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Cornucopia - Roadside gardens

Roadside gardens
Margaret Doble

Some years ago roadside verges were sprayed with herbicide to keep them neatly uncluttered. Only the toughest, rankest plants survived that treatment and a very dull picture was created for the interested observer.

Thank goodness this policy has mostly ceased, at least in the parts of Britain I travel. The few feet of land close to the road are mown to give drivers a clearer view but soon shorter plants appear again and buttercups and daisies, bird’s foot trefoil and the like brighten even these areas. As the year goes on, one of my favourite wild flowers, the wild carrot, Daucus carota, demonstrates just how beautiful umbellifers are when given star billing like this.

In Buckinghamshire many more roadsides are rendered more delightful each year as increasing numbers of cowslips are appearing in late spring and occasionally one sees little groups of orchids, probably early purple orchids, Orchis mascula. As each year passes more varieties of wild flowers find a home on the verges to please the eye of the passer by. This year, 2011, I have noted how splendid all the umbellifers have been; firstly the cow parsley, Anthriscus sylvestris, followed by the sturdy stately hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, and the very tall elegant hemlock, Conium maculatum. With its feathery leaves sometimes well over a metre in height it makes me wonder if I could find a place for it in my garden. Would my husband think that I have been watching too many Midsomer Murders if he spotted this interesting beauty in the garden? Occasionally I see the lovely yellow umbels of the wild parsnip. This is another plant I am thinking of introducing into my plot, especially after seeing the flowering parsnips in one of the Chelsea gardens. On a recent trip to Wiltshire and Hampshire we saw swathes of really splendid wild parsnips along very many roadsides and the owner of a local nursery told me that this year has been one of the best she has seen.

Yellow and white wild flowers abound on the roadsides and one of the most striking displays I saw this year was a very wide stretch of land covered in shining white ox-eye daisies, Chrysanthemum leucanthemum, with the black skeletons of last year’s teasels beautifully placed here and there as if by a winning Chelsea garden designer; absolutely unforgettable! Sadly we had no camera with us. Another very pretty flower to look out for is Common Toadflax, Linaria vulgaris, with its pale yellow and chrome bunny-rabbit flowers.

There are plenty of other coloured flowers on display of course, Meadow Cranesbill, Geranium pratense, with its lovely blue petals as good as any garden plant, and also another blue plant that can be spectacular when growing in a mass scrambling over other plants is the Bush Vetch, Vicia sepium. Mallows have been really good this year, both Malva sylvestris with its deep pink flowers and Malva moschata, both the pink and white versions. I have grown Malva moschata as a garden plant and provided the soil is not too rich it does very well. In general I find that when wild plants are too well fed they grow tall, floppy and don’t flower so well. At present I am encouraging wild carrot to seed itself around in my dry garden; it did quite well last year and some carroty seedlings are squeezing themselves in. A member of the Dianthus family often seen on roadsides is Soapwort, Saponaria officinalis, sometimes called ‘Bouncing Bet’. It is usually very pale pink but occasionally it can be white.

If you have been interested to read thus far I am sure you have many more candidates for the roadside garden, in fact I can add lot more myself but enough is enough!

Late summer flowers are always a pleasure to the wild flower enthusiast. Knapweeds of many varieties as well are brightening the roadside. Field Scabious, Knautia arvensis, and rosebay willow herb don’t seem to mind what the weather does and in several places there are still red and white campions.

We must not forget the trees and shrubs that add considerable impact to the roadside garden. Dogwood, roses, gorse and elderflowers all contribute to the display and old-man’s beard, Clematis vitalba, sometimes seems as if it will take over the world!

Driving around England these last few years has given me so much pleasure that it consoles when there are hold-ups – as long as the delay happens near a ‘good bit’. When I say ‘driving’ of course I really mean ‘being driven’. As my husband says when I exclaim over some special group of plants “I can’t look, I have to concentrate on the road”. All this glory is maintained without anxious gardeners hovering over the plants with watering cans or insecticide, which once again demonstrates ‘The right plant in the right place principle’ and I am trying to garden with that in mind.

A very difficult a year as this has been in the South East with hardly any useful rain falling after a particularly harsh winter gives one pause for thought. I have been walking round my small but crowded plot taking note of which plants have thrived and which have needed cosseting to make any sort of display. When I consider the wild gardens’ triumphant growth I can see that unless I am prepared to spend a lot of time and energy on unsuitable plants, I had better learn from nature and concentrate on the many lovely flowers that I can grow that will enjoy this well drained soil.

First published in the Bucks & Oxon Group Newsletter, Autumn 2011
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 30.
© Copyright for this article: Margaret Doble

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2012. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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