Living on the Verge

Thu, 08/11/2012 - 12:21
Wild Verge by Sophie Housley
Wild Verge by Sophie Housley

Is there a verge near you that is mowed constantly? If verges are left long they can be a wonderfully diverse habitat for wildflowers, their pollinators and other wildlife. Wild verges are more interesting to look at than grass and there’s no need to mow! However in cities, roadside verges are often manicured to within an inch of their lives. River of Flowers has teamed up with Project Maya on its #nomow campaign to promote wildflowers on verges and to reduce mowing. At the RSPB Meadows in the City conference this week, there were many speakers talking about different aspects of wildflower meadows but one point was made several times - we mow too much! And this has a negative impact on the wildflowers, and the pollinators and other wildlife that depend on wildflowers.

House Sparrow © David Bradnum

Over the past three years, the RSPB has carried out an elegant experiment in London parks on creating meadows for house sparrows which have greatly declined in recent years. In some parts of London sparrows are absent entirely. Sparrows rely on a good supply of insects in the spring to feed their fledglings with and on seeds during the autumn to help them get through the winter.

Grasses © Anna Carter Van Roy

Grass was allowed to grow long in one type of plot and the other two were planted with either a native flower-rich grassland mix or a special seed rich mix of native and non-native plants including sunflowers.

Seeds © Anne Carter Van Roy

The numbers of insects rose dramatically in the experimental plots in comparison with similarly sized and located plots of closely mown grass, especially in those that contained native wildflowers, and the numbers of house sparrows also rose, mainly in the seed plots. The experiment also showed that biodiversity was improved not only by planting wildflowers but also by NOT MOWING the grass.

House Sparrow © Andy Hay

The RSPB experiment also took account of people’s perceptions about long grass and wildflower meadows. The seed plots had the greatest impact and inspired a 100% positive response but the native wildflower and long grass plots also met with public approval.

Growing meadows in city parks and not mowing so manically reduces council maintenance costs significantly. There might be an initial outlay to prepare the ground properly - the RSPB study recommended stripping the turf, harrowing and rolling to ensure the best meadow - but after that, less maintenance is required. More costs are saved through the fact that wildflowers do not require fertilisers or pesticides giving a chance to make a city pesticide-free. Planting perennial wildflowers that will flower year after year rather than using expensive bedding plants that need replacing annually would reduce costs still further. And people like it!

Cornfield Annuals © Anne Carter Van Roy

So the sensible and cost-effective option would be to bring nature to our cities. Nature enhances the urban environment and challenges negative views towards growing wild in cities. The benefits of such wild spaces are great. Perennial wild flowers and trees act as reserves for our bees and other pollinating insects so important for food production. They absorb greenhouse gases and pollutants from the air. Wild spaces strengthen resistance to floods and droughts by improving soil health and its capacity to absorb and filter floodwater. Wilderness in a city creates a conversation with nature, raises health and emotional well being especially in children, reduces stress and enhances social connections.

Waterlow Park © Anne Carter Van Roy

All good for the stressed-out and over-populated city!

Canal Towpath © Camden Friends of the Earth

Planting wildflowers on railway edges, roundabouts, towpaths and verges is a great way of extending the River of Flowers urban meadows into the countryside and to nature reserves by converting them into linear meadows to connect with any green spaces. Countryside verges need protection too. How does this beautiful canal towpath.........?

Canal Towpath © Starman

........become like this?

Canal Towpath © Starman

Our road verges represent an important remnant of our native grassland and wildflower habitats which have suffered catastrophic losses over the last century. Where these are pristine habitats, they should be left alone to allow the native plants to grow unhindered apart from minimal management.

Wild Verge © Dancing Beastie

Where these habitats have been lost, they can be planted up with native perennial wildflowers to provide important buffers to some of the most impoverished areas whether they are six lane motorways or intensively farmed fields.

Wild Verge © Pauline Eccles

Road verges are the single most viewed habitat in the country, giving millions of people daily contact with nature and the changing of the seasons, and relieving the relentless monotony of the grey built environment.

Gloucester Wild Verge

#nomow is growing! Many councils have decided to put wildflowers on their verges, to mow less or to do both. We have heard good news about Brighton & Hove, Gloucester and Newport. Let us know if your council is growing wild! Send pictures of your wild verges to the River of Flowers web page  here.  If your council is not growing wild perhaps you could write in to the councillors to encourage them to visit the #nomow web page at Project Maya or email Plantlife is also promoting wild verges, visit their website here.

Newport Wild Verge

Written by Anna Evely of SEED BALL & Maya Project and Kathryn Lwin of River of Flowers

RSPB House Sparrow Project headed by Jacqueline Weir


Wild Verge © Sophie Housley