Country & Garden: In Flanders fields the poppies grew ...
Wild flowers may be a farmer's nightmare but they are a gardener's dream, because they'll grow almost anywhere.
Saturday 03 April 1999
Those of us who do not have to try to make a living out of farming, wring our hands at the widespread disappearance of some of the most colourful of all our native plants, such as the corn cockle, corn marigold, cornflower and field poppy.
They are victims, as we see it, of the use of selective herbicides, which leave cereals unharmed but kill broad-leaved weeds that grow in the same conditions.
In days gone by, before scientists developed such devastatingly effective means of controlling weeds, there was as much wringing of hands about the way these weeds adulterated crops and reduced yield.
John Clare, the 19th-century rural poet, referred to the yellow corn marigold and the blue cornflower as "troubling the cornfields with their destroying beauty". The truth is that these plants, having evolved in our climate and soils, are first-rate colonisers, when given a chance.
The seed of one of the prettiest, the corn cockle, will remain viable for only one season, it is true, but that of the common field poppy (a flower that thrives best in disturbed ground) can survive inert in the ground for a century or more.
The enduring memory of Flanders for the soldiers of the First World War was the blood-red field poppy, which bloomed profligately in the fields once they had been blown apart by shells.
Farmers cannot go back to 19th-century agriculture, however attractive it may seem at this distance in time, but gardeners can do their bit to promote the colourful annual wild flowers of the fields, and the bees, butterflies and other insects that feed on them.
Cornfield annuals do not need a deep, rich soil; far from it. They are best grown in a light soil in full sun.
Any odd place will do for a mixture of annual cornfield flowers: a narrow, difficult border, with rubbly soil, under a south-facing window; or a shallow container that does not suit bedding plants well; or an expanse of gravel that seems to nurture herb robert and sow thistle well enough.
It may even be fun to try tickling a few of these seeds into the earthy spaces between paving stones.
To create the greatest impact, I would choose a piece of fallow ground (perhaps an area you wish to plant up permanently in the autumn, or a sparsely planted part of an established border) which you can clear of weeds, rake over neatly and sow thickly with any or all of the following: corn cockle (red and purple); corn marigold (deep butter-yellow, long- lasting); cornflower (deep blue); chamomile (scented, white and yellow); scentless mayweed (white and yellow); scarlet pimpernel; and common fumitory (mauve). After that, simply rake over the soil lightly at right angles to the first raking.
This mini-cornfield, without the corn, will look fine the first summer (for these are annuals that must not tarry), but the flowers will self- seed generously too, so you need do little more than thin out seedlings, and remove real weeds, in later years.
Many seedsmen sell wildflower seed mixtures by mail order, or you can find them on the shelves of garden centres. Unwins make the business even simpler by putting their "English Wildflower Mixture" in a brightly coloured seed shaker (pounds 3.99), similar to the kind that holds sea salt.
The 10 grams of seed is mixed with 50 grams of horticultural vermiculite to ensure more even distribution when the seed is scattered. The "farmers' nightmare" can become the gardener's pleasant dream.
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