A TALK ABOUT ‘URBAN BUZZ’ IN LEICESTER BY MICK EATON
(This talk on 27thAugust 2019 at the Wycliffe United Reformed Church was by Mick Eaton, Horticultural Adviser to Leicester City Council. It was hosted by Graceworks and organised by Friends of Evington Park.)
Last year Nick Packham from BUGLIFE visited Leicester with an agenda for growing plants that will encourage our pollinating insects and other pollinating invertebrates. Nick worked with community groups and park staff in order to make an impact that certainly changed Mick’s way of thinking.
“I used to spend my time getting rid of plants like selfheal and yarrow from mown grass, now I encourage these plants!”
Mick explained how our bees are struggling with the changes to the seasons and now come out earlier and forage later, not hibernating much. Wildflowers have developed in partnership with bees and other pollinating invertebrates (called pollinators in this article) over the millennium, but as conditions change, the indigenous plants haven’t caught up. We are in a situation where we need to be providing more habitats for these useful bugs.
All flowers need pollinating, including the crops we eat. Some may be pollinated by wind, but for the main it is up to our pollinators. If there is a shortage of bees due to habitat loss, this will cascade. We must increase the number of our pollinators.
In the City we have stopped mowing grass where we can because grass pollen is important. That is why there are large areas of uncut grass. With leaving verges uncut we have to be careful because of the danger of fire. Along verges we can gradually change the choice of plants. Within parks, we continue to have our show beds, but with over a quarter of a million plants, I am proud to say that 97.7% are of benefit to our pollinators. Using these plants in our own garden doesn’t mean it has to look untidy, but we choose single flowering plants rather than the big showy ones, like multi-flowered dahlias. People who leave their gardens to fend for themselves may claim they are helping nature, but as thistles, docks, stinging nettles and brambles spread, you can end up with a monoculture as the most aggressive plants take over. Nick Packham says you need at least five different varieties of plants for developing land for biodiversity.
Mick’s slide-show started by explaining his role in the management of parks and the amount of grassed areas that are under their remit. Mick as a horticultural adviser is answerable to the Parks Development Officer and the Development Officer is answerable to the Parks Manager and his executive officer. Leicester is divided into three areas with dedicated teams answerable to their Local Area manager. Overall there is 1,170,322m2of Housing land, 1,463,054m2of Highways and 4,509549m2of Parks. This is a similar size to a million average back gardens. Then on top of that there are other nature areas.
With the changes coming into place, a big problem is that people are not used to seeing it. Long grass on verges has the benefit of carbon capture as it is in line with exhaust pipes and it helps our pollinators, but it looks unkept and the type of grasses on our verges needs to be improved.
There are longer term solutions. The verges could be sown with different grasses that need less mowing but contain a variety of wildflower plants for pollinators. They could be sown with other perennial plants that form a ‘mat’, cutting down on mowing and maintenance, but still providing habitats for pollinators, especially very early and late in the season.
There are a number of other themes to sell the package of ‘Urban Buzz’ to the community:
- The importance of biodiversity
If a plant retailer grows one million trees from the seed of one species, then if that tree becomes diseased, then the loss is huge. If we diversify and have many different species, then the danger of disease, causing devastation, is minimised.
- Planting bulbs, particularly to extend the pollination season.Parks annually plant 200,000 bulbs every season.
- Habitat piles at suitable locations within parks
- Stacks of logs.
- Bee posts for solitary bees.
- Bedding plants.(Over £1 million twice a year on parks.) This is modifying a Victorian concept into a freer planting scheme.
- Work with volunteers.The LEV (Leicester Environmental Volunteers) scheme is managed by a small parks team, inviting volunteers who register to join in with various projects across the city.
- The reasons for developing more habitats for pollinators is because of loss to houses, roads, drainage and farming methods.
- Encourage people to consider their own gardens for biodiversity and bee friendly plants.
Leicester City Council are in the process of developing an experimental mixture of grass and wildflowers, which will include clover, selfheal, daisies and buttercups, that won’t need so much mowing as the present grasses in parks.
These changes are not cheap! Mowers need replacing with rotary mowers that are slower. However, one easy way to affect change is to ask contractors not to finish the job with top soil and grass but to leave the site with poor soil that can be sown with wildflowers.
Mick’s talk went on to describe planting of various sites:
(The site by Sainsbury’s which used to be Thorn Lighting). This site was low on nitrates and no top soil was added so wildflowers could be sown. In a nitrate rich area thistles and docks were pulled out by a team and now grow Yarrow and Wild Carrot.
This has been planted in two halves. A metre-wide strip of cottage garden flowers and behind that the grass was cut very short, scarified and sown with Yellow Rattle, which is a plant that is parasitic on grass, so it cuts down its vigour. The strip had Californian poppies flowering all year and has looked spectacular when the poppies were in flower.
This area by the railway has been planted with lots of early flowering bulbs and shrubs along in the bank and together with a perennial mixture.
A 1.6 metre strip has been planted with a cornflower mix – corn marigold, corn cockle, cornflower and field poppy to replace the wallflowers. The ubiquitous white daisy comes through too. Also, there is a one metre wide strip of crocuses and a ‘bling’ border of mixed flowers including anemones, grape hyacinths and alliums. The crocuses flower in early February, then the perennials flower, followed by the cornflowers and later perennials.
In the gardens there is a triangle of Sedum planted in block next to Persicaria and Rudbeckia Goldstrum. They were initially planted 18 inches apart and in 12 months they fill all vacant soil. Geraniums go through to the first frost. You can hear the buzz!
This has a border of Scabious, Flax, Viper’s Bugloss and other plants that form a Bee-line. This was an earlier project that was completed while Buglife was still in Leicester.
A year-round area has been sown with bulbs for all seasons. Also a new habitat at Charter Street Bridge.
Buglife (The Invertebrate Conservation Trust) initially identified eight cities in the UK for the Urban Buzz project, which was funded by Biffa Award, National Lottery Heritage Fund, People’s Postcode Lottery and Garfield Western Foundation. The eight cities were: Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Ipswich, York, Leicester, Plymouth and Cardiff. But Buglife has smashed these targets and are now working in many other areas in the UK as well.
About Urban Buzz Leicester, Buglife writes:
“Thanks to the enthusiasm and hard work of 561 volunteers and dedicated partners, 112 Buzzing Hotspots were enhanced for pollinators and wildflowers, bug-friendly garden plants, flowering shrubs, nesting habitats and a host of other work. Urban Buzz worked in high profile locations such as Abbey Park, Victoria Park and Castle Hill Country Park and with partners including Leicester City Council, the University of Leicester, Naturespot and the network of committed ‘Friends of’ groups – all working together to bring colour and wildlife back to our parks and open spaces.
Buglife was also pleased to announce that the joint winners of the Best Buzzing Hotspots for Leicester were the University of Leicester for the efforts of their staff and volunteers across their campuses. The runner Up was awarded to Leicester City Council’s Paul Barker and Mick Eaton for their work on Glenhills Boulevard.
For more information go to buglife.org.uk