphytes, meaning Crosswort is in the same family as coffee (Coffea arabica), the genus Cinchona whose bark is used to produce quinine and genera such as Myrmecodia, where epiphytic plants form complex mutualistic relationships with ants! The whole family gets its name from madder, Rubia tinctorum, whose long, thick roots have been used to produce red dyes since at least 1500 BC.  The Cuckoo flower was growing where our new pond has been dug so I was worried about losing it but the plants seem to have survived translocation, thankfully.  

Cuckoo flower, Cardamine pratensis (left) and Crosswort, Cruciata laevipes (right)

My home grown Red campion, White campion, Bugle and Salad burnet plug plants are thriving for the second year in a row and the campions, in particular, are spreading well.

Clockwise from top left: Red campion, Silene dioica; White campion, S. latifolia; Bugle, Ajuga reptans and Salad burnet, Sanguisorba minor

Earlier in the year there were, of course, plenty of dandelions as well as primroses and cowslips I planted a year or two back. I’m afraid I’ve yet to make any serious attempt to distinguish between the 150 or so species of dandelion found in the UK, despite some excellent material from the BSBI which should help. One day…

Of the plants I introduced from Egglestone Hall, my personal favourite is Wood cranesbill, Geranium sylvaticum – a native wildflower bright and bold enough for any flowerbed. I’ve mostly seen it in upper Weardale and Teesdale, notably in Hannah Hauxwell’s famous meadow, though we found some by the River Wear near Shincliffe last year. Wood cranesbill is another plant traditionally used to produce dye, in this case a blue-grey dye from the petals, used to colour war cloaks in ancient Europe and believed to afford protection to their wearers. I’d not heard the name ‘Odin’s grace’ for this lovely plant before.

Whilst the Wood cranesbill has thrived, Rock rose and Vetchlings I introduced at the same time seem to have struggled to compete with the grass and other more robust herbs. Together with Dock, Daisies, Ribwort plantain, White clover, Ragwort and a Hawkweed in the front garden that makes at least 20 native species apart from grasses flowering in my ‘lawns’ in May, with others such as foxgloves in the ‘flowerbeds’. I now have Meadow cranesbill, Meadow vetchling, Melilot, Ragged robin and Small scabious seedlings growing which I also want to introduce but will be cutting back the more rank vegetation around the plugs in the hope of giving them room to thrive. I’ve planted yellow rattle seedlings before, in an attempt to keep the grasses in check, but I suspect that grasses are now being outcompeted by buttercups in much of the garden so the rattle may be failing, ironically, because there is not enough grass left for it to parasitise!

As we’re now firmly into the less alliterative ‘no mow June’, I can reveal that the Ox-eye daisies, Leucanthemum vulgare, I grew and planted out last year are now flowering and will be joined, in due course, by Betony and Wild carrot. It beats a stripey lawn in my book any day and the insect and bird life apparent in the garden now testifies to the value of reduced mowing for all sorts of biodiversity.

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