Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Making Hay in the September Sun

On a mission to find out more about wildlife gardens in London, I was advised that, hidden behind a well-cultivated wildlife hedge in the Barbican, lay a superb example of one.  And, when I phoned to arrange the visit, I was bowled away when the invitation included watching the wildlife meadow being scythed.  Scything in central London!  What a treat!  The garden in question is the Fann Street Wildlife Garden, which is recognised as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation, and recently celebrated 10 years of working with residents of the Barbican and a variety of conservation groups to create this quiet, magical spot of unspoilt countryside in the very heart of the old smoke.

There was only one scyther, wielding a very sharp scythe.  She was Beth, a professional scyther who also teaches her skills for the National Trust.  She told me that she had once scythed at Highgrove, the home of the Prince of Wales, and she had never seen a better equipped garden.  She was a very friendly professional and made me wonder what other old skills could generate new employment if wildlife gardening became even more commonplace than it is beginning to be. Following Beth came the volunteers, who picked up the grasses and stacked them, ready to be taken away by the City of London for composting.  Taking the grass away is just as important as cutting it, as a good wildlife meadow thrives on poor soil.   No mulching required for this garden meadow: that's reserved for the hedges. One volunteer had gathered a bunch of grasses to take home, and laid it on a bench.

The meadow dominates the garden and it is fascinating to sit on one of the many benches on its round circumference and observe nature at work.  It contains a variety of common grasses,  including Yorkshire Fog, Mustard, Dead Nettle (white and red), Mallow, Common Buttercup and Speedwell. There is a path through the middle, which could just be still detected, and this is cut in May.  The garden benefits from a microclimate and is usually five degrees warmer than the outskirts.  The site was bombed in the Second World War, and the soil levels vary across the garden, with some parts acid and others alkali.  Although there is no mulching, there is still weeding to be done - nature is not given a completely free reign, and bindweed, nettles and creeping thistle, for instance, have to be kept in check in order to let the wildlife flowers bloom in the spring and summer.

The bees and the butterflies really enjoy the space, so much so that a wild bees' nest had been discovered in the middle of the meadow - its spot marked by a wayward traffic cone. But such is the attraction of the meadow that there are often more frogs there than in the pond, built three years ago. Maybe this is because they can hide from marauding mallards in the grass more effectively than in the pond.  Although the main problem with visiting mallard ducks is that they are very partial to a mouthful of frogspawn.

Introducing water has really increased the biodiversity of the garden.  Tall plants, such as Meadowsweet, Hemp Agrimony and Fleabane, give height and structure to the planting around the pond.  Some plants from the original planting, such as Ragged Robin and Lady's Smock, have been smothered by others, but many marginals survived, including Marsh Marigold, Bugle,Brookline, Flowering Rush, Marsh Woundwort, Lesser Spearwort, Yellow Loosestrife and the irrepressible Forget-me-not.

There is more to the garden than just the meadow and the pond. There is a cottage garden, a long sunny, pollinator friendly bed, and a wonderfully maintained hedgerow, cultivated as a sanctuary for the birds.  Bird feeding is taken really seriously and you can follow the activities of the birds on Twitter via Barbican Birds (@barbicanbirds). Each distinct area has a 'champion' and these volunteers are the real garden stars, who love and nurture their areas and oversee their successful development. The volunteers come from the Barbican Wildlife Group (the BWG), under the direction of the Barbican Estate Office and Working with City Gardens.

Some trees and plants started life on a balcony of a Barbican flat, others have been donated by the  Woodland Trust, such as the Spindle tree shown above with its distinctive pink berries, and Islington Gardeners, to name but two donors.

This is definitely a garden to put on your wish list for June 13-14 2015, when it will welcome visitors again for the Open Garden Squares Weekend.

Further information on visiting Fann Street Wildlife Garden on Open Garden Squares Weekend

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