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On a Chalk Hillside May 2020

Letting the grass grow 1:- April
If you are working from home, homeschooling children, or having to take care of all aspects of your own life without your usual support network, you might not have even more time to mow your lawns (or if you are like our elderly neighbour you might run out of petrol for your mower and be reliant on others to get you more). Why not let the grass grow?  As I suggested last month you could treat this as an opportunity to do some citizen science, which will entertain and occupy our days, and give you some beautiful flowers to look at even if we can’t get to the garden centre to buy garden supplies.  As I said last time you could either leave your lawn to grow longer in its entirety, or some part of it.  May be cut a path through it so you can get to the washing line still such as here in our garden in late June two years ago:-

Obviously you don’t have to let your lawn run wild all summer like that, but maybe cut it every three weeks, or every month, and on a higher setting of your mower.  Why?  To see what grows in it.  I expect you are aware of the benefits to wildlife of patches of long grass habitat – but even a few inches of grass on your lawn will provide habitat and shelter for many insects – earwigs, millipedes, spiders, ladybirds and bees.  If your grass is slightly longer you are even providing shelter from the sun for frogs and toads – the tadpoles that hatch out each year turn into tiny frogs and like to shelter in the shade of longer grass.  On our chalk hillside we also have a big colony of mining bees who overwinter in burrows in the ground and come out in the spring:-

Perhaps you can see her about to go back into her burrow with pollen sac on her legs full? She is an Ashy mining bee – Andrena cineraria – notice she has two broad paler stripes on her back.
As this is a blog on the Hardy Plant Society web page I am going to major on the plants and flowers you might find growing in your grass, rather than the wildlife, but one of the easiest things to look for and record is the different flying insects that visit your wildflower lawn – there are great websites with pictures to help you identify different bees/hoverflies/butterflies/beetles and ladybirds.  How I identify new plants or animal species, is rather than try and remember what something looked like (which I always forget the detail of, or get muddled about its size or exact colour), I try and take a photo of new-to-me wildlife so that I can look it up later – and then you could keep a journal to note what species you saw and when you saw them.  You might also be able to identify which plants or flowers they seem to be visiting in your garden.  
In terms of citizen science for the plants, you could have an area of your uncut lawn (eg a square meter) per person taking part in your household and each record what plants and flowers appear in what number and when in your own patch.  Or you could monitor the whole lawn and see if there is a difference if you have a shadier patch or a sunnier patch.   I expect, unlike me, you may have a iphone that links you to your social media, so you could report on your findings, or share your photos with your friends and family and if they are doing something similar you could see what variations in plants/wildlife/timings of appearances of things there are in different parts of the country.  You would be surprised how much variation there is even within one city of when a plant appears.
Some of my photos will be from last year, when for completely different reasons to this year we were unable to cut the grass, and I was able to record some of the wild flowers that appeared in my grass.  I am not going to talk about plants that have escaped from my border into the grass, but ones that I know of living in my grass.  To start with I should say that we will need to reconsider what is a “weed” and what is a “wildflower”.  If you are letting your lawn grow longer you will notice it gets covered in daisys and dandelions.  For the purposes of this exercise these, and all the other wildflowers that come up will need to be viewed without the pejorative term “weed” in your mind.  
Let me show you a couple of shots of Bellis perennis from early April from my garden:-

As we all know, because the daisy has a short rosette of leaves and a short flower stem it is one of the first wildflowers to appear on our lawns.  Do you notice that some daisies have a pink tip to their underpetal when the flower is closed, but as they open/age they turn pure white?  You may notice the pink more first thing in the morning as the daisy closes its petals overnight and reopens them in the morning.  Have you taken the time to lie in your grass and really observe the beauty of a daisy flower at ground level?  Give it a try.  It’s a form of mindfulness or meditation or relaxation – whichever term you are comfortable with.  Take 5 minutes.  I give you permission to “waste” five of your precious minutes emptying your mind, breathing calmly, and just studying the daisy flower.  Notice its fringe of white petals.  Are any pink on the underside?  How yellow the centre is.  How rounded and different in texture to the white petals.  The stalk is slightly hairy.   Does it remind you of making daisy chains as a child?   Look how the white and yellow contrast with each other and the green of the leaves and grass.
Another perennial that comes up in April and is beloved of bees, hoverflies (and wine makers….) is Taraxacum officinale - the dandelion.  Here is a typical shot of a dandelion from my garden:-

This is a red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidaries) doing what all the large early flying bumblebees love to do – using the big flat flower of the dandelion as a platform to systematically work their way round every tiny nectary on this composite flower head, taking a sip each time.  You may wonder why you see more bees on dandelions or chive flowers than, some other plants?  It is because they have what is called composite flower heads – what you see is actually made up of lots of little individual flowers and each of the flowers produces nectar and seeds – which is why dandelions make “clocks”:-

Each of the fluffy parts of the clock is a seed, and each comes from an individual flower head on the composite “flower” head you typically see.  No wonder it is such a popular flower for our bees and hoverflies.   It can also be used by humans as a crop – the leaves can be eaten in salad (quite bitter, like chicory, but you can stick an upturned flowerpot over its leaf florets to blanch them to make them sweeter), and the flowers can be harvested to make dandelion drinks including wine.  You need a great many heads to make a gallon of wine, and the traditional day for harvesting them for this purpose is St Georges Day (23rd April).   Should you try and dig a dandelion out you will discover just how big and deep the taproot goes – but even this is edible – it used to be dried out in the sun and then baked in the oven and ground up to make “coffee”.
Another plant that quickly appears in shortish grass in this garden is Veronica chamaedrys -  Germander Speedwell – a lovely blue flower with a white eye that has been flowering here in April, and will carry on, its flower stalks getting longer and longer as the grass grows throughout the summer.

Another intensely blue flowering wildflower that appears in the grass here in early April but can carry on flowering all summer is Self Heal – Prunella vulgaris:-

Not to be confused with the much chunkier Red Dead Nettle – Lamium purpureum - that here can be in flower from March, preferring more shady grass areas – here on 30 March 2020:-

Its cousin the White Dead Nettle (Lamium Album) grows right on the edge of the grass in a shady spot here in large colonies under the native hedge – (naturally, this picture from 21 April shows it in full sun! but MOST of the day it is a shady spot!):-

Two other wild flowers that flower in early April here are chalk lovers, so you may not get them in your lawn – Lords and Ladies, and Cowslips. 
Lords and Ladies (Arum maculatum) put up broad leaves in late March/beginning of April here – some spotted, and some not:-

Do you notice that spike in the middle?  It is not a furled leaf, it’s called a spathe, and when it unfurls it looks like this:-

That brownish looking spike in the middle is the spadix.  It smells enticing to small flies and midges as it smells of rotting meat!!  They slide down the shiny inside of the spathe and get trapped in a flask-like chamber at the bottom of the brown spadix.  As they struggle about trying to get out they encounter both the male and female parts of the flowers and unwittingly pollinate the female stigmas.  Once that happens the spathe gets less slippy, and the insects eventually escape.   As time passes the fertilized stigma turn into a cluster of berries that become bright red and last on their stout stalks a long time.    Here are a cluster in our veg beds in mid-June, both green ones, and red:-

A much more quintessentially pretty looking wild flower of chalk grassland is the cowslip – Primula veris.  Whilst I have introduced native primroses to my cowslip meadow – the piece of grass underneath the pear trees – the cowslips were there already.  In fact if you leave them to go to seed and don’t mow the grass until the seed is ripe in high summer they will spread all over the garden – here they are near the bottom of the garden in full flower on 14 April:-

And here’s a close up of the cowslip with some Lords and Ladies leaves around it:-

As this post is getting long already, and we are only part way through April with our wild flowers, I shall leave you with a shot of a dandelion and daisy “wildflower meadow” taken on 20th April on what should be a path to the compost bins here, and next month carry on with what other wildflowers appear in my grass here as April progressed and turns into May:-


 I hope you join in, and have fun finding out what grows in your grass – leave me a comment below and let me know if you have all these in your grass, and what else you find.
Sheila May

Posted by Sheila May

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