Monday, 2 September 2013

Seed of change: The Merton wildflower borders at Oxford Botanic Garden

With our changing climate and the possibility of longer hot and dry periods in the near future we have to rethink the high maintenance and often unsustainable urban plantings such as large areas of bedding plants or huge herbaceous borders found in our parks and gardens. Also, wider environmental problems, including exhaustion of resources such as peat, water and petroleum, as well as the pollinator crisis that we are already facing will soon make many of these high-maintenance plantings unjustifiable.

One step forward is the creation of sustainable naturalistic urban plantings which, after initial establishment, require no additional irrigation, fertiliser, staking or other intensive management practices and which are based on scientific studies of ecological relationships of natural and designed plant communities. 
The Merton Borders at Oxford Botanic Garden represent a spectacular example for this new innovative method of urban planting. In collaboration with Professor James Hitchmough from the Department of Landscape at University of Sheffield, Oxford Botanic Garden have created a stunning area of 955 m2 covered by naturalistic and at the same time highly attractive ornamental planting which is based on natural plant communities from North America, South Africa and the Mediterranean. Most of the plants were established by direct sowing into a 75 mm layer of sand mulch used to suppress weed growth and to promote longevity of some of the sown species such as North American Penstemon. As many plants originate from seasonally dry grassland communities this type of planting is quite drought-resistant and can cope a lot better than traditional plantings with the long dry spells we are predicted to have more frequently in the near future, particularly in the Southeast of the UK.

Another obvious benefit of these naturalistic plantings is that many of the species used provide an abundance of nectar and pollen for pollinators. When I visited the borders on a sunny day in late August, the area was buzzing with pollinators of all sorts; bumblebees (including this year’s new bumblebee queens that will soon be getting ready to overwinter), many different hoverflies, solitary bees and other pollinators were busily collecting pollen and nectar from many different plants irrespective of whether a plant originated from Africa, America or Europe.

If you happen to be in Oxford or live nearby, I suggest you go and visit the Merton wildflower borders. There is still time for doing so, as the borders will continue to look stunning well into autumn.

Below are some photos for you to enjoy and to whet your appetite to visit the borders yourself:

Berkheya purpurea flowering in the South African section of the borders
A bumblebee enjoying Echinacea purpurea 'Prairie Splendor'
A view of a North American prairie community with Echinacea pallida
Bombus lapidarius in a Malva alcea 'Fastigiata' flower
Solidago speciosa is great for hoverflies such as this Eristalis sp.
Echinacea purpurea is a great plant for bumblebees
All in blue: Echinops ritro and Eryngium planum 'Blaukappe '
A Brown Argus butterfly, looking a bit ragged
Eucomis bicolor, Gazania linearis and Berkhea purpurea
Eucomis and Diascia look good together
Volucella inanis visits Solidago speciosa flowers
Pretty Berkhea purpurea from South Africa attract lots of bees
This innovative naturalistic planting looks stunning
Echinacea purpurea with Eryngium yuccifolium & Agastache aurantiaca
Two hoverflies on a Haplocarpha scaposa flower from South Africa
Eryngium planum in the late summer sun
Tree bumblebee, honeybee & solitary bee in a Berkheya purpurea flower
A Megachile sp. bee visiting a Haplocarpha scaposa flower
A spectacular Hornet hoverfly sipping nectar from Eryngium yuccifolium
Echinacea, Eryngium and Solidago look great growing together


  1. Fantastic photos and thanks for being such a great advocate of our borders!

  2. Great to find this post here. I've just been to the garden this morning and saw the Merton borders, which are so impressive. I kept thinking that this type of planting would work so well in British front gardens, which of course so often are now car parking spaces. If we instead of concrete, have gravel parking areas with this type of planting around, we would solve an awful lot of problems: 1) plenty of plants for pollinators 2) easy to maintain 3) you can still park your car! 4) gravel is better at absorbing water (potential flooding issues) and 5) seeds are cheap to buy and anyone can scatter seeds around. Great blog too, came across it yesterday also when I was searching for Passiflora Constance Elliot to see if it was a good climber for pollinators!

  3. Many thanks for your comment. Yes I was impressed as well when I visited the Merton Borders. Good to hear that they still look good this year. Great idea to have such a planting in British front gardens but probably many people would still find this too demanding compared to concrete. My front garden is gravel with self-sown and potted flowers which looks very colourful at the moment, attracts pollinators and is very easy to maintain.