Photo Blog

I love observing nature and the changing seasons during my Norfolk countryside dog walks accompanied by my ever-faithful canine companion Starrydog. I especially enjoy taking photos of Norfolk butterflies, wildflowers and other flora and fauna that I happen across while exploring local nature reserves. Visit my Norfolk nature photo blog to keep up to date with my photographic adventures and enjoy my butterfly photos.

A Celebration Of Diversity

In the week that saw the Pink Pride parade in London that celebrated 50 years of progress towards greater acceptance of human diversity, I was celebrating different kind of diversity success on a much smaller scale in my back garden -  the biodiversity success of wildflower varieties in my wildlife flower meadow surrounding our pond.

In its fourth flowering season, the Nar Cottage wildflower meadow project has finally come into its own and is becoming a mature, established bio-diverse habitat. At last pinks, purples and mauves of Tufted Vetch and Knapweeds intermingle generously among large clusters of yellow Bird's-foot trefoil, and have started to balance out the till now prevalent whites of Ox-eye daisies and Yarrow which had dominated the last two seasons flowering. A real "purple streak" of wildflower diversity you could say.

The meadow is noticeably lower than the past two seasons and the dry spring and early June heatwave may have contributed to the increase in biodiversity as different plants definitely either struggled or thrived in contrast to the previous two colder and wetter seasons. In addition, Yellow rattle has established itself very well this year and should continue to weaken the competitive grasses in future years.

Every year the flower mix in the meadow evolves and changes to puts on a unique display of meadow flora and fauna. It will soon be hay cutting time, but already I cant wait to see what next year's meadow will be like.

 

Nar Cottage wildlife garden before landscaping work began, early November 2013

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow in late June 2017 with Knapweed and Vetch mxing with Ox-eye daisies

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow in November 2013 - A landscaped area of bare earth and newly filled pond

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow by July 2017 - A diverse mix of pink purple Knapweeds, Vetches plus Trefoils, Sorrel and Daisies

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow in June 2015 - A mass of white Ox-eye daisies but few other flowers - a relatively undiverse habitat

Nar Cottage Wildlife Meadow June 1st 2018 just coming into flower, relatively few Ox-eye daisies are left

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow with cornfield annuals - July 2014

Nar Cottage wildflower Meadow in its early stages of growth - June 2015

Nar Cottage wildflower meadow in its 4th season - July 2017

Rhapsody in Blue

Buff-tailed bumble bee foraging among Viper's-bugloss flowers

One of the deep joys of wildlife gardening is when an idea comes together and a wildflower you've planted really takes off... and brings even more nature into your garden. That is exactly what happened this year with an experimental planting of a local native wildflower, Viper's-bugloss or Echium vulgare. 

Viper's-bugloss growing wild on Kelling Heath in Norfolk

A member of the Borage plant family Boraginaceae, Viper's-bugloss is renowned for having a high wildlife value due to its flower's rapid nectar refill rate. This makes it a magnet for numerous species of bees, hoverflies, butterflies and other insects, which will revisit it at regular intervals throughout the day. It is also a caterpillar host plant for the glamorous Painted Lady butterfly and Golden Twin-spot moth. 

A tough, bristly and flamboyant biennial, Viper's-bugloss is commonly found in dry chalky grassland and heaths and along coastal cliffs and sand dunes. I first saw this striking plant growing in the wild locally in 2015. It was at Kelling Heath, a lowland heath reserve not far from the North Norfolk coast, and I'd been on a foray to see the diminutive Silver-studded blue butterflies resident on the nature reserve.

I was returning to the car park after a successful mission when I spotted it and recognised the tall flower spike heavy with lilac blue flowers at first glance, even though I'd never seen one before. The bell-shaped open-rimmed flowers had vivid pink trailing stamens, and was besieged by a host of argumentative bees, butterflies and other insects all competing for the rich nectar source.

Like most native wildflowers, Viper's-bugloss is embedded in traditional herblore, with around a dozen common names in existence, many of which, like Adderwort, Snake flower or Viper's herb, contain serpentine references.

The precise origins of its common name are unclear, possibly relating to the snake's-head form of the seed pods mentioned by 17th Century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper,After the flowers are fallen, the seeds growing to be ripe, are blackish, cornered and pointed somewhat like the head of a viper.” Other theories include a comparison of the mottled leaves to snakeskin, or perhaps an allusion to the bite-like irritation caused by contact with the plants sharp bristles or its poisonous characteristics when ingested. 

Bumble bee nectaring on Viper's-bugloss flowers

Perhaps because of these serpentine associations,  Viper's-bugloss was traditionally used in herblore as an anti-venom for snake bites.The first documented herballist recommendation dates as far back as the first century AD and was made by a Greek Physician called Pedanius Dioscorides in a work called De Materia Medica.  Even the species name Echium is derived from "Echis", the Greek for "Viper".

However the term "Bugloss" used in many of our English common names is actually a reference to the ox-tongue shape and texture of its leaves and originates from the Greek word "bou" (a cow or ox) and the Latin "glosso" (tongue).

Meanwhile I had long been pondering a horticultural problem in my wildlife garden at home. I was keen to add more wildlife friendly flowers closer to the house and enrich diversity as the garden was starting to mature, but was stumped with a problem area where next to nothing would grow.

Bee flying towards Viper's-bugloss flower spikes

Despite our landscaper's best endeavours, not all of the poorest soil had ended up in the right place, our designated wildlfower meadow area. Some of it had ended up adjoining the bungalow and patio edge right at the top of the rear garden. Here the south facing slope was arid , in full sun all day long and only the relentless couch grass was flourishing.

So I turned to natives I'd seen locally thriving in sandy arid conditions for a solution and bought a small Echium Vulgare plug from Glandford Wildflower Centre just outside Holt. I planted it alongside Common Century, Teasel, Red Valerian and Common Rock Rose, next to a humongous self-sown Common Mallow, which had given me the inspiration, in order to create a bee-friendly wildflower border of sorts. 

Very little happened last year and my husband was sceptical. But Viper's-bugloss is known for growing deep roots and this year - success! The Echium developed numerous flower spikes and is even out competing both the Common century and Red valerian.

This weekend the month has earned its title of "Flaming June". In the sweltering 33 degree heat,  I couldn't face venturing outside my garden gates. Towards the end of a long, sweltering afternoon, as the worst of the heat started to cool, I stood on our patio and enjoyed the constant humming of dozens of bumble bees as they methodically worked their way up each spike in turn, checking which flowers had refilled with nectar.

 

"With the buzzing of the bee,
And the glowing of the bugloss,
High Summer is here"
 
 

Names for Echium Vulgare  

Bluebottle
Blue devil
Blue thistle
Blueweed
Bugloss
Cat's tail
Ironweed
Patterson's curse (Australian)
Our Saviour's Flannel
Snake flower
Viper's-bugloss
Viper's grass
Viper's herb

Autumn Colours and Changing Clocks

Autumn seems to get later and later each year, perhaps a sign of the times in these days of global warming. The leaves here in Norfolk are only just colouring up, so to capture the mood of autumn here is a shot from my garden instead. It's a wild carrot seed head photographed against a backdrop of autumn flowering pink sedum in my butterfly and bee flower garden in gorgeous soft golden light we had yesterday afternoon before the clock change.

Low Mow Flower Lawns

Creative Low Maintenance Alternatives to Paving or Astroturfing your Lawn

With our our increasingly busy lives and long commutes, many people have come to dread the idea of spending precious family and leisure time mowing their lawns every week in high summer and look for alternative solutions. So much so that sales of block paving, pea shingle and even artificial plastic astro-turf are soaring. But what is the best option for our health and the environment? Is there a solution that is both low maintenance and eco-friendly as well as being aesthetically pleasing?

Concerns with block paving as an alternative to grass turf

Traditionally, those suffering lawn mower fatigue looked to block paving and over the years many a front urban garden vanished in favour of parking driveways, but in recent years flooding has become a real issue, particularly in urban areas due the sheer amount of lost drainage due to block paving in of gardens. According to a report by the Committee on Climate change, in the 5 years to 2013, around 55 million square meters of block paving was installed in England, 92% of which was non-permeable. As climate change started to take its toll and our British weather became more volatile the issue became increasingly important. So much so that in a bid to halt the trend, official planning permission is now required to install non permeable paving with no drainage.

Interestingly hard landscaping may not be just be bad for the eco-system and wildlife but also, it's been discovered in research studies, for our human psychological and physical well being. Numerous studies have found positive correlations between green spaces and our mental health and negative links with concrete jungle urban environments. So wildlife aside, installing hard landscaping may also not be the most healthy way to get the most out of our precious outdoor space for our own psychological wellbeing. The good news is that there are some beautiful, natural, wildlife-friendly alternatives out there, that are far more attractive than block or shingle hard landscape replacements and yet are vastly easier and less effort to maintain than a traditional turf lawn.

Issues with artificial lawns as an alternative to grass turf

Recently a new kid arrived on the lawn replacement block. Artifical turf. Superficially an attractive option. Cheaper, also maintenance free, permeable and, being green plastic kind of natural looking from a distance. Sales sky rocketed. Sometimes made of recycled rubber and recycling's good right? Well... no, not exactly. Plastic is never the good guy and buying and laying plastic imitation lawns in your garden can still create lots of environmental problems.

Experts say artificial lawns are a real threat to wildlife, and on closer inspection don't have eco-friendly credentials. They consume fossil fuels to manufacture and many are shipped long distance so have a large carbon footprint and of course, being essentially plastic, don't biodegrade and eventually pollute the environment. The issue of habitat loss for burrowing bees, worms and other insects that birds rely on for food is a major and growing problem in an increasingly intensively built urban environment. More worryingly some potential health concerns have been raised about the safety of some materials used, there have been claims of materials being used in them potentially causing cancer or other serious health risks (see “further reading” section below for links). So, on closer inspection the plastic turf alternative doesnt seem to tick the human health box either.

Low mow flower lawns as an alternative to grass turf

Paving and artifical grass aside, varity is the spice of life in the ecosystem and, while better than man made coverings, a standard turf or grass lawn is a monoculture habitat that offers relatively poor biodiversity. Aside from the odd snail or earthworm for blackbirds or crows to forage it has little ecological benefit to wildlife. 

Aesthetically,  aside from being green rather than synthetic, lawns are also pretty bland don't offer a great deal of visual stimulation for the human eye either. As awareness grows of flooding and ecosystem impact and potential health issues around artificial surfaces, people are starting to look into greener, healthier alternatives that avoid resorting to higher maintenance traditional turf lawns. At the same time wildlife gardening is increasing in popularity as we become more conservation minded.

With a little imagination a dull lawn could be transformed from a mowing and weeding nightmare into a low maintenance artistic and aromatic patchwork quilt of low growing wildflowers rich in biodiversity that will shelter and feed bees, insects and butterflies. And require far less summer mowing maintenance to boot. Many of the plants suggested are native or long naturalised so will cope with our long dry summer weather, or shade far better than garden centre grass mixes will do. And if you need to install a driveway there are many hexagon shaped green-driveway options to use with the low mow flower ideas below.

Low Mow Flowering Lawn Ideas

Selfheal and White Clover make an attractive, low maintenance wildlife friendly alternative to a traditional plain turf lawn

Probably the star performer for an alternative to turf lawn is white clover, perhaps with a sprinkling of purple-blue selfheal and speedwell dropped in, but there are a whole host of options including the lovely idea of fragrant and herbal flower lawns grown with chamomile, thyme or mint, an innovation first dreamed up by the Elizabethans.

Depending on what flower lawn mix you sow, you may still need just one or two mows on a high setting in spring, but from then on you can leave the sward completely alone through the main summer period, sit back and enjoy the flowers before mowing again once or twice in autumn.

Below is a list some of the best known low growing flower-lawn options to go for sorted by colours, but many other wild flowers will adapt to low growing and flowering height with an early mowing regime. You could even plant in some spring bulbs for extra colour.

Blue / White / Pink Flowers for Alternative Low Flowering Lawns

  • White clover (trifolium repens, native, flowers: white, Jun-Oct)- a star lawn alternative, tough and resilient and simply wonderful for garden bees. It is a caterpillar host plant for 14 moth species, in particular burnet, heath, mother shipton and silver y moths. It has a prolonged flowering season and the leaves of this legume stay green during the height of summer unlike most lawns. Note that its relative red clover grows much taller than the white.

  • Selfheal (prunella vulgaris, native, flowers: blue/purple Jun-Oct ) – a good companion to clower, this semi-evergreen herb with beautiful violet flower spikes can flower well into October. As its name suggest, the herb has a long history of medicinal use for healing wounds.

  • Germander Speedwell (veronica chamaedrys, native, flowers: blue Apr-Jun) A host plant for the heath fritillary butterfly, this variety of speedwell displays bright blue flowers in spring and its name references its historic status as a good luck charm for travellers, to speed them well on their way. Other creeping speedwell varieties include Common Field Speedwell (v. persica) , Grey Field Speedwell (v. polita) Green Field Speedwell (v . agrestis)

  • Ground Ivy (glechoma hederacea, native, flowers: lilac, Mar-Jun) nothing to do with its larger relative it looks a little like bugle and is low growing spring flower oft seen with primroses.

  • Bugle (ajuga reptans, native, flowers: purple Apr-Jun) a member of the mint/dead nettle family with purple flowers on little stalks in spring

  • Yarrow (achillea millefolium, flowers: white to pink, Jun-Oct) a pretty feathery leaved plant in the daisy family with erect flower spikes that flower low with mowing. Great for butterflies and plume moths.

  • Sweet Violet (viola odorata, native, flowers: lilac to deep purple, Mar-May) low growing spring flowers. Sweet violet spreads via rhizomes. Its relative common dog violet flowers a little later.

Yellow / Orange / Red Flowers for Alternative Low Flowering Lawns

Buttercups and speedwell can be low growing alternatives to a turf lawn

  • Bird’s foot trefoil (lotus corniculatus, native, flowers: yellow to orange, May-Sep) – Not everyone’s cup of tea with its vivid yellow “bacon and egss” but this is an excellent moth and butterfly caterpillar host plants used by Common Blue, Green Hairstreak, Dingy Skippers and Clouded Yellow butterflies.

  • Creeping Buttercup (ranunulus repens, native, flowers: yellow, May-Jul) one of Britains native buttercups. Leaves are comparatively large and it does have quite a vigorous creeping habit so be sure you want plenty of glossy yellow flowers before including it in a mix.

  • Daisy (bellis perennis, native, flowers: white-yellow, Apr-Oct) Every perfect flower lawn should have some. No British summer is complete without at least one daisy chain and a game of “she loves me, she loves me not”.

  • Scarlet Pimpernel (anagallis arvensis, native, flowers: red, May-Oct) Made famous by the French rebel, this is a delicate tiny little red flower that opens in the morning when the sun shines and will close up in less clement weather.

  • Dandelion (taraxacum officinale, native, flowers: yellow Apr-Oct), a marmite plant hated by many traditional gardeners for its habit of invading lawns, but a whole field full can be a sight to behold.

  • Cat’s Ear (hypochaeris radicata, native, flowers: yellow May-Oct), often confused with dandelions as it alsow grows as a rosette, but its more delicate and low growing with flowers on spikes and is very popular with meadow butterflies like skippers and meadow browns and gatekeepers.

Fragrant or Herbal Flowers for Alternative Low Level Lawns

  • Creeping Thyme (thymus serpyllum, naturalised, flowers:May-Aug ) – a fragrant creeping herb that originated in the mediterranean and was brought to Britain by the Romans.

  • Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile, native, flowers: Jun-Aug) – another aromatic plant used for tea, this herb became the height of fashion in the Elizabethan era and it was the Elizabethans who first came up with the idea of planting it en masse as a feathery soft lawn fragrant underfoot. A non flowering cultivar is also available.

  • Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii, naturalised, flowers: purple Jul, Aug) – Introduced from Corsica, Sardinia a low growing mint family plant.

Green / Non Flowering Low Level Lawns For Shade

  • Moss (bryophyta)- overlooked and underrated, particularly good for shady areas, it is a gorgeous rich green and bouncy underfoot.

Traditional Wildflower Meadows

If you don’t need a low level lawn-like effect and the height of plants is no issue you could even consider a wildflower meadow patch. For the extra effort of an annual cut you could grow a traditional natural grass and wildflower meadow with endless choice of taller flowers. A summer wildflower meadow mix has a cutting regime timed as a hay cut in late summer. Or if you love to see birds in your garden you could consider a dense flower meadow mix for birds and bees. These are designed to be left overwinter for seeds and require a late winter cut around February after the birds have foraged the seedheads.

Abandon your both your lawn mower and the mortar!

So there are a whole host of options that can mean your mower is left to gather dust in the garage most of the year, leaving you free to enjoy your low flowering non turf lawn for its natural beauty and the wildlife species it brings into your garden. Not all lawn alternatives will tolerate heavy footfall, so a little thought research and tailoring is required to find the right option and perfect blend for your area.

But whatever you do –  throw that block paving brochure into the recycling and start growing an exciting low maintenance beautiful space for wildlife!

Red Campion and white Daisies surround the bird bath in the Old Rose Garden at Nar Cottage

Further Reading

Astroturf health and environmental concerns

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/health-fitness/body/are-artificial-sports-pitches-causing-cancer/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jul/04/growth-in-artificial-lawns-poses-threat-to-british-wildlife-conservationists-warn

Emorsgate Seeds offer a ready made flowering lawn mix (EL1) and have written a short article

http://wildseed.co.uk/articles/2012/06/06/flowering-lawns-give-your-mower-a-holiday

Reading University research shows what can be done creatively

http://www.grassfreelawns.co.uk/

The Committe on Climate Change’s 2014 Paving Survey Report

https://www.theccc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/7-ASC-paving-survey-report_for-publication.pdf

Research into the effect of green spaces on mental health

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-25682368

Wildlife Meadow Matting for Birds and Bees

http://www.meadowmat.com/meadowmat/meadowmat-birds-bees.html

Blowin' in the Wind ....

A Red Poppy for the Somme

In a momentous week that has witnessed a constitutional crisis in the UK and political skulduggery to rival Machiavelli, perhaps the most important event of all was remembering that, only a hundred years ago, Britain was in a state of war with another European country. Our grandfathers were about to face the onslaught of the Battle of the Somme, the most fatal of all battles in the “War to End All Wars”.

A simple common red poppy (papaver rhoeas) blowing in the wind serves to remind us that many, many men gave their lives for our freedom.  The peace , prosperity and personal liberties that our European generation has enjoyed until now was won only through the greatest of sacrifices that most of us in our modern lives can’t even imagine – the blood spilled by our forbears.

Our week’s events, when viewed from this bigger perspective, suddenly seem to be all about petty self interest and almost inconsequential. But we can’t afford to take the life we lead today for granted, things could easily be far worse. Intolerance is a slippery, treacherous slope and can at first seem quite innocuous.

Above all we should not forget what the European project was all about when it first started.

Just one little word....

Peace

The Uncommonly Beautiful Common Spotted Orchid

Recently I visited Foxley Wood NWT while volunteering with Norfolk Butterfly Conservation Society on a Hawk moth event. As I arrived I spotted this beautiful Common Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza Fuchsii) nestled in a corner of the grassy verge.

I simply couldn't bring myself to leave without stopping to admire and photograph the group of delicately coloured Common Spotted Orchids. They must like damp weather as they have done very well here this year! 

The name "Common Spotted Orchid" really doesn't do this humble, yet beautiful plant justice. There's nothing common about this diminutive Orchid at all; in fact this flower is the epitomy of subtley, daintiness, elegance and refinement.

Raising a Yellow Flag

Yellow Flag Iris, Iris Pseudocorus, is one of surprisingly few native pond Irises. Yellow Flag makes its home in damp clay and loamy soils of wetlands and marshes. It thrives in the Fenland habitat of the Norfolk Broads and is widespread across the county. 

Also known as "Daggers" Yellow Flag Iris is a vibrant, beautiful native example of the Iris wildflower family. Sadly this species tends to gets overlooked by mainstream garden centres in favour of more popular blue-coloured Irises, which are actually Asian in origin and not native to the UK.  

With a little care Yellow Flag Iris can be a wonderful addition to most wildlife garden ponds.  In particularly favourable conditions the Yellow Flag Iris will thrive and can become a little over vigorous, so growing it in containers is a good idea to avoid it taking off too dramatically, especially if you have a smaller ponds or bog gardens.

Fortunately my pond margin has plenty of room and mixed companion planting is providing competition from other marginal plants such as Purple Loosestrife, Meadowsweet, Water mint, Reedmace (Typha), true Bulrush (Scirpus Lacustris) to name but a few. So far this approach seems to have kept the pond margin mix nicely balanced.

Springtime in der Eifel

Spring has well and truly sprung with a couple of weeks of glorious weather in the UK and the continent. Here a small selection from a short trip to the beautiful Eifel Nationalpark on the German-Belgian border, with lush meadows dripping in springtime wildflowers and vivid dappled green woodland trails bursting with life...

New season's foliage in deciduous woodland on the slopes

Apple tree blossom on a hot sunny circular walk around a 45 thousand year old Meerfelder Maar - a volcanic crater and lake or "Maar".

Wildflowers and butterflies were very similar to those in the UK with cuckoo flower, dandelions, stitchwort and marsh marigolds and dandelions in the downland meadows.

An enticing dappled woodland trail on the Lieserpfad hiking route

Spring Orchids

Green-winged Orchid

Early Purple Orchid

The arrival of May means we are entering late springtime, augering the arrival of warm days and our early orchids. Here are two you can see readily in Norfolk, the Early Purple Orchid (orchis mascula) that can be seen in ancient woodland where it is often a companion plant to bluebells, and the very small Green-Winged Orchid (Anacamptis morio), a later flowering orchid happiest in open unimproved grassland. 

After the whites greens and yellows of early spring now pinker palette emerges among our countryside wildflowers. Amongst others, both the pretty red campion (silene dioica) and herb robert (geranium robertianum), one of several elegant native geranium species, come into bloom during in the month and if you're lucky, you might even see an early poppy.

Lush Springtime

For me, springtime is as much about the pure whites and lush greens, the fresh background colour palette against which the more vivid yellows, pinks and lilacs that pretty spring wildflowers display their wares to early pollinating insects. At this time of year the woodland floor becomes a pastel mosaic of early spring wildflowers such as greater stitchwort, water avens as well as bluebells and campions all in a mad dash to flower and seed before the renewed tree canopy shades their light for the summer season until autumn leaf-fall arrives.