"I'm on a campaign to wake people up," said Sarah Raven at the beginning of Bees, Butterflies and Blooms. She was on a mission, she explained, to prevent "a quiet catastrophe", namely the declining numbers of bees and pollinators in the ecosystem, a decline that might eventually have a direct impact on our ability to feed ourselves. It all sounded quite serious to me, entirely justifying her use of the word "crisis" at the very top of the programme. And it was at that point that I wondered whether Raven had really chosen the best title for her series. Bees, Butterflies and Blooms sounds like the title of a parish calendar, a bucolically cosy affair that sounds as if decoration is its highest goal. Looking at it in the schedules, you could easily dismiss it as a bit of natural history infill, designed to plug a gap in the mixed planting of the schedule's municipal flowerbed. It should really have been called "Don't You Get It You Fools, All the Bees Are Dying!"
Last night's episode concentrated on cities, pointing out that the kind of bedding plants that have become the staple of municipal planting schemes have been carefully cultivated to appeal to a human appetite for spectacle, while forgetting the insects' more urgent appetite for nourishment. Bedding plants have been cultivated to be all advertisement and virtually no product – billboards for pollen and nectar that don't actually deliver. What Raven wants urban gardeners to do is re-introduce the kind of flowers – wild and less cultivated mostly – that really get bees buzzing, and she'd started with a gardener with quite a lot of clout, Darren Share, the acting head of parks in Birmingham.
The process involves overcoming some ingrained prejudices, in favour of military array and against the tangled fruitfulness of wild flower meadows. Raven's a convert already, naturally: "Sitting in the middle of a flower meadow is really the most uplifting thing," she said, while blissfully doing just that. Even if you believed her there were some doubts. If too many people did likewise, you surely wouldn't have a flower meadow left to sit in.
Evidence from other inner-city experiments, though, appears to suggest that wild planting has had a positive effect on anti-social behaviour. Only the bees and the hover flies behave like hooligans. What's more, when Raven challenged Darren to a head-to-head competition, polling public opinion on two adjacent beds – one classic municipal and the other bee-friendly – she won the public vote resoundingly. Darren was impressed both by that and by a visit to Leeds, which has pioneered wild flower meadows: "It could lead to a whole new field of park design," he said, in what I think was an unintentional pun. To be honest, I thought I might nod off when I started watching, lulled by botanical terms and the faint hum of insects. But Raven woke me to all sorts of things I'd never thought about. I even want to go and visit the Olympic Park now, which goes beyond waking and into the realm of miracle.
Botanical engineering was also the subject of My Life: Home Grown Boys, a sprightly CBBC film about a group of young urban gardeners challenged to make a profit from a market garden at the heart of King's Cross over one summer holiday. "We want to prove to you that children can do adult jobs," said one of them, pitching for the charitable donation that was, literally, going to provide them all with seed money. As usual in these things there was far too much fake jeopardy (even a five-year-old would have known the boys weren't going to get a knock-back from the funders) and quite a lot of concealed trellising to ensure that everything would end in triumph. But it was sweet even so, something fruitful planted in difficult soil. One can only hope it's a perennial.Reuse content