5 Environmentally-Friendly Ideas to Take Home from the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

1. Wildflower Power

Everywhere you turn at this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, indigenous trees, shrubs and perennials are interpersed with native biennial and annual wildflowers. The gardens are awash with hornbeam, birch, willow, yew, guelder rose, cow parsley, foxglove, ragged robin and sedum. The pinks of red campion and ragged robin are particularly conspicuous across the showground, creating a frothy haze around the garden borders.

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‘R’ is for RHS, Red Campion and Ragged Robin

We’re all aware of the importance of growing flowers for pollinators and there are many different ways to create a mini-meadow even in the smallest garden. While pollinator mixes and seed mixes for pictorial meadows do provide pollen and nectar for pollinating insects, unfortunately they do little to support the huge numbers of other invertebrates that feed on indigenous flora. So if you can keep even a small area of the garden for native meadow flowers, you will be creating the best garden habitat for all manner of invertebrates that, in turn, support healthy local ecosystems.

One way to create a mini-meadow is to add wild flower plants as we are doing in our garden this year. I bought 140 plug plants from Naturescape a month ago – some have been planted in bare areas and some I’m growing on to add to wild patches at the edge of the lawn. Plants include a range of shade and sun lovers – ox-eye daisies, red and white campion, garlic mustard, mallow, yarrow, field scabious, knapweed and selfheal. I can’t wait to see the flowers develop later in the summer and to investigate what invertebrates these native plants attract to my garden.

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Wildflower turf contains a mix of many native annuals and perennials

Another way to create an area of meadow is to use wildflower turf. When I talked to Lindum, who are showcasing their turf at Chelsea this week, they explained that wildflower turf is now a hugely popular product – demonstrating the growing desire of UK gardeners to support biodiversity in their own backyard. The wildflower turf is grown on a biodegradable backing that breaks down completely as the plants establish, and it includes a wide range of plants – 27 native wildflower species in total. 

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Lindum also sell sedum matting

2. Peat-Free Potential

As always, I made a bee-line for Dalefoot Composts, who are launching their new peat-free tomato compost at Chelsea this year. I’m looking forward to trying it when I pot on my tomatoes next week. The wool-based compost is designed specifically for tomatoes, reducing your workload and environmental impact as plants do not need additional feed during the growing season (the compost has all the nutrients the developing flowers and fruit need) and watering requirements are reduced by 50%.

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Dalefoot Composts have a wide range including the new tomato compost. Image Credit: Dalefoot Composts

3. Circular Design

The Morgan Stanley Garden, designed by Chris Beardshaw, considers ways to manage resources in more sustainable ways, beginning with the creation of the show garden itself. From the domed yew balls to the spherical sculptures, the shapes in the garden depict the cyclical pathway of recycled products that keep materials in circulation for as long as possible. The Hi-Vis jackets and plant pots are made from recycled materials, the flooring is constructed out of bamboo, a rapidly renewable resource, and the rear relaxation pod is clad in an ultra-thin layer of stone that reduces demands on natural resources. These lightweight materials also lower the transportation carbon footprint and reduce the structural demands on the building.  

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In the past few years, the RHS has made huge steps in ensuring that gardens and their products and plants are reused across London and the UK. This year’s Morgan Stanley Garden is destined to be repurposed within the local community by Groundwork London. It would be great to see the commitment to reuse, recycling and minimising energy use embodied in the Morgan Stanley Garden rolled out across all Chelsea show gardens in future years.

4. Growing Heritage and Heirloom

Pennard Plants always creates a fabulous garden in the Great Pavilion and this year is no exception. Next month they have the honour of being RHS Master Growers at Chatsworth Flower Show – demonstrating the RHS commitment to growing your own fruit, vegetables and herbs. 95% Pennard Plants’ seeds are heritage or heirloom varieties and they offer 500 plant cultivars in their nursery and online. Providing such a wide range of different cultivars helps to conserve genetic variation for the future.

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Pennard Plants’ 2019 Chelsea Dig for Victory Garden complete with Anderson Shelter

At this year’s show Pennard Plants are launching the blight-resistant tomato ‘Cocktail Crush’ which produces sweet, small fruits with an acid tang. Blight has become more prevalent in the past 30 years and there are no chemical controls available. 

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‘Oh Happy Day’ – another blight-resistant cultivar available from Pennard Plants

The best option to avoid blight on outdoor tomatoes is to maintain good plant hygiene, maximise airflow around plants by trimming foliage and sideshoots, and growing blight-resistant cultivars like ‘Cocktail Crush’, ‘Oh Happy Day’, ‘Crimson Crush’ and ‘Nagina’ (another new introduction from the nursery).Pennard Plants is also one of the best UK nurseries for unusual edibles – this year I picked a new plant to try – Epazote or Wormseed (Chenopodium ambrosides). A native of Central and South America, this leafy herb was used by the Aztecs in tea, as a leafy vegetable (used sparingly) and to favour bean and rice dishes. Believed to be an aid to prevent flatulence, this would also seem to be the perfect companion plant for anyone growing Jerusalem artichokes this year.

5. Forest Carbon

Forest Carbon finance projects across the UK, planting woodland and restoring peatland with support from both companies and individuals who want to mitigate their carbon footprint. They are certified under the Woodland Carbon CO2de, meaning their carbon capture statistics are based on sound science, the woodland has the right species in the right place and sites are sustainably managed after planting. They also explained to me that they undertake survey work after planting to check that the woodland is having a beneficial effect on biodiversity.

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Riparian woodland creation in the Cheviots. Image Credit: Forest Carbon

Carbon offsetting is a complex issue. If companies and individuals use it as a smokescreen or a way of assuaging their guilt whilst continuing to live and work in an unsustainable manner, then offsetting may well have negative net effects. If, however, offsetting is practised as part of a broader sustainable lifestyle, then it could be argued that it has a place in an environmentally responsible lifestyle. I might, for example, choose to offset the carbon produced by our small amount of driving, whilst saving for an electric car – we’re hoping it won’t be long now! And there’s no doubt that the seven million trees planted by Forest Carbon since 2006 and projects like the peatland restoration at Dryhope in the Scottish Borders and Doddington North Forest – a new 350 hectare forest in Northumberland – are beneficial to people and wildlife. 

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Native woodland creation near Dunbar. Image Credit: Forest Carbon

Forest Carbon are running a new scheme called the Carbon Club for individuals and families to offset their carbon footprint with a monthly payment which helps fund afforestation and peatland restoration. Alongside undertaking other steps to minimise carbon footprints, this might be a suitable option for some.

 

What are your opinions on wildflower planting, peat-free compost, sustainable design at RHS flower shows and carbon offsetting? Please leave me a comment about what you believe to be the most sustainable and environmentally-friendly options for gardeners. Thank you.

As always, my observations and suggestions come from my own opinions on which companies and gardens are offering environmentally-friendly choices for the consumer. I have no connection to Lindum or Forest Carbon except through the discussions I’ve had with them; I’ve bought from Naturescape and was pleased with the quality of the plug plants.

I have, on several occasions, been given a few of packets of seed by Pennard Plants to trial, but I have spent far more buying seed and plants from them. This is also the case with Dalefoot Composts who have sent me bags in the past (including the tomato compost) to trial. However, I also purchase the majority of my peat-free compost supply from them and have done for several years now. I support these companies because they offer fabulous products and really care about the environment.

Related Articles:

Peat Bog Restoration: Protecting Ecosystems and Limiting Climate Change

Oh Happy Day! New Tomatoes, Pepper and Watermelon Launched at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show

7 Green Gift Ideas for Gardeners

Family Fun: The Great British Wildflower Hunt

Why Nature Matters: In Our Gardens and Our Countryside

Exploring wild flowers: 5 coastal plants with interesting edible histories

These days I spend much of my time in private and community gardens (and sometimes even my own) working with plants and I’ve learnt a great deal over the past few years about where garden plants will thrive, how they will combine with their fellows and when they will steal the limelight. But my knowledge of our native flora is still at the seedling stage, with only a few stalwarts remembered from walks in the Welsh country lanes with my grandparents (Herb Robert, Red Campion, Lords and Ladies…). I’ve not yet developed the ability to connect with a landscape through observing its plants the way I have with birds, through years of watching, listening and learning.

So this year I’ve started developing my knowledge of our wild flora. I’ve attended several excellent courses at the Cambridge Botanic Gardens – on Trees in Winter (sticks), Trees in summer (sticks with leaves) and Tricky Taxonomy (focusing on Docks, Sedges, Umbellifers, Crucifers and Willows). These courses have been interesting and useful – not because I can identify a great deal more than I could before, but because they have opened up a whole new world of native plant life and a new way of looking at it – focusing on the structure of the plant and its links to native habitats, rather than considering plants in terms of their garden worthiness and aesthetic possibilities.

Thus I found myself at RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk this week, crouched in the vegetative shingle, focusing on the plant life rather than the bird life. There was a brief foray into East Hide with the rest of the family to marvel at the iconic avocets and argue over the identity of a female whinchat/stonechat, but mostly I wandered along the shore learning to connect with the landscape through its vegetation. I’ve learnt to identify new species and enjoyed researching their history and uses. I’ve been surprised at how many have edible parts, at least theoretically and historically (some are now not eaten due to their toxic effects and some are protected species in certain areas).

Here are some of my favourite new acquaintances and a little about why I’ve found their histories captivating:

1. Sea Pea (Lathyrus japonicus)

These beautiful little papilionaceous flowers (shaped like a butterfly) are tiny specks of colour in an otherwise green and tan landscape. A trailing perennial, the flowers have obvious links to sweet peas and garden peas with their 5 petals (the upstanding ‘standard’, the 2 lateral ‘wings’ and the 2 fused lower petals forming the ‘keel’.)

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The delicate sea pea flower

The seeds float and can remain viable for an impressive 5 years. It was first recorded in 1570 and used to be so abundant that it was regarded as a valuable food source in Suffolk in times of famine. However, like many other members of the genus, they contain a neurotoxin which can cause a disease called lathyrism if consumed in large quantities. Lathyrism causes paralysis and is still an problem in some areas of the world where large quantities of lathyrus seeds are consumed due to poverty and famine.

Suffolk supports a large percentage of the UK’s scarce population of sea peas, so foraging would no longer be a responsible option – even if there was a consensus on the safety of eating it in small quanitites – which there isn’t.

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Beautiful and enigmatic sea pea

 

2. Sea Radish (Raphanus maritimus)

A common sight along the coast, I love sea radish for its yellow or white flowers and its abundant profusion. The flowers aren’t conventionally beautiful, but I spent quite a lot of time studying Brassicaceae flowers through a hand lens last month, examining the four petals in a cross shape which gave the family its older name, Cruciferae. The open flower structure and generous quantities of sea radish blooms add a fresh, airy feel to the dunes. Although the Brassicaceae I’m most familiar with are grown for their edible parts, the family also includes ornamental garden favourites like wallflowers, aubretia, honesty and night-scented stock.

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Clouds of fresh sea radish flowers

The seed pods can be clearly seen at this time of year and remind me of the rat-tailed radishes which commandeered the vegetable patch last year and produced hundreds of (to my mind rather unpleasantly cabbagey tasting) seed pods. The abundance of sea radish and the fact that it can be harvested for leaves, flowers and young seed pods, especially in winter when other wild crops are scarce, makes it a valuable wild food source. Although I didn’t harvest any myself this time, it is possible that the taste will be better than the rat-tailed variety as I do generally like the radish pods of varieties which are not conventionally grown for their seed pods (not sure why they taste better – perhaps it’s just that I don’t get on with anything with ‘Rat-tailed’ in the title due to nettle compost tea trauma – see Nettle Soup blog post).

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Sea radish seed pods

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Rat-tailed radishes in the garden last year

 

3. Sea Kale (Crambe maritime)

Another member of the Brassicaceae family, sea kale was a favourite food of the Victorians and their habit of digging up plants to try and grow them in their gardens contributed to their decline in the wild. Today plants are still scarce in some areas, but they grow in abundance on stretches of the Suffolk coast. However, we can now grow sea kale from seed, thus avoiding putting pressure on local resources. Seeds are available from Suttons Seeds and The Organic Gardening Catalogue, or plants can be bought from Victoriana Nursery Gardens from 2017. (All links are based on my personal knowledge and use of these suppliers. They are not sponsored links). Sea kale is an interesting vegetable to cultivate because of its perennial nature and its many edible parts – roots, leaves, flowers and seeds. If you are interested in learning more about sea kale, Mark Williams’ fascinating blog, Galloway Wild Foods covers more foraging information and Alison Tindale offers excellent practical advice about growing and propagation in The Backyard Larder.

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Sea kale shoots emerging from the shingle

 

4. Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum)

Sea holly is another plant perfectly adapted to grow on vegetative shingle, with its long tap root growing down a metre or more and an extensive root system which helps protect the environment against erosion. It has a long history of usage as a medicinal and edible plant – the shoots can be blanched and used as an asparagus substitute whilst the root can be cooked as a vegetable or candied and used as a sweetmeat.

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Silvery sea holly on the shingle

 

Eryngium spp. have, of course, been traditionally planted in gardens for their ornamental value. The waxy, glaucous leaves and bracts which protect the plant from sun and wind damage, also create the beautiful silvery blue sheen which contrasts so well with orange and yellow flowers such as Helenium, Anthemis and Achillea, or complements blue and purple combinations with other flowers like Allium, Echinacea and Perovskia.

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Blue flowers above the glaucous bracts

 

For more information on sea holly’s history and edible properties I’d recommend Plants for a Future. I first came across this resource several years ago when I bought the book second-hand at Conwy RSPB reserve. Online, it’s an astonishing database of over 7000 edible and medicinal plants, with their historical and modern uses. I use it regularly both as a source of fascinating historical information and to help me maximise the use of the plants growing in my garden and allotment.

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Prickly sea holly on the shingle/dune margin

 

5. Marsh Mallow (Althaea officinalis)

Marsh mallow is a plant of tidal river banks, salt marshes, damp meadows and coastal margins. The flowers are smaller and paler than common mallow. Most of the mallows have been used as food for centuries in the UK and all around the world and marsh mallow was apparently a delicacy in Roman times. Like the sea pea, marsh mallow is still eaten in countries like Syria as a staple in times of famine, but without the unfortunate side effects.

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Marsh mallow flowers have a softness with their pinky-lilac hue

The mucilaginous sap of the root has been used as a sweet treat since Egyptian times, mixed with sugar and egg whites to form a meringue which hardens as it cooks. Modern marshmallows no longer use Althaea officinalis as the base of the confectionary, but the plant still has myriad uses. The root can be cooked as a vegetable, the leaves used to thicken soups and the flowers and root made into tea. Marsh mallow also has many medicinal applications listed in Plants for a Future and further interesting historical information is available in Mrs M. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal (1931), now accessible online.

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Common mallow flower (Malva sylvestris)

Marsh mallow is scarce in the UK these days and therefore not a viable option for foraging, but seeds can be bought from numerous suppliers, such as Kings Seeds and Jekka’s Herb Farm. With a damp area in the garden it should be possible to grow Althaea officinalis to make marshmallows, as a vegetable or for medicinal purposes. Alternatively it could simply be grown to attract pollinating insects and to create a link to our diverse and rich natural floral history.

If you have enjoyed this post and would like to follow more of my explorations into wild flower territory in the future, please subscribe to the blog:

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It’s always great to have comments on the posts – I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences. Do you forage, grow or cook with these or other coastal plants? Looking forward to hearing from you…

Dogwooddays does not take any responsibility for any adverse effects from the use of plants. Always seek advice from a professional before using a plant medicinally. Always ensure it is legal to forage and where identification is concerned, if in doubt, leave it out.