Where are the wild areas and what’s in them?
The meadow area
The meadow area is to the side of Preschool, next to Robert Burns Avenue. The ground has been partially dug by a small team of parent volunteers (thank you!) and sown with Yellow Rattle seed by the children. Yellow Rattle is a grass parasite which weakens and thins out the grass, allowing broadleaved plants to establish. There are already plenty of little plants in amongst the grass, including selfheal, speedwell, plantain, wood avens and black medick, and once mowing stops we should see these flourish. There’s no need to worry about stray seeds if you have a nearby lawn – Yellow Rattle is an annual and can’t thrive in mown grass, so it’s easily contained and won’t become a pest.
Yellow Rattle in flower
The meadow contains birch and rowan trees, and is bordered by a mixed hedge of hawthorn, brambles, plums and flowering ivy. This is a real bonus, as these native trees and plants will provide nectar for insects and food plants for their young, plus fruit for birds. There’s even a grapevine creeping over from a neighbouring garden!
The ground along the fence onto Robert Burns Avenue, in the shade of the larger trees, has been sown by Green Class with a special shade mix. Plants we may see include foxgloves, angelica, buttercups, vetch and columbine. Not everything will germinate, but whatever plants are best suited to the environment will grow and thrive.
The log pile
The log pile
Dead wood is a fantastic resource for fungi, mosses, insects, birds, amphibians and hedgehogs. A big thank you to those who donated wood from their gardens, and helped to transport it.
The leaf bins
The leaf bins, which have been made out of recycled pallets by the Men in Sheds community group (https://meninsheds-cheltenham.org/), are great for overwintering animals such as toads and hedgehogs (there are built-in entrance holes to allow animals in!) They also provide overwinter shelter for insects, meaning the meadow can support permanent insect populations. And when the leaves rot down, the leafmould can be removed and used in gardening.
The car park verges
Seed sowing with the children
The verge of the car park and the patch of grass next to the bike shed have been sown with a mixture of Yellow Rattle and traditional meadow flowers. The verge was already supporting a wide range of wild flowers, and without strimming we’ll see these flourish in summer. The traditional mix contains 23 native wildflowers, mainly perennial, which will establish in the first year and flower in the next. Flowers we may see include red campion, cowslips, ox-eye daisy, forget-me-nots and wild clary.
What educational benefits will the wild areas bring to Benhall School?
The habitats will provide a fantastic resource to the children, from learning about the life cycles of plants and insects and identifying the butterflies and birds attracted by the wild space, to hands-on experience of seed sowing and looking at the role pollinators play in worldwide food production.
What ecological benefits will the wild areas bring?
We have lost 75% of all insects in the last thirty years, because of pesticide use, destruction of wild areas and climate change. Insects play an essential role in the ecosystem and in our food production, so this is a really serious issue – if the trend continues, we won’t be able to farm enough food. Wild areas like the one at Benhall create oases of biodiversity (variety of life) where insects can feed, breed and shelter overwinter, and where predators such as birds, hedgehogs and frogs can find food. Giving land back to nature in this way is one of the best ways we can fight back against the environmental crisis and protect the future for our children.
How long will it take to see results?
It will take several years for the wildflower areas to establish, and they will continue to develop as plants seed into the area and the soil changes. But we should see the first flowers – and the bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects they attract – this summer. Other such projects have reported seeing rare plants like orchids after two to three years. Watch this space!
What are the next steps?
The area given to the wild project is the whole square of land adjoining preschool, but we’ve only seeded the area beneath the trees. This is because the grass sward bordering preschool and the football pitches is too thick and strong to sow into. The soil is likely too fertile – grass likes rich soil, wildflowers like poor soil. The best thing to do is to reduce the soil fertility over the next year, then sow Yellow Rattle across these areas next autumn. We may even be able to use our own seed from the area sown this year.
Current and future meadow
One fun way of reducing soil fertility is to grow pumpkins or courgettes. These hungry plants pull the nutrients out of the soil, and their leaves also shade the ground, helping to kill off the grass. They produce a useful crop in autumn, and can then be composted. If all the children sow seeds, we may have a very big pumpkin patch by summer . . .
Where can you find out more about improving biodiversity in your own garden?
If you’re interested in helping insects and wildlife in your own garden, you can find useful information on the RHS website: https://www.rhs.org.uk/science/conservation-biodiversity/wildlife/encourage-wildlife-to-your-garden . Or feel free to approach me, Mrs Clark, around the school, and I’ll happily talk gardening!
Wild Plant of the Week
While we’re waiting for the flowers to arrive, let’s have a look at some of the plants that are already living around us. You’ll be able to find these in your garden, in roadside verges, or at the park. This week, it’s White Deadnettle.
Deadnettle looks a lot like its relative, the stinging nettle, but it’s harmless. The ‘dead’ in its name means it doesn’t sting. You can tell white deadnettle apart from the stinging kind by its softer, more rounded leaves, and by its white flowers (stinging nettle flowers are green). White deadnettle is very common and flowers from March to November, so if you look, you may see some still.
White deadnettle – no stings!