Telling Wildflower Stories

This summer I’ve been taking local people out and about along the Cleveland Coast looking for wildflowers on the beaches with the Tees Valley Wildlife at south gare photo by SueAnd up cliffs (It’s just like plant hunting that adventurers go on in foreign places, except that you get home in time for tea). More on the Cleveland Coast Project here.IMG_20150704_143827We held 14 different walks on mornings, afternoons and evenings, and yes…at the weekends too so everyone had the opportunity to join in, and we had 257 participants.

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What we tried to do was to take people out to the plants (which were spectacular) and then talk about how the habitat they are living in is intertwined with the actions of local people both now and in the past.

Let me give you an example – Purple milk-vetch – nationally classed as endangered  due to habitat loss – stunningly beautiful, and all over the back of some dunes at South Gare where it grows near masses of Harebells.

IMG_2579And in that picture of Harebells is your clue – that’s the local (Redcar) steelworks, the one that’s been in the news because it has just been shut down. Well…the spot where all these plants are growing didn’t exist as dry land before 1860 (it was sea and mudflats) when a two and a half mile Gare protecting the south side of the mouth of the River Tees was started. They used slag, the calcareous waste product of the local steel industry (there was a lot more of it in those days) plus a bit of concrete and officially opened in 1888.

IMG_2623Since that time sand has been slowly accumulating….by the 1920’s it was one of the flattest stretches of beach in the country and the land speed record was attempted several times. And more and more sand has accumulated since then until that ‘Goldilocks’ moment when the conditions were just right for Purple Milk-vetch to grow; which is now. Imagine that… dumping of industrial waste creates a perfect habitat for Purple Milk-vetch after 150 years. Not every action has a predictable outcome.

IMG_2361IMG_2330IMG_2634We’ve also been asking people to upload photographs they’ve taken of coastal wildflowers to our website and then I’ve been naming them.  751 photographs by over 40 people are now available to view (see here and click on a thumbnail), so even local people who can’t get out much can see what we were privileged to enjoy over the summer.IMG_1123 - Copy

Until 18th November there is a photograph exhibition at the Palace Hub Gallery in Redcar showcasing some of the best from the project competition we held – I wrote about the opening evening here.

Did the project work? Yes, but we need more small local projects like this. Why not ask your Wildlife Trust if they will apply for a grant to run one in your area?

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How do you get people to look at their local flora?

There has been much written about the disconnect for people between the modern digital world and the natural world – how we all need to get out more because it is good for our health, both mentally and physically. In my patch, Tees Valley Wildlife Trust have been thinking about that problem a lot and this year have been awarded a small grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to try and engage people with the flora of their local coastline; I’m involved in that project.

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We don’t have anything particularly rare growing here but we do have plants (not always native) with interesting stories behind them, set amongst both natural and man-made habitats, and all with a spectacular scenic backdrop.

So why don’t people notice them?

They do notice sometimes, but I think they often don’t differentiate between the different wildflowers. My brother does this….all trees come with the label ‘tree’ attached; he’s aware vaguely that they are different in some way but he’d be hard pushed to tell you the differences. In his everyday life I’m sure he doesn’t notice them except as background and I think that’s the same for someone walking their dog on the beach front – they see flowers and think they are nice and, well, ‘wildflowers’. Or they don’t look because they don’t know what to look for and the flowers go unseen.

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We are creatures of selective attention: Buy a red car and all of a sudden you are amazed at the number of red cars that are everywhere. Give something a name, or have some personal involvement, and you are more likely to look for and notice it in the future.

So if you notice it more when you know the name, how can we get people to learn the names of plants – to see that there are different types of ‘wildflower’?

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That’s where modern technology helps. Most people, when out for a walk, now have either a phone with a camera or a small pocket camera that they carry for snapshots.  See something you don’t know, take a photograph of it and then… you need to find someone to give you a name for it. This year local people can upload their photo to our website , let us know which stretch of coast they found the flower and I will name it for them. We’re gradually going to build up a visual library of the plants that people have noticed – have you seen what other people have spotted? – and even if you are housebound you can still have a look at the wildflower photos and enjoy them from home.


I’m running four photography workshops (looking at how we can record a plant clearly, as well as more artistic interpretations) and running a series of gentle ambles where we wander along and I point out interesting wildflowers and tell a funny story, and (yes there’s more) also some longer walks which give us time to talk about why different plants grow where they grow and the social history of those habitats. There’s even a fun photography competition with an exhibition in a local art gallery at the end of the year.

If it all goes well, then maybe we can get funding to focus on birds next year, or fossils, or snails or …

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Guerrilla gardening in the UK is a sign of failure.

Guerrilla gardening in the UK is a sign of failure; a sign that the local community is not functioning properly; that citizens are not talking to elected local councillors; that people feel isolated. It’s not a solution.

Guerrilla gardening is a selfish response to a situation; “no one will let me do what I want so I will go out and do it anyway, whether the community wants it or not”. And that’s a good point – if people are guerrilla gardening there is nothing that anyone else in the community can do about it if they don’t like it, because by its very nature it is secretive. Oddly enough, those that are enthusiastic about such an approach are often not that knowledgeable about plants. Where I live in the north east of England we have a special Local Wildlife Site designation for urban meadows; collections of native and alien plants that arise on derelict sites which are important to the history and biodiversity of the area where I live. …but they often look messy… if you didn’t know what the plants were then you might think the area would look better covered with poppies or sunflowers.


Far better to have community gardening. Indeed Ron Finlay is reported as saying he does not see himself as a guerrilla gardener but as a community gardener who helps grow communities. As a community group in the UK you can usually get support from your local council and gardening charities like the RHS as well as raise money for your work from grants. You can pay for experts to help you so you don’t waste time making mistakes.

Some examples. Two community groups in villages making a difference to their area ,one with a community orchard which acts as a focus for village events in the Yorkshire Dales, and another that has won gold medals from Britain in Bloom.

A large Newton's Wonder apple tree forms the centre piece of the garden. The bench was made by a local craftsman, Peter Cummings.

If you think that sort of thing works in villages but it’s different in towns then what about the conservation group working to improve and maintain wild areas in Middlesbrough, Boro Becks group, or the community group at Fairy Dell which has raised thousands to celebrate and improve their area. This year they commissioned an archaeological dig in which local schoolchildren took part and then held a medieval fair for all the local people. They don’t creep around pretending they are ninjas battling against a cruel and uncaring world – they are too busy making a difference for all that nonsense. And they negotiate – all the time: With local people, with local experts, with council officers and with grant providers. Talking is what builds communities.

Fairy Dell pond

The language of war (guerrilla gardening, seed bombs) sits ill at ease with something that celebrates the cycle of life as much as gardening does and I wish journalists would stop holding it up as something good, when there are better, more effective alternatives available in the UK.

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A wildlife garden in a year

Creating a wildlife garden is tricky. It’s not the attracting the wildlife bit, that’s easy according to Ken Thompson’s book ‘No nettles required’ – have lots of nice plants, stick in a tree, be a bit untidy…bonus points for a pond and a bit of long grass…and the wildlife turns up. No, the tricky thing is making a garden people want to visit and engage with, so they actually look at the wildlife.

At the end of 2013 I was asked to help plant a new wildlife and edible garden at Tees Valley Wildlife Trust head quarters. They wanted to create something that worked as an educational garden for the many schoolchildren who visit every year but also with ideas for people to see and copy at home if they liked them.

The garden is very long and narrow, between half a metre and two metres wide (perhaps three at the most) and around 30 metres long, all down the southern side of the building.

Under construction September 2013

Under construction, September 2013

I decided to loosely theme the planting. We start with shrubs that berry but also

Currants, crab apple and a row of white and red alpine strawberries (v. popular).

Currants, crab apple and a row of white and red alpine strawberries (v. popular).

including an old buddleia (no reason why you can’t grow fruit bushes in with all the garden flowers) and some double and single garden flowers (for experiments on which is most popular with pollinators).

Gooseberries and raspberries with double flowered Feverfew.

Gooseberries and raspberries with double and single flowered Feverfew.

Then off into herbs and flavours

The globe artichoke looked magnificent.

The globe artichoke looked magnificent.

Over to a garden meadow (mainly garden plants with a few natives)

The main grass used is Stipa tenuissima.

The main grass used is Stipa tenuissima. Note the habitat dry stone wall – lots of fun to make and if you are in an urban area you can use bits of brick, slate or lumps of concrete.

A pond with a border of ‘intermingled planting’ (on the right just off picture) and a ‘normal’ border (behind the bird feeder)

As the pond is so small I've used Rhubarb to give the same effect as a Gunnera. We're going to use hessian to cover the liner that shows in the summer when the pond level is low.

As the pond is so small I’ve used Rhubarb to give the same effect as a Gunnera. We’re going to use hessian to cover the liner that shows in the summer, when the pond level is low.

The same area in spring.

The same area in spring.



And woodland and woodland edge planting


I’ve tried to use as diverse a range of plants as possible in terms of flower colour, shape, and period of interest, within budget, and there are over 200 different types of plant so far. There are differences within a species with native thrift (Armeria maritima) grown from locally collected seed, a white flowered version and a rich purply-red garden variety to look at and be compared. I’ve used natives from the locally rare brookweed to cowslips and primroses, but usually only where they will work as interesting garden plants (okay the brookweed’s an exception, but I like it so it got planted), and also included a hazel tree with truffle inoculum (actually Steve at the Trust bought that…I’m sceptical …but you never know!).

This diversity means that there is always something in flower or with interesting leaves or seedheads, which in turn means there is always nectar, leaves or seeds for the wildlife to eat, which in turn means people want to be out in the garden looking or just relaxing… whilst the wildlife does its thing around them.

More information about the garden here at Tees Valley Wildlife Trust website.

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Social media

Alan Titchmarsh wrote a very revealing article last Sunday in the Telegraph – he doesn’t approve of social media – I found out about it because someone, somewhat ironically, tweeted a link.

The article is here

He writes that he doesn’t see the point in penning “140 characters every half-hour to a faceless group of folk I don’t know.” This is interesting because it gives an insight into how Alan thinks. Alan is, I imagine, a very canny businessman. Why tweet 140 characters free when you can be paid for writing an article for the Telegraph. Indeed. The idea that one should Tweet every half hour seems to have been picked up from the ‘celebrity’ people he mixes with or perhaps has read about and do you know, I really don’t think I would ever take people who work in the media as in any way typical; of anything…well except people who work in the media. And then we have the ‘faceless’ people. Presumably the ‘faceless’ people on Twitter are different from those many more “folk I don’t know” who have read his Telegraph articles or watched his TV programmes for years. Hmmm, this is beginning to look like holding an opinion for the sake of writing an article.

I think it’s a meant to be a light hearted ‘opinion’ piece in which Alan makes broad generalizations so he can say all this computer stuff is not good for you – get out more.

Gratuitous pretty picture break

Gratuitous pretty picture break

From my perspective it reads as someone who is healthy, wealthy, with his own family, and a successful job “I just don’t have the time” almost belittling those who aren’t and who use social media as a way of contact with the world.

I can’t always afford to visit flower shows, but I can follow people who will Tweet photos for me to see. Free. The other day a Scottish botanist visiting Peru (to collect Begonia species) tweeted a photo of a Fuchsia flower he’d found and asked his followers if anyone knew which species it was; I was able to link him to a Fuchsia enthusiast’s website in America suggesting a name for the species and all three of us were able to converse about it over a couple of days: Can’t do that so easily with pen and paper Alan. And I’m learning lots on Twitter about what some of our finest horticulturists do every day, how great gardens are maintained, and discovering exciting new plants available from UK nurseries…all at the touch of a button. Charming, knowledgeable people willing to encourage and help where they can – not the “group of people whose ability to concentrate on one thing, and to absorb its nuances to the exclusion of all else, is all but absent” that Alan sees from his journalistic research (he doesn’t tweet). And if I’m too ill to chat, then I can just read, I don’t have to interact. 

What really matters is the enjoyment you get from the people you communicate with; how you to talk to them, be it face to face or a through a Tweet, is irrelevant. What a shame Alan’s ‘busy life’ hasn’t made him aware of that.

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A Community Orchard

Way back in 2002 the bank in Reeth (a village in the Yorkshire Dales) was closed and the building was converted into a community hub on the ground floor, with social housing above. The bank used to be quite a prominent house in the village with its own walled garden….but the garden was completely derelict in 2002 – it hadn’t been touched for years.

Front view of abandoned garden

inside the abandoned garden

Some people in the village wanted to restore the space as a community garden and orchard…so they formed a friends group, got some grants, and set about making it amazing.

Clearing the abandoned garden

More pictures here

I was involved from the start giving horticultural and planting advice as well as helping out in the early years. I thought I’d mention some points of interest for anyone thinking of creating a community garden.

Have a big wide-ranging discussion about the sort of ways the garden will be used. Here people wanted a lawn for young children to play on and for events to be held, flower borders for visitors to the village to look at, apple and fruit bushes, a wildflower meadow to remind people of the spectacular wildflowers further up the dale, and places to sit.

A large Newton's Wonder apple tree forms the centre piece of the garden. The bench was made by a local craftsman, Peter Cummings.

A large Newton Wonder apple tree forms the centre piece of the garden. The bench was made by a local craftsman, Peter Cummings, who sadly no longer makes benches.

Keep it simple and straight forward. Fancy things and design wouldn’t have worked in the Yorkshire Dales and would have needed too much maintenance. I vetoed a rockery early on as they are so difficult to place in a garden without looking like a pile of stones with added random plants and can be tricky to weed. We got a stone trough instead.

A few pots are nice to have to give winter and summer colour, but choose big ones and only a few as they require less watering and looking after. If in doubt don’t have pots.

The hot border in 2007. There are three large pots by Yorkshire Flowerpots and the benches were made specially for the garden.

The hot border in 2007. There are three large pots; the benches were made specially for the garden – notice the discreet apple logo.

Think about how much work it will be to maintain when you are planning. That doesn’t mean make everything very low maintence; think about making the work varied as different people will have preferences for different jobs. Someone may be happy cutting the lawn but not wish to weed borders in case they pull the wrong thing out – for other people cutting the lawn is the last thing they would want to do because they find it boring.

The meadow now has a path cut through it for the children to walk through. Swaledale has superb natural hay meadows.

The meadow now has a path cut through it for the children to walk through. Notice the rope holders by the tree made specially by a local blacksmith. Swaledale has superb natural hay meadows.

Whilst you are planning, have a think about how you will raise money for the garden’s upkeep. Plants from the herbaceous borders can be split in the spring and potted up for a plant sale in May – this is a great opportunity for local people to buy plants that grow well in their area. At this community garden there is a potting shed, raised propagation bed, and a small greenhouse in an area outside of the main walled garden. The apples can be sold and juiced at an apple day in the autumn. There is also a donation box if visitors wish to contribute.

The cool border in 2007. Standard Gooseberry, red and black current bushes grow amongst the garden flowers. The wall has cordon apples growing against it.

The cool border in 2007. Standard gooseberry, red and black currant bushes grow amongst the garden flowers. The wall has cordon apples growing against it.

Use the grant money to purchase locally so you can showcase local businesses. A local stone waller repaired the walls, the path surface was from a local quarry, the pots are made in Yorkshire, the plants are from a local nursery, the gate was made by a local blacksmith, seating and sculptures were commissioned from local crafts people who work in the village or the dale.

Martagon lilies

If you have a grant try and ensure there is money for an experienced horticulturist to help for the first year. Especially with the weeding – most weeds turn up in the first year –if you can sort them out straight away it makes future work for volunteers so much easier. In the first year I ran workshops on how to look after the garden in the garden including how to propagate the plants. The Northern Fruit Group prune the fruit trees every year.

The garden in 2014 with the large Newton Wonder apple tree in the centre.

The garden in 2014 with the large Newton Wonder apple tree in the centre.

Finally, if there is a special event locally then try and mark it with something memorable and permanent. The Tour de France went through the village this year and this amazing sculpture was commissioned from local artist Michael Kusz.



There was a great exhibition in the conservatory showing some of the work the school children had created to help give ideas for the sculpture.


Friends of Reeth Community Orchard have a website here. The garden is open to all, but is locked at night.



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I dug up the lawn.

Many years ago, whilst I was recovering from ME in the mid 1990’s, I decided that my parents’ house needed a new front garden. It was me who looked after the garden and my energy levels were erratic to say the least – the lawn required too much effort to mow regularly, so I wanted rid of it.

Over a few weeks, I stripped the turf, removed the mildewed red standard roses that grew on our side and the ancient gnarly HT roses that grew on the neighbours’ side and started again – completely.

Whole garden shrubs in flower small

I decided on a design of slow growing shrubs and perennials at the back leading into a lawn of thyme at the front, all with a colour theme of white, pink and purple.

The only things I had to include were lavender and a Magnolia stellata which our neighbour wanted, and sweet alyssum which I wanted because in the summer, when it flowers, it smells of honey; I love that smell. I also tried the non-flowering lawn chamomile which was erratically successful, and a few pinks and other creeping plants just because I wanted to grow them.

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The house faced west, so in the evening the front pavement would be warm and the house behind hot with the heat of the day – ideal to bring out the scented oils of the plants.

Lavender side small

Thyme in flower small

Maintenance was basically cutting the thyme after flowering with hand shears – easy for me to do and it didn’t have to be done all at once which was a bonus, although it did need sharp shears. Other than that all I had to do was potter around, do a bit of dead heading, and pull out the odd weed now and then.

Thyme in flower portrait small

It doesn’t exist anymore. When my parents sold the house the new owners pulled everything up and replaced it with lawn…..I imagine they thought it would be easier to maintain.

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