Saturday 23 June 2018

Return to the wild

Wildflower gardens will bring back the bees and are bang on trend. Kathy Donaghy talks to gardeners who say we need wildness in our lives

Verge of Greatness: (from left) Andrea Day, Sandra Sharpe and Sarah Kilpatrick will be exhibiting a garden at Bloom 2018 that is a haven for bees
Verge of Greatness: (from left) Andrea Day, Sandra Sharpe and Sarah Kilpatrick will be exhibiting a garden at Bloom 2018 that is a haven for bees

Kathy Donaghy

Uncut grass and wild-flowers may be about to have their day in the sun, as more and more people leave wild spaces in their gardens to attract bees.

And as Bloom - the country's biggest garden extravaganza - bursts into life today, the environmental theme will play an important role at a time when pollinators are under threat.

For their wedding, Britain's Prince Harry and Meghan Markle tapped into the theme by choosing a florist who used flowers from the Crown Estates and Royal Parks chosen particularly for their pollinator-friendly properties.

Aisles, pews, tables and halls were to be lined with plants from wildflower meadows, picked to "provide a great habitat for bees and help to nurture and sustain entire ecosystems by promoting a healthy and biodiverse environment", Kensington Palace said.

With one third of our bee species facing extinction, gardeners and nature lovers are taking notice and moving to plant more wildflowers and keep some areas of their garden less manicured in a bid to bring back the bees.

The All-Ireland Pollinator Plan, published in 2015, contains 81 small actions, including mowing lawns less often and promoting more pollinator-friendly farming methods, to help the dwindling bee population.

With one third of our bee species facing extinction, gardeners and nature lovers are taking notice and moving to plant more wildflowers and keep some areas of their garden less manicured in a bid to bring back the bees
With one third of our bee species facing extinction, gardeners and nature lovers are taking notice and moving to plant more wildflowers and keep some areas of their garden less manicured in a bid to bring back the bees

Over 80 organisations are now involved to help support the plan and the TidyTowns movement has also got behind the initiative, creating the Let's Get Buzzing Pollinator Award for entrants who have made their town or village more bee-friendly.

As the rest of us were sleeping, the gardeners taking part in this year's Bloom festival were working tirelessly to get ready for the extravaganza.

And one group of gardeners feels so passionate about bringing back the bees that they have designed a garden which is a haven for pollinators.

Sandra Sharpe, who lives in Dublin's Blackrock, spent her childhood roaming the family garden, where her father Tom O'Brien kept bees and her mother Mary was an active gardener. She was dismayed to learn from her father that the bees in his hive were dwindling, so when she began creating a garden where her own children - Evie (6), Alex (4) and Zoe (2) - could play, she was determined to plant seeds that would become bee-friendly flowers.

Garden party: Sandra and Sarah
Garden party: Sandra and Sarah

Sandra says she did a lot of reading about what to plant and with an eye to the Pollinator Action Plan she chose native wildflowers, including borage and valerian.

At the local primary school, Sandra met like-minded green-fingered mums Andrea Day, Sarah Kilpatrick and Debbie McHugh and they formed part of the Kill of the Grange garden group in south Dublin.

When Sandra put in an entry for Bloom to design a garden with the theme 'On the Verge of Greatness' the four became a team working tirelessly to bring the creation from the page to fruition.

When it came to creating their garden they chose simple flowers, because bees don't like complicated affairs - they like to be able to get in and get the pollen.

With the backing of sponsors Summerhill Lawns, who provide rollout wildflower turf, and Windyridge Nurseries in Dun Laoghaire, where they got beautiful annuals and pollinator-friendly plants, the garden began to take shape.

The team is also passionate about leaving public spaces a bit wild instead of pruning and manicuring everything.

Sandra believes that if local authorities stopped spraying and trimming everything back, patches of green space in towns and cities would have the chance to become havens for pollinators.

The garden they have created for Bloom is a mock-up of a typical roadside verge with a tree and a brick wall and kerb stones.

One third of the verge is planted with grass, but the remaining stretch is planted with wildflowers, providing an immediate visual contrast.

While the Bloom project is a big one, Sandra says anyone with a bit of space can create a garden with an eye to the bees by choosing to plant wildflowers and leaving things more natural.

She says more gardeners have stopped spraying with insecticides and this is also helpful for the bees. When she planted beautiful Lupins in her garden, they attracted Lupin aphids. Rather than spray the flowers, Sandra says she ripped them up and got rid of them and decided not to grow Lupins again.

According to Sandra, we all need a bit of wildness in our lives and while there's a lot of work to do to change people's minds, more people are realising how important it is to leave grassy verges in public spaces rather than having grass neatly cut.

Her own garden not only brings her happiness, but it also encourages the children to get out there to see what's going on.

"They come in and tell me the names of flowers and they get excited about it. If you have a garden with some interesting plants, it will be an interesting place," she says.

"With a garden the seasons mean something. The weather means something to you and you feel much more in touch with the seasons."

Mum of two Andrea Day, who is part of the team with Sandra, is also a passionate advocate for bringing back spaces where bees can thrive.

An avid gardener at home, she's also done gardening courses. One of those was focused on biodiversity and sustainable gardening, with an emphasis on what plants attracted the bees.

While many people see dandelions as a weed, Andrea, who lives in Deansgrange, learned that these are one of the first flowers that the bees go to when they come out of hibernation.

"I love bees and I've grown to appreciate them so much. I sit and watch the bees going from one plant to another and I've got to appreciate how hard they work," says Andrea.

She's planted clover - which naturally grows wild - in her own garden and says her own children, Lydia (11) and Louie (7), love to see the bees.

"We can see them go from flower to flower. The pollen attaches itself to the bees and if you look closely you will see the yellow sacs on their legs," she says.

"I try to use as few chemicals as possible. I have a section at the back of my garden where I have evergreens.

"I leave it unmown as long as possible because the bees love the long grass. When you cut the grass you don't have that protection.

"The best treatment for weeds is your hands and just getting down and pulling them out. That's the best way - that and filling your garden with flowers.

"The idea that bees are declining has an effect and people are getting more relaxed about gardening.

"Maybe it's because it suits them as they're working, but it is alright to leave it."

See www.pollinators.ie for more information.

For festival details see www.bloominthepark.com

Irish Independent

Life Newsletter

Our digest of the week's juiciest lifestyle titbits.

Editors Choice

Also in Life