Don’t make the mistake of thinking you’re saving the world by growing wild flowers

A wild flower area will provide food, plants and shelter for numerous insects and other small creatures, but not much more.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

It was around 30 years ago this week that a national newspaper ran a striking headline on its gardening page: “Weeds for Sale!” The stimulus for the indignation lay with that year’s Chelsea Flower Show, where for the first time an award-winning garden relied heavily on wild flowers for its effect; and a seed firm at the show was promoting packets of native plant seeds.

Since then, the presence of native flowers at Chelsea has come to be expected – there are plenty at this year’s show – and the buying and growing of native plants and seeds is almost de rigueur for any thinking gardener. I am among them, and a tenth of my own half-acre garden is devoted to native species, the size chosen because I have found a committed wild flower area much smaller than this cannot accommodate sufficient variety to provide year-round interest.

Yet if you find wild flower gardening appealing but are unable to spare even this amount of space, why not include small groups of carefully chosen species – some of our glorious native geraniums and spurges perhaps – in your borders? Grow them for their simple natural beauty, untainted by the efforts of plant breeders to create the biggest and boldest.

Much nonsense has been written and said, however, about wildlife gardening’s contribution to preserving our natural biodiversity. Do not imagine that by growing native species in your garden you will help to save the planet. A wild flower area will provide food, plants and shelter for numerous insects and other small creatures – not necessarily all desirable! – but not much more.

Beautiful native flowers such as meadow buttercup and field poppy may be less numerous than once they were in the wild, but growing them in your garden will sadly make no difference to their overall status among the British flora. And rare species such as corncockle or autumn gentian will still be rare regardless of our gardening efforts. Some 345 native British plants are considered to be in danger of extinction. This seems shocking but should be put into proper context: it does not mean total extinction from the world, as there are few true species native to this country that are not also native to somewhere else.

There is another factor to consider when growing native plants because although our British wild flowers may all occur in other places, their genetic make-up is generally peculiar to each region and it is vital to maintain this diversity. If you grow native plants, therefore, grow only those guaranteed by the nursery to have been raised from genuinely British stock; otherwise they may introduce alien genes to the native population. Do buy your plants – never uproot from the wild.

And always remember the limitations of the exercise. A garden is entirely artificial. It is something you have created, principally to cater for your needs. It contains plants that never grow together naturally, and it is affected by what you do to it season by season – you pick fruit, dig up vegetables, plant bulbs and so on. Even if you have a significant area like mine devoted to native plants, while it may look a bit like a meadow or a wood, it will not really be one or most importantly behave like one; it is a replica, and it needs constant managing. You will certainly achieve enormous pleasure by including some native species in your garden, but do not imagine you will thereby be saving anything from extinction or recreating a piece of lost countryside. 

This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman