Flushed with full colour
it is almost two months since we sowed the ground layer that will be a vital component in our vision of Three Hagges Jubilee Wood, and it’s a month since the appearance of the green haze that declared germination was underway. We reckoned on a twelve week interval between sowing and flowering: sowing during the third week in May 2013 should produce a dazzling panoply by the beginning of August, although flowers are budding up even as a I write. The now obvious differentiation between all the seedlings caused heart-fluttering excitement – probably just as much as will the eventual blooming. Whilst I feel slightly geeky about this, I was thrilled to identify individual species, and all of the cornfield annuals that we are using as a nurse crop seem to be present. So, indeed, are a number of the perennials that will form permanent part of our grassland rides. Several of these make for fruitful foraging (about which more later).
Some people call them arable weeds, but that is such a pejorative term for a group of plants that have been companions to humankind since agriculture was invented. The five most colourful to be seen in our mix have been with us since the Iron Age (800 BCE), and probably much longer: it’s likely that they were known on these islands during the Bronze Age (2,500 ‑800 BCE). Although in older Floras or flower books, they are described as common, during the past 60 years all but the common poppy, Papaver rhoeas, have become scarce, and the corn cockle, Agrostemma githago, is virtually extinct, their demise largely due to improved seed-cleaning techniques and herbicides. Here in North Yorkshire the Cornfield Flower Project has led the way in their restitution, spearheaded by the Carstairs Countryside Trust, Ryedale Folk Museum, North Yorkshire Moors Association and North York Moors National Park Authority. http://www.north-yorkshire-moors.org.uk/cornfield.pdf.
So much has been seen and written about purely ornamental meadows in the past decade, and it is true that our sowings will create a glorious spectacle by August. We will certainly appreciate the beauty – a just reward for all efforts. Our intentions, however, are rather more serious.
The practice of sowing a nurse crop is borrowed from agriculture, and in large-scale landscaping it is often used to create rapid cover for purely aesthetic reasons, on land reclamation sites for example. In our case, we are stabilizing the soil against wind blow, and providing ground cover to reduce the germination of any inblown weed seedlings. The annual seedlings shelter the grasses and perennials, which take several months to achieve good cover, and allow us to sow permanent species at the lower rate that is advisable on fertile soils thus avoiding overcrowding. The annuals include Agrostemma githago, Corn Cockle, Anthemis arvensis, Corn Chamomile, Centaurea cyanus, Cornflower, Chrysanthemum segetum, Corn Marigold, and Papaver rhoeas, Common Poppy. Despite their scarce status, these are robust but not aggressive species, unfussy as to soil type, which germinate and bloom rapidly. Since they are annuals, they will not persist in the permanent sward. They will be cut soon after flowering and the aftermowth (aftermath) removed, which will also do much to help reduce soil fertility.
Cornfield flowers, we have found, have advantages to creatures other than ourselves. As we scanned the field to discover exactly what else had germinated since the initial flush, we found our legs absolutely covered in pollen. Even at this early stage it was being taken advantage of by bees, moths and butterflies. This is so exciting that we have been ruminating on how we might continue to include cornfield annuals in the general scheme of things. At the end of this season, we will be spreading the arisings as green hay on the margins of the site, in areas that still remain to be levelled and cleaned of less desirable weeds. Expect a repeat performance next year!