Why is no-one sciencing urban road verges?

Those people who work high up in the hotel chain business will know that a refurbishment of a hotel is important not just for what it looks like but also for how long it takes to clean. Ongoing maintenance costs are frequently what makes or breaks a business. To this end then for each proposed refit style a model room is built, the cleaning of which is timed and this information can then be used to work out future hotel running costs – the larger the hotel chain the more important small savings in time per room become; small savings make a big difference on a large scale.


Here yellow-flowered common bird’s-foot-trefoil grows on a mown verge near the Tees Barrage. The area used to be industrial and so it is likely to be growing in a thin layer of topsoil over free-draining calcareous slag (historic waste from the local iron-making industry).

We should apply these same principles to the public land that local councils manage in our urban and sub-urban areas. In particular I’m concerned with the grassy regularly-mown road verges where there is that same balance needed between visual appeal and cost of maintenance. Unfortunately, I can find no scientific vegetation community trials that investigate how different plant communities (both native and novel) might look on road verges, how much environmental benefit they might bring, how much it would cost to maintain them. Yes, there is information on how to make a meadow…but meadows require long grass to be removed from site at the end of the year and that is not always practical or the cheaper option.


White clover flowering in abundance on a mown roundabout in early July, with the yellow of common bird’s-foot-trefoil by the path at the back of the photo.

Would it, for example, be possible to have a plant community of common bird’s-foot-trefoil, selfheal, white clover, red fescue, etc. by the sides and in the middle of a dual carriageway or motorway and perhaps just cut it once or twice a year? All plants grow low and would not affect sight-lines, are reasonably salt-tolerant, tough growers, cope with drought, and are more beneficial to some pollinators than just ryegrass. Perhaps we can think of the bird’s-foot-trefoil flowering over a set period, much as daffodils are used to decorate road verges in the spring, and then returning to mown green vegetation? Can it all be applied retrospectively by changing the soil and the plants just like town centre paving is changed to refresh the shopping area? Should it be intrinsic in any new road building or widening as part of the third dimension of sustainable development? – see guidance by UK Gov since 2012. What about new housing estates? Could the soil infill be specified as free-draining low-nutrient soil (or clay sub-soil if that’s locally appropriate) so everything grows lower and more slowly, rather than the standard infill of top soil over-sown with superquick germinating rye-grass?


Detail of selfheal, common bird’s-foot-trefoil, and the leaves of autumn hawkbit on the suburban road verge below in early June.


A relic plant community from when the road was created through farmland in the 1970’s or 80’s (can’t find a definitive date) as an entrance to a large housing estate,Hemlington, Middlesbrough. The roundish patch of grey-green colour is glaucous sedge.

And then what effect do different mowing regimes have on existing road verge vegetation? If we change the regime can we get wildflowers looking good straight away without any need to add new seeds? This is an issue at one of my local councils and one of the reasons why I started looking for information. They have looked into leaving the grass long then cutting and removing the grass like a hay meadow would be managed, but the removing of the hay is too expensive and problematic to dispose of: What they need is a compromise between short mown grass and long meadow flowers – a compromise that is relevant to the socio-economic constraints of the area. In places common bird’s-foot-trefoil and self-heal are already present, perhaps the remnants of semi-natural pasture disrupted when the housing estates were built. They’ve been mown regularly for 40 odd years with the cuttings left on top of them all the time and are still there. What if we leave them to flower and seed and then cut? Do they increase? Decline? Will the cut vegetation be too long and smother regrowth if left to decay naturally? What is best for pollinators? Cut a patch in May to delay flowering but leave a patch to flower normally? Alternate cutting so different patches flower at different times? How big a patch is best for pollinators? Or do we just raise the mower blades and does that allow flowering? How high? So many questions…and I can’t find any UK science on the internet that has properly investigated them…



Daisies at Linthorpe Cemetery, Middlesbrough, flowering at the end of May.



*after publishing this blog it turns out someone is sciencing urban road verges for a PhD – article here http://www.sheffieldnewsroom.co.uk/living-highways/  and the lead researcher is Olivia Richardson @orichardson12 and they are using #livinghighways to discuss the project. See also http://www.wildsheffield.com/LivingHighways   *

*A really interesting just-published open-access paper suggested by Helen Hoyle @hehoyle1 and who is the lead author giving the point of view of the people in the council who manage the land and also people who live nearby  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1618866716305489 *

When I asked the Urban pollinator project ( @ReadingUrbPolls) they kindly suggested this paper as a start http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301479716310556  and it is a summary of urban road verges in relation to biodiversity and cost-effective management.

This study suggested by Dr Manu Saunders ( @ManuSaunders on Twitter) stresses the need for rotating areas of cutting in relation to preserving insects on sea wall grassland in the UK https://www.researchgate.net/publication/267644487_How_does_mowing_of_grassland_on_sea_wall_flood_defences_affect_insect_assemblages_in_Eastern_England

There has been a study on timing of grass cutting in a UK park  – paper here https://www.researchgate.net/publication/264461061_Public_approval_plus_more_wildlife_Twin_benefits_of_reduced_mowing_of_amenity_grass_in_a_suburban_public_park_in_Saltdean_UK and article with pics here https://phys.org/news/2014-09-unmown-win-win-wildlife-humans.html where it looks like the park was already unimproved grassland frankly, but I think they still create the long grass of a meadow rather than a lower growing plant community.

The subject seems to be discussed in ‘Environmental Horticulture: Science and Management of Green Landscapes’ by Ross Cameron and James Hitchmough where they give some suggested plants but I don’t have a copy the book and from what I can see of it on the internet their list of references doesn’t appear to give any UK urban examples.

On a more domestic scale, this website has examples of flowering lawns without using grass http://www.grassfreelawns.co.uk/  and has derived from a PhD study, and seems a step in the right mental direction but too labour intensive for extensive urban areas.

There is a project on Lawns happening in Sweden “Lawn as ecological and cultural phenomenon: Search for sustainable lawns in Sweden”  http://www.slu.se/en/departments/urban-rural-development/research/landscape-architecture/projects/lawn/

The UK Plantlife campaign is concerned with rural road verges see http://plantlife.love-wildflowers.org.uk/roadvergecampaign and their .pdf on the subject http://www.plantlife.org.uk/uk/our-work/publications/good-verge-guide-different-approach-managing-our-waysides-and-verges references a paper on the effect of cutting on rural road verges – the results of an experiment spanning 1965 to 1982; a summary is here http://www.conservationevidence.com/individual-study/670 .

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We should talk of Ancient Grassland.

I’ve been thinking about how we describe ‘meadows’: Language changes over time and meanings shift depending on what most people see every day. A dictionary definition of a meadow is an area of grass that is cut to make hay; I might use the term meadow to make a more technical definition of wildflower-rich grassland (most often NVC communities MG5, MG4 and MG3) seem more palatable when giving a public talk; the ordinary person may praise the meadows being planted by the side of the road that look so pretty in the summer “you know, the ones with the lovely poppies” (which are in my reality hardy annual seed-mixes). As is often the case in English they are all correct, and within the Venn Diagram of ‘meadow’ are all these understandings; words mean whatever most people want them to mean. This being the case, what matters about the words we use to explain meadows of conservation and cultural importance is that the particular meaning intended by the explainer is clearly understood by the recipient of the explanation; preferably as quickly as is possible.


Perhaps we should talk of ancient grassland – ancient meadows and ancient grazing pastures – in the same way that we talk about ancient woodland habitat. Adding ‘ancient’ to the term grassland or meadow would allow us to convey something that would be easily understood by most people; it has been used before and is now something readily accepted. ‘Ancient’ used here would signify ‘native wildflowers and grasses that have been growing at a particular site for a long time and the site where they grow is of as much importance as a relic of a particular historic farming system as their biodiversity contribution’; they shouldn’t be seen as a moveable biodiversity unit. These plant communities are just as much a part of our heritage, telling us about our socio-economic cultural past, as are listed buildings and should be recognised as such.


Back to the present day, and at the cutting edge of horticultural research, new grassland and new flowering plant communities (sometimes made up with species from many different countries) are being created for urban areas, ones that are appropriate and useful to the present time and our current socio-economic climate, and these surely will also be termed meadows. In farming and land management there is a growing interest in producing plant communities of high biodiversity value which are relevant to present management systems rather than recreating historic meadow plant communities. You can see that we need to clearly differentiate the various understandings of what a meadow means, both now and into the future.

Instead of trying to get people to understand that a hardy annual seed-mix with poppies is technically not a meadow, we in conservation should change our own terms slightly and talk of ancient meadows and ancient grazing pastures and create a much-needed Ancient Grassland Inventory* just like we have an Ancient Woodland Inventory and an inventory of our protected historic buildings.


*How difficult would it be to create an Ancient Grassland Inventory? As with everything, the answer is ‘it depends’. The Ancient Woodland Inventory started out as one-person tracing from old maps with a pen; it is still provisional, as far as I know, having never been comprehensively surveyed on the ground.

I think money would be available from the Heritage Lottery Fund for a five-year project to create an inventory (once created this could then be adopted by government) alongside public awareness raising/involvement and perhaps some PhDs. Are there specific indicator species for ancient meadows as there are for ancient woodland? or perhaps an investigation to see if individual species have a wider genetic diversity in older meadows than newer and is there a way of spotting that visually? Are ancient grasslands representative of natural vegetation for that area?

There are an obvious group of charities, working together with one as lead, who could undertake the work but charities have limited project capacity so such things are not always practical or timely. It may be more achievable as a series of smaller regional projects building up towards a whole? I’ve been involved in a small local Heritage Lottery project mapping semi-natural grassland in my area. Sadly, I think the recent cutbacks at Natural England would make it almost impossible for them to manage such a project, especially with the added burden of work that leaving the EU brings.


Notes: I’ve been thinking about writing this since a local conference in early 2016 (I’m slow) http://www.tvgreenplaces.co.uk/2016/04/21st-century-meadows-conference/  and I finally wrote up my ideas in early May this year after returning from a Floodplain Meadows conference in York.  I bought a book by Martin Hammond “Deep Meadows and Transparent Floods” in which he writes about historical references to the meadows we visited as part of the conference…starting in the 8th Century  https://rawcliffemeadows.wordpress.com/2017/05/11/deep-meadows-and-transparent-floods-the-story-of-the-ouse-ings/ . I also met Miles King and whilst we talked of other things, it occurred to me after writing the above blog that he might have written something on the subject…he did…in 2012 https://grasslandstrust.wordpress.com/2012/05/28/old-grasslands-need-an-equivalent-to-ancient-woodland-status/  Similarly the Wildlife Trusts have been calling for a national grassland Inventory, here in 2014 http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/grasslands and more recently Plantlife are running this project http://www.magnificentmeadows.org.uk/  and http://coronationmeadows.org.uk/ .

There’s a science paper from 2015 with good round up of other papers on the subject and what’s being lost. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351989415300184#f000015

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How fast do wood anemones grow?

One of the delights of English woodland in spring are the vast sheets of wood anemone that you can see. And they do grow in vast expanses, don’t they?

IMG_9064Except my friend Barry found some in a very small local suburban wood, where they grew in obvious clonal patches… which looked kind of odd.


A wood is shown on this site in 1853 (checked on the First Ed. O.S. map), but it can’t have been there for that long before as there is ridge and furrow (a sign of medieval ploughing) present and it clearly forms a boundary for a local manor house built in 1824.


The clonal patches thing reminded me of a local wildlife site on a beck valley side nearby (100m away) where wood anemones grow in greater profusion but still in patches (some patches in the photo above have very few flowers, some lots of flowers, some more petals than others, some slightly later flowering), which I hadn’t really thought that much about before. There is a tarmac path at the top of the slope, before the back gardens of the houses start, that runs along the length of the wood until meeting a road.


This patch was easy to see because of the pinkish tinge to the petals.


Further up the valley site they are in big expanses (on the right of the stream only – not on the left hand side at all) but it’s not as easy to see from the photograph because I was a bit early in the year (yes that is a shopping trolly in the middle – suburban innit?).

IMG_9054In local ancient woodland the clonal patches are not obvious and the plants form a continuous carpet (yes that is all wood anemone – on a sunny day it would be whiter with the flowers showing more as they open wider in the sun).

IMG_5163And so I wondered why, as you do.  It turns out that there are a surprising number of scientific papers on wood anemone on the internet, although most of us (me included) are restricted to reading the abstract. In the abstract of ‘Rhizome Growth and Clone Development in Anemone nemorosa L.’* by DEIRDRE A. SHIRREFFS & ADRIAN D. BELL (in Ann Bot (1984) 54 (3): 315-324.) it says “individual rhizomes elongate by an average of 2.5 cm per year” although not necessarily in a straight line year on year. So roughly speaking we can imagine a single seed germinating and growing outwards to give a maximum of 75cm growth from a single point in 30 years. The whole clonal patch would be twice that, as it would grow both sides of the germination point, so about 150cm in width. This was roughly the diameter of the bigger patches in the wood. Now the speed at which plants grow depends on how suited it is to the growing conditions, so let us just use that 150cm wide for a patch in 30 years to see where it gets us.


A clonal patch that is probably not flowering much because there are some low tree branches just above it. Wood anemones flower much better when they get more light, for example in the years shortly after a wood has been coppiced and before the canopy closes overhead again.

So what happened roughly 30 years ago that may have increased the number of suitable micro-sites required for germination? What about dutch elm disease? Sure enough there are young wych elm trees in the wood and the remains of the rotting tree trunks of the dead elms.


When the original trees died there would have been much more light reaching the wood floor – was this the point when those seeds germinated and the wood anemones started to colonize the wood?

IMG_5167But then how do the seeds get there in the first place? Wood anemone seeds have a small area of fatty tissue that entices ants to collect the seed to feed the fatty tissue to their larvae – the discarded seed then germinating near the ant nest. I didn’t look for ants. However, they also have a small hook at one end of the seed that could easily attach onto animal hair and be transported. In the mid-1980’s houses were built adjacent to the wood. With houses come dog owners and dogs go for walks and get all sorts of seed mixed up in their hair.


It’s fun to speculate and set up a hypothesis – it’s another thing entirely to test it: But it is interesting to think about, and by thinking about it you start to look for clonal patches of wood anemone when you visit a wood…and then start to wonder how long the wood anemones have been growing there…


*Their study also used computer modelling and measurement of 27 morphological characters to determine that in ancient woodland a continuous stretch of wood anemone will be made up of several different clones, as the clones intermingle (imagine patches growing into each other and continually mixing) the longer they have been growing there. Wood anemones are one of the wildflowers used as an ancient woodland indicator and so when present in large sheets you can see they must have been continuously growing there for hundreds of years.

I rarely see seedlings in the wild, though have found wood anemone to germinate readily from fresh seed sown in the nursery.  I suspect it would be difficult to differentiate a seedling from a small clonal rhizome that hadn’t flowered, especially when just casually walking through the wood which may account for not seeing many seedlings when visiting woods.

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The I.Pot in March 2017

I cut back last year’s growth on the I.Pot the other day and so I thought it was time to do an update on what’s been happening.


This year is the first time I have actually cut the grass (quaking-grass and meadow oat-grass) leaves back to the ground (scissors, for those wondering how, and yes, I did pretend I was a sheep when I was doing it. Come on, everybody does, right?), before I carefully only cut out all the dead leaves and flower stems. This year was much quicker.


The grasses were growing a bit too strongly last year, and also were hiding the Fritillaria uvavulpis (not native but I wanted to include a bulb in the pot and I thought it would do nicely) which I’m hoping to see flower this year as last they mainly keeled over and died when in bud for some reason (just possibly because the person in charge of watering the pot forgot *sigh*).


In other news, all three bee orchids are back and have been happily in leaf over the winter with no snails around to chomp them; and did I spot the seedling? Nope, not until I looked at the photos. To be fair, it is tiny at the moment, just under a centimetre long.


I’m not sure how quickly bee orchid seedlings grow but I’m pretty certain I didn’t see any leaves there last year. The first possible seed produced from the bee orchids growing in the pot would have been at the end of summer 2014, but they also flowered in 2015, so it could have germinated from either season. From memory I think it spends a year below ground after germinating before sending up any leaves. One thing I can say for certain is that bee orchids are definitely not monocarpic.


Comparing the I.Pot from March 2014 (left) to March 2017 (right) then, and you can see that there are a lot less species present now and in general it looks less full and the plants not as vigorous, as you would expect as I don’t feed it at all.

I finally cut back the thrift which died during the year – shame as I like that flower.


On the plus side, those little tiny seedlings are the eyebright which has done spectacularly well in the last two years and is a possible solution to conservation situations where yellow-rattle fails, as it did here. The skinny grass seedlings are silver hair-grass which I do like very much though I notice there are less of them this year. The grass-leaved vetchling (left) returns after a year’s absence, ditto common centaury (centre right), and nice to see the spring vetch (right) back and it did actually seed itself at the base of my doorstep though I doubt it will flower there before the soil dries out over the summer.

Also the pot now has three different mosses – all common, but nevertheless very welcome.




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The I. Pot so far in 2016


As the eyebright has just started to flower- it’s a late summer flowering species, no idea which one – and I haven’t written about my I.Pot for a while I thought I’d do a review of the year so far.

The thrift pretty much died at the beginning of the year…a final slow and steady decline. For whatever reason, I find thrift does not like being in a pot much more than a year. Here it is on the left (I still haven’t removed it) with some of the many eyebright seedlings.IMG_4420

Those eyebright seedlings have been pretty much that size since the end of May.


The tiny spring vetch flowered and is now setting seed.


Only one of the bee orchids flowered, but they self-pollinate


IMG_4421and so seed is forming now. The two other bee orchids that flowered for the last two years were just small leaf rosettes this year, one getting a bit chomped by a snail.


The small scabious is now flowering – the plant
has stayed small and is a bit spindly although the quaking grass and meadow oat-grass have bulked up and flowered well this year…perhaps the reason that other things have not done so well.


So far this year then, moments of interest but generally looking a bit scruffy and a steady decline in the number of species growing present. I think I can see the signs of adult vine weevils too which might affect things further, but we will see.

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A tale of two Globeflowers


original site1

Way back in 1918 J. W. Heslop Harrison wrote a paper on a survey of the Lower Tees Marshes in which he describes the “Trollius Bog” at BMap from 1918illingham Bottoms.

This exciting marshy area contained such delights as Marsh Helleborine, Grass-of-Parnassus, and Meadow-rue (which is rare with us up north) alongside plentiful amounts of Globeflower. Heslop Harrison was intrigued by the globeflower growing at only ten feet above sea-level when normally it is found high up in the hills at the head of the River Tees and to the north in Scotland. His friend Bolam sent him some roots from 1000 feet and 1800 feet from near Alston and others from about 500 feet at Wark in Northumberland, all of which he grew with plants from the Tees Marshes. Side by side he immediately notices differences; the upland form has greenish flower buds, the lowland has reddish brown. The upland has a short and rarely branching flower spike, the lowland was the opposite… and so it continues with a list of morphological attributes (see at end of blog). So different are they that he proposes for the lowland plant the name relictus.

Would you be surprised to hear that the bog was filled in during 1955 and the area around it made into a golf-course in the 1960’s? There’s no Globeflower left there now.

original site 4

Then, in 1986, a small colony was discovered in a wet flush on the edge of a wood about 3.5miles (6km-ish) away to the west and on the same river system, at a height of 60mglobeflower in pot above sea level.

In 2003 a work colleague, Helen, went to visit the site, later collected seed and we grew it on into small plants. In 2006 she obtained a grant to start an introduction programme into the nearby woodland park owned by Stockton-on-Tees Council. We selected suitably marshy spots in which to plant it out but also so local people could easily see the plants as they walked around the park, and then we monitored the sites for a few years.


Ten years on and the plants are flowering in three of the six sites where we planted them, looking strong and healthy and flowering well in 2016. They don’t appear to be spreading – no obvious seedlings …but they are still there and seen by all who walk past.


The flower stems are branched and tall, some of the buds a bit reddish brown and so could well be the same genetics as Heslop Harrison’s lowland form, but then some are more greenish…though still with branched flower stems.


On the same day I went to visit the site of the small colony discovered in 1986 but there were no flowers to be seen; I had to hunt hard to find any plants and those were few and small. Why the change? Well, at some point in the 1990s more trees were planted on the valley side and they have now grown so large that their roots perhaps dry out the soil in the summer, or maybe the shade is now simply too oppressive.

Character. Upland Form. Lowland Form.
Flower Buds. Greenish. Reddish brown.
Colour of flowers. Yellow. Slightly deeper.
Bracts. Not so leaflike and few. Leaflike and many.
Flowering Spike. Short and rarely, if ever, branching. Long and branching frequently enough.
Seedpods. Rich deep purple in colour. Only very faintly so.
Leaves. Much more compact owing to the closeness of the segments; on average not so long. Freer in growth in all these characters.

Heslop Harrison’s table of the main differences between the two extremes of Globeflower.

Postscript:a week after writing the above I went to visit the garden at Tees Valley Wildlife Trust at Margrove where two years ago I transplanted a few large Globeflower plants from the recently shut plant nursery which grew the above Globeflowers (so they are of the same genetic stock). You can see how much they resemble the Upland form, which makes me wonder if it was the transplanting that made them grow like that…


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What garden writers say…interpreted


I love reading about plants and gardens but sometimes, just sometimes, the same words get used a bit too often or there is a phrase that catches my eye and I wonder what the writer really meant, so I thought I’d write about that.

“Exquisite”  – really small flowers and fantastic detail, but I forgot my reading glasses so couldn’t see them properly enough to accurately describe them.

“Intuitive hybridiser” – seriously, I have never seen anyone so badly organized make such random scatty decisions and they are, quite frankly, very very lucky to have such a good end result.

“Innovative” – it looked completely bonkers; I’d be amazed if the owner understood what they were doing let alone me in the two seconds that I saw it between being offered cake, weak milky tea, and listening to stories, that I couldn’t possibly repeat, of that cruise they went on in 1976 with Alan Titchmarsh.


“It is probably…” – I’m about to make a really big sweeping statement to start this article and if you know anything about the subject I’m writing you’ll be able to pull it to shreds which is why I used the word probably. Thankfully most of you reading this have not got a clue and care slightly less, because let’s face it you only bought this magazine to look at the photos.

“My favourite is…” – hoping to get this sent to me as a freebie.

“We must garden with a freedom and ease that comes with a deep absorption and close affinity with the place” – what did you say the word count of the article had to be again?

“…romantic yet practical, experimental but traditional; an emotional experience, a garden of timeless quality…”-  As far as I can tell they are desperate for as many visitors as they can cram in, so I’m doing my best in this article to make sure no-one feels excluded.


“undulating topography” – I wrote “a bit bumpy”  earlier and the editor hates it if you repeat phrases in the same article, so this is what the synonyms feature of Word came up with.

“Planning a border is a little like organising a meal…” – except if you go to the supermarket for a ready meal it really isn’t, but I’m trying to make out that you are all amazing chefs preparing everything from scratch including growing your own vanilla pods (all my friends’ head gardeners do this), because there are some recipes to create attractively photographed food later on in the magazine.

“My column this month is rather unusual…” – I thought I’d point it out at the beginning in case you don’t notice.


I should really have been working rather than typing this; it’s a good job it’s a worthwhile contribution to garden writing otherwise it would have been a complete waste of a Sunday afternoon.

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