This week we met James and Clare Hewetson-Brown of Wildflower Turf Ltd, North Hampshire. Wildflower Turf provide practical and beautiful solutions for bio-diverse habitat creation. This year they’ve had their hands full creating flowerscapes for the spectacular rural sequences of the London Olympic opening ceremony.
The goal of their business is to apply innovative technology for results that benefit the environment and the natural world that lives there. Last year, when they were approached by the landscape designers and ecologists involved with the Olympics, the Wildflower Turf team were super-impressed with the stringent environmental standards they were tasked to achieve. The aim was for a Breeam Excellent Standard and they were not only challenged with creating spectacular blooms, bang on time, their brief covered projects in various expanses around the park, including shady planting for wooded areas.
The couple have been running Wildflower Turf at Ashe Warren farm since 2003, producing arable crops alongside the wild flower turf. Farmers nationally, with the support and encouragement of the UK government, have had to become entrepreneurial to stay financially viable. James explained that wild flowers was a good fit for them, as they can run the business alongside other crops and take advantage of the flinty nature of the soil in the area, as wildflowers thrive in difficult soils.
Wildflower Turf were the first to introduce wildflower meadow in the form of turf and in doing so have had to develop ways of achieving this and the machinery to handle it.
Generally grass and flower roots mesh together and so securely hold the form of turf, but wild flowers prefer isolated root systems and some also have deep tap roots, which ordinarily would lead to the turf crumbling apart when lifted. Through creative development this was remedied, alongside evolving the optimum mix of plant species to ensure the best results.
Their approach is to have a 50/50 ratio of plants and grass. Most seed suppliers offer 80% grasses and 20% flowers, but research by Wildflower Turf has revealed that the more biodiverse the planting, the more wildlife species take up the environment as home – and that’s their aim.
The team are dedicated to wild flowers and are expanding quickly and steadily as interest in this form of planting increases. In the past they’ve been involved in projects for Gardeners World, sets for all of the Harry Potter films, green roofs for Paulton’s Park and Cardiff Castle, parks, mazes…the list goes on!
Their turf is also being used temporarily in shows, exhibitions and stage sets. The benefit here is that, after the event, the turf can be rolled back up and repaired or recycled for further use.
Currently, of course, they’re looking forward to Olympic Legacy work, which is seeking to maintain the parks for people to enjoy for years to come. They’re in the running for certain projects and are waiting to hear as more plans are approved.
The maintenance of the wildflower meadows is something we were keen to hear about. Having dreamt ourselves of elegant swathes in our own back gardens, we wondered how realistic it is to be able to keep things looking good – as well as how to achieve it in the first place!
James explained that turf is the most successful way of achieving a good-looking wildflower meadow or feature, although there are other options. You can just grow the grass you currently have and let it do its own thing, but with that you can only hope for a few flowers taking root after a few years. Sprinkling seeds, or plug-planting, onto an existing lawn is effectively a waste of time as you won’t get good results. Even starting from scratch and sowing onto nicely prepared soil has its challenges, as this method takes years to develop and you need to know what you’re doing. It has been suggested to James, by wildflower seed producers, that 80-90% of sown flower meadows fail, because people give up and mow their lawn in exasperation.
The planting schemes at the Olympic Park utilise many annual plants, which create a blaze of brightness, but over the years these may disappear, unless they’re re-cultivated. Despite the fact that annuals are self-seeding, most need soil cultivation in order to germinate. The planting in the legacy park will become subtler in colour, if only perennials remain.
Wild flowers are drought tolerant and so work better than grass lawns in long hot spells. Of course flowers only appear for a few months and after this the areas of growth may start to look a bit droopy and haywire. It’s then that it needs to be cut down to ground level to encourage new growth. This only has to happen once a year and the following spring it shoots back to life to dazzle us once again.
The Olympic Park design team have high hopes that this wild planting approach will be seen as the blueprint for city parks in the future, in place of more formal and manicured gardens. Recent research shows that urban greening works better than expected in clearing pollutants from the air, as well as increasing wildlife.
Wildflowers are now being incorporated into many architectural and landscape features and they don’t have to be large areas either, small sections of planting are also beneficial. Wildlflower Turf are working with contractors, landscape designers, beekeepers and residents to realise diverse and innovative interpretations of wildflower planting.
The greening of cities is quite a science. For scheme planting an ecologist is the first on the scene. They assess the site for the natural flora and fauna. The design is then developed on their recommendation, taking into consideration building orientation and use, walkways, traffic, erosion control etc. ‘Green corridors’ are also important, which allow a through-way for animals and insects, as they migrate around.
The recent trend for green walls has seen many architectural schemes incorporating elaborate decorative planting, some of which is not in fact sustainable. For instance, when a wall system is made up of small isolated planting containers, particularly if it’s south facing, the plants can quickly dry out and need lots of watering. Any die-off looks unsightly and plants may need to be regularly replaced.
Roof planting is also an opportunity and the use of Sedum has become popular. This can work well, but it also has its drawbacks. Most are not native to the UK and can’t offer the same food and shelter to birds and insects. Wildflower turf provides an alternative solution in this situation. A watertight roof is a must and access is required to do the yearly trim, and the benefits are that the turf is easy to handle and quick to establish, enhancing the look of the building, while providing genuine environmental benefits. Just don’t be tempted to graze sheep up there.
After we’d bent James’ ear for a couple of hours and he’d walked us round his gorgeous yet industrious farm, we had to let him get back to work, but what a privilege we had, going behind the scenes and finding out all there is to know about growing wild flowers. And we all thought it just happened naturally!
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