Saving England's most threatened species from extinction

The Arable Garden

Alongside cooking, crafts and creativity, one of the emerging themes of the coronavirus lockdown has been gardening and growing – at least for those lucky enough to have a garden or an allotment. It is also one of the themes of the Colour in the Margins project, because we want gardeners and allotment-holders to be thinking about the annual plants – the weeds, for want of a better word – that pop up when the soil is turned over.

Take the allotment managed by my partner and I, on the North Downs in Kent. It’s on what was originally an arable field, and, if dug over and left to its own devices, will sprout a fine crop of weeds. Some of these, we don’t want: Perennial Sowthistle is beautiful, but runs rapidly through the soil, forming dense patches; and Field Bindweed – well, just ‘no’.


Common Fumitory

Yet many others are a lot less troublesome. Field Pansies are delicate and lovely, and I’m very fond of the diminutive snap-dragon that is Small Toadflax. Red Dead-nettle is loved by bees. Fumitories I like too – they seem to be especially keen on popping up amongst the recently-planted onion sets, but are easy enough to pull up or reduce in size if they get too overwhelming. Even Common Poppies are allowed some space, as, just like the Fumitories, some can easily be pulled out if they are staring to take up too much room.


Small Toadflax

Allowing space for annual wild flowers amongst the growing crops and flowers is just the same principle on which Colour in the Margins is founded: we need a greater number and variety of flowers to make the countryside – and town – a richer and more vibrant place. More flowers mean more insects, more birds, more everything.

Arable wild flowers are important in their own right, too. You might not think an allotment is a place for the conservation of rare wild plants, but it can be. I was amazed, a few years back, when Weasel’s-snout – another snap-dragon type of plant, and designated as Vulnerable on the UK Red List – appeared on the allotment plot next to mine. How it got there, I’ve no idea, but it certainly wasn’t deliberately planted, and I quickly made sure some plants found their way onto my plot, where it has appeared every year since.


Wild Pansy on the author's allotment

As a result, Weasel’s-snout is now one of the rare wild plants which are part of the Arable Seed Swap project being run as part of Colour in the Margins. Through this, we are building a group of allotment-holders and gardeners who are growing and sharing seed from a number of rare (and less rare) arable wild flowers, all originally from wild populations. Between us, we are growing plants like Corncockle, Corn Buttercup, Wild Pansy, Night-flowering Catchfly and Red Hemp-nettle, collecting the seed and sharing it around other growers. It is a way to see plants you might never otherwise come across, learn how they grow, and bring them to the attention of others: one of the advantages of an allotment site is that it is shared (and we all like a nose at our neighbours’ plots) and often has an open day, giving others an opportunity to come in and learn about rare wild plants as well as about the joys of growing your own veg.


Weasel’s-snout growing on an allotment

Growing these plants, ‘in captivity’ as it were, is also a potential safeguard against extinction, keeping plants going and producing more seed for potential future restoration of wild populations. And even if the seeds from allotment-grown plants never make it back to the wild, the knowledge we gain by sowing the seed, seeing how and when it germinates, watching it flower – even watching it get eaten by pests – will provide a reservoir of knowledge essential to the future conservation of these fascinating and threatened flowers.

Interested in become one of our network of growers? Go to Facebook and search for ‘Arable Seed Swap’.

Richard Moyse

Ranscombe Project Manager

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