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Burgess Park woodlands activities winter/spring 2024

Butterfly habitat management project Albany Road woodlands

Join our woodlands maintenance session Sat 27 Jan 11.00 to 3.30 we will be clearing brambles and coppicing to enhance the woodland glade in the Albany Road woodlands. Please book here.

This volunteer woodlands maintenance is the first phase of the works to open-up the woodland glades by coppicing and bramble removal. Southwark Council will organise this volunteer work session.

The second phase will be run by Big City Butterfly Project, who will employ a contractor to; de-turf, remove roots and sow the area with a meadow mix within the glade which we will create.

This is part of the Friends of Burgess Park healthy woodlands project. We have also been awarded funding from the Southwark Council Cleaner Greener Safer fund for a new pathway. Find out more about Burgess Park woodlands.

Making meadows part 2 

Albany Road seed sowing experiment

As described in my previous blog, we have been experimenting with grass cutting in various locations around Burgess Park, to see which wild plants would emerge over time and how much wildlife would be attracted. We will focus on these areas in the next blog, and discuss the best approaches to maintaining meadow areas and what machinery to use. But, before we did any of this, we experimented with a much larger area of short grass between the three west side mounds and Albany Road. The original plan was just to try and reseed the north banks of the nearby mounds themselves with a more attractive range of plants than the ‘weeds’ that had quickly outgrown the original James Hitchmough prairie planting on these newly built slopes. Previous head gardener Oliver Miller had already experimented with sowing certain seeds, and had the greatest success with a mass sowing of Honesty (Lunaria annua), as well as trying out various other plants.

The previous sowing of Lunaria annua (honesty) with the beautiful lilac flowers contrasting nicely with James Hitchmough’s acid lime marsh spurge (Euphorbia palustris) and light blue quamash (Camassia ssp). The honesty has faded over time with more vigorous plants talking over but it is still present in smaller quantities. 

I knew that with the huge seed bank of fast-spreading wild plants already taking over, and with problems with the steepness, dryness and poor soil structure of the bank itself, that any reseeding would have limited success. James Hitchmough kindly visited a few times, and came up with plan to remove all the weeds between the too widely spaced original plants, before a mass sowing of a special cultivar of Deschampsia cespitosa (tufted hair grass) to fill in the gaps with an attractive ornamental grass with sufficient biomass to outcompete all the weeds. This was a clever idea and would have made the banks much more attractive and consistent looking. But I think when James visited, whilst the banks still looked very much in control, probably because we’d just strimmed between all the remaining plants, there was a huge seed bank of weeds already in the soil. The steep banks, with their increasingly thin covering of sugar beet top soil above a harder pan of soil and rubble from the old park, would be a hard location to establish a successfully thick sowing of grass without some kind irrigation and I think, a lot of spraying would have had to be done, along with good luck with the weather. It turns out that we had some very hot and dry periods over the next several years.

We used James’s Deschampsia, but also selected the seed of a much wider variety of native plants as well. I also decided to spread the seed over a much wider area, to strip back, weed and over sow the banks themselves, but also to try and turn the whole space between the slopes and Albany Road into a more natural space, with much more habitat for wildlife.

I wanted to re-contextualise what was seen as an over ambitious prairie slope that had totally failed, and redefine it as a success for wildlife and the park, with the bank becoming a mix of James’s interesting original plants, plus wildflowers and grasses. James, I think, just came up with an excellent plant list for these slopes. The problem was the LDA design was over-ambitious; the banks were too steep and huge to be successfully maintained as designed. A wilder, less intensive approach was more realistic — a new area for habitat and a softer, more attractive space. Rather than an angular triangle of ‘failed’ planting with just short grass at its base, a continuation of wildness from bank to road with grass paths to walk though would make the increasing wildness of the bank itself much more appropriate and suit the space better. I also guess that perhaps there was once a meadow somewhere along this fence line at some point before the park was rebuilt … there are pretty metal butterfly posts in places, a certain distance from the fence, that perhaps defined some wilder area, so it was nice to return the dull lawn to a meadow if that was the case. 

Many thanks for the council letting me do this; they could have easily insisted that this reseeding was against our obligations to cut the grass around the mounds short, but instead let me proceed with the experiments as I wished. The council showed patience and understanding to allow this area and the nearby banks to become a much more useful habitat as well as being more sustainable to maintain.

The area in winter before we started work. Some lime trees had already been planted by Southwark and we planted a dozen damson trees ourselves. Many more interesting trees had since been planted by the development team, including rare oaks on dwarfing rootstocks, and even Canary Island pines. A few years later we also did two plantings of native whips to try to create a wall of native shrubs along the fenceline. These included wild and cultivated privet, yew, hazel, dogwoods, holly, spindle bushes, blackthorn, wild roses, hawthorn, and cultivars and wild Scotch broom.
A newly prepared area for sowing along Albany Road. I did initially spray off the grass in the flat areas above. I would have rather stripped the turf layer (also removing the most nutrient rich soil at the surface) or simply had a cultivator powerful enough to break through the turf and cultivate the soil. But I did most of the work myself, and I simply didn’t have the machinery or people-power to remove 1000s of m2 of turf and had nowhere to put the giant mound of turf that would’ve been created. I felt in this case, a single spray was justified, to create a much more sustainable and wild area longer term. I also had to cultivate this huge space with a single hand-pushed cultivator to sow the seed and could only do this with bare soil. The concept was to remove the existing turf and then sow a wide range of wild seed, both wildflowers and a wider mixture of native grasses suitable for clay, to see what established, but also to see what pre- existing seed in the soil under the turf would germinate, and what mix of plants would eventually establish, as time progressed, with the soil below unchanged. The banks themselves we heavily weeded and cultivated as best as we could. Here we planned to sow James Hitchmough’s grass and a selection from the other seed that might establish on the increasingly poor and often dry soil of the steep slopes. 

We used a wide range of seeds, starting the flat areas with cornfield annuals for colour in the first few years.

I was interested in how long the cornfield annuals would persist without re-cultivation each year. The answer is about 2-3 years though we still get odd plants germinating where the grass is less thick. The cornfield annuals used were field poppy (Papaver rhoeas), field marigold (Glebionis segetum), cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) and corncockle (Agrostemma githago). I expected these to be the first flowers we saw but nature had other ideas!

After all the hard work, but nature knows best! A great mass of false chamomile (Tripleurospermum inodorum) appears first. The seed of this small annual plant must’ve lain dormant for many years and is in flower already just as the cornfield annuals began to appear. To maintain the meadow as a mix of false chamomile and corn flowers would’ve been lovely but would have involved re-cultivating the soil as soon as these plants went to seed and topping up the cornfield flower seed every few years.
The field poppies appear and the meadow  looks very English! I was hoping if we planted enough poppies some would persist over time, but again they want re-cultivated soil and a decent period of cold in winter to break seed dormancy. We had a few very mild winters after this point and no poppies returned. Hitchmough’s oriental poppies (Papaver orientalis) on the nearby banks on the other hand still appear but are rather engulfed by more vigorous native plants. Here some  enthusiastic students studying at Walworth Garden through Bankside Open Spaces Trust are removing seedlings of certain more invasive plants that we initially (and naively!) thought could be controlled by weeding out.
Cornfield annuals are one of the main plants we have lost from our countryside meadows and rely on a cycle of yearly plowing to grow alongside crops such as wheat. They are mainly kept in existence these days by various excellent wildflower seed-selling companies. Unfortunately, to keep them growing in our meadows, we would need to re-cultivate the soil every few years and top up the seed. But for several hundred quid spent every few years, we could have a few of these large areas of very colourful and densely spaced flowers, that look more like the ‘ideal’ meadow people desire. In this case, we wanted some initial colour (and I hoped the council would be impressed and allow us to do more cornfield meadows in the future!) and for the cornflowers to give some initial shelter to the perennial wildflowers and grasses that we had also sown. In the foreground, one of Hitchmough’s west-facing banks, designed to look a bit like the meadows of central Europe, with Carthusian dianthus in flower (Dianthus carthusianorum).
Poppies on mass looking wonderful in the spring sun. Unfortunately, they totally vanished by the following year, though the cornfield marigolds and cornflowers around the margins persisted for a few more years. We also planted the beautiful sky blue flowered borage, which is starting to emerge in the right of the photo.

As for the rest of the seed, we chose native wildflower and grass seed hopefully suitable for the local conditions, depending on what was affordable and available. Many species I would have liked to have used were either unavailable or unaffordable in sufficient quantities. I would have liked to have used different suppliers to have a broader range of seed, including from the European suppliers Jelitto ( but budget constraints meant we went with the excellent Naturescape (

Perhaps a better choice would have been Emorsgate seeds (, simply as they are located closer to London, meaning their seed would be more adapted to local conditions. The wonderful new, low nutrient meadow on the west side used Emorsgate and has a fabulous variety of plants. I unfortunately had no budget to replace all the soil with a low nutrient alternative.

The seed we used included:

Achillea millefolium (yarrow) 
Agrimmonia eupatorium (agrimony) 
Borago officinalis (borage) 
Centaurea nigra (knapweed) 
Centaurea scabiosa (greater knapweed) 
Daucus carrota (wild carrot) 
Dipascus fullonum (teasel) 
Gallium album (hedge bedstraw) 
Gallium verum (ladies bedstraw) 
Hypericum perforatum (perforate St John’s wort)
Leucanthemum vulgare (ox-eye daisy) 
Pastinaca sativa (wild parsnip) 
Plantago lanceolata (ribwort plantain) 
Silene dioica (red campion) 
Silene vulgaris (bladder campion) 
Reseda lutea (wild mignonette) 
Trifolium repens (white clover) 
Verbascum nigrum (dark mullein) 
Vicia sativa (common vetch)

Clay soil wild grasses mix:

Agrostis capillaris (common bent)
Alopecurus pratensis (meadow foxtail) 
Anthoxanthum odoratum (sweet vernal grass)
Briza media (quaking grass)
Cynosurus cristatus (crested dogstail)
Festuca rubra ssp. commutata (Chewing’s fescue)
Festuca rubra ssp litoralis (Slender red fescue)
Hordeum secalinum (meadow barley)
Poa pratensis (smooth stalked meadow grass)
Trisetum flavescens (yellow oat grass)
Festuca ovina (sheep’s fescue) 

James Hitchmough’s generously donated Deschampia for the north banks of the mounds

General clay meadow mix 80/20 mix (80% grasses to 20% flowers)
This had a mix of the grasses to the left and the wildlflowers above plus:

Geranium pratense (meadow cranesbill)
Knautia arvensis (field scabious)
Leontodon hispidus (rough hawkbit)
Lathyrus pratensis (meadow vetchling)
Lychnis flos-cuculi (ragged robin)
Primula veris (cowslip)
Prunella vulgaris (self heal)
Rhinanthus minor (yellow rattle)
Rumex acetosa (common sorrel)
Stachys officinalis (betony)
Tragopogon pratensis (goats beard)
Trifolium pratense (red clover)
(very little of this last list actually germinated)

The seed suppliers have developed great knowledge in terms of the ratios of flowers to grasses so their mixes tend to come in 80/20  or 90/10 grass to flower ratios. But we wanted to just throw down as much flower seed as possible, in the hope that more would persist long term. From the results of our sowing, perhaps a simple 80/20 clay wildflower mix would have been more efficient and much cheaper but we hardly spend a fortune. I did, however, find that few of the flowering species in the clay wildflower species mix actually germinated and the individual species seed germinated better. I wish I’d also included large quantities of Lucerne (alfalfa) in the sowing which would have been great for our Holly Blue butterflies, since it is available as a green manure and is very cheap to buy in large quantities but didn’t think to do so at the time. I should have consulted the local wildlife experts before selecting the seed to have identified more species specifically useful to wildlife found in the park. 

Also, compare our well-intentioned but inefficient sowing with Hitchmough’s precise work which can still be seen at St George’s prairie and various other slopes and dips around the park. James compiled a vast database of native and non-native species during his work at the University of Sheffield. He would build a vast array of small seed sowing beds, try different mixes and record the exact proportions of different species emerging. From this he would estimate the ideal ratios of a vast range of seed needed in a specific mix from wild herbaceous plants of the world. 

In comparison with the precise mixes from the seed suppliers, or James’s very scientific approach, we just bought a load of hopefully suitable seed, threw it down and hoped for the best! This meant that for a further two years we had an impressive amount of flowers. The cornfield annuals faded but with the grass still thin much of the other seed emerged. Certain species such as borage, red and bladder campion, hedge and ladies bedstraw, teasels, wild carrot, St John’s wort, ribwort plantain, knapweed, yarrow, salad burnet, the clay grass mix, lesser amounts of vetch and wild mignonette appeared. The rest of the seed didn’t appear at all. We likely didn’t sow at the correct time for all the species, or conditions weren’t suitable for germination, or perhaps some of the seed in the clay wildflower mix wasn’t so fresh or viable. Unfortunately, the Deschampsia also didn’t emerge on the banks. I think there wasn’t enough moisture for it to establish on the dry banks, and the seed was at least a few years old by the time we used it. There was also too much competition from the massive seed bank of wild plants already present and likely from all the other seed I also added.

The second year, but now the beautiful annual borage, and red campion and many other wild plants have replaced the cornfield annuals. In the background a much larger area of red campion on the re-seeded north banks has appeared. This short-lived perennial sustained itself well until we had a few incredibly hot summers which killed it all off. It then struggled to re-establish from whatever seed had fallen as the previous bare and cultivated soil was now a thick sward of grasses and wildflowers better suited to local conditions.
Bladder campion

Forward a few more years and the balance of plants has changed again. Now the campion, borage and some of the other sown wildflowers have slowly reduced to the odd plant here and there, rather than a great but rather artificial, wall of colour. The soil and climactic conditions clearly aren’t suitable for large quantities of these plants to persist over time. It was a lovely and colourful experiment but longer term, nature will have its way. Clay soil once firm is not very friable so many seeds can’t get into the soil to germinate, or successfully germinate if they do, and most importantly, the clay soil holds onto nutrients so the grasses thicken up over time giving less space for the flowers, as well as forming a barrier to the seed reaching the soil in the first place. Despite us cutting and raking up much of the hay, the range of plants is slowly reverting back to plants that can handle the compacted but rich and quite heavy soil, that can compete with the thick grass and also that can complete their life cycles despite the incredibly hot and dry summers we increasingly have in London.

The grasses are increasingly thick and varied. I still need to try to identify all the species of grass present, what came up from what was sown, and what has appeared from seed already in the soil or blown in by the wind. My eyesight is increasingly poor and the grasses all look very similar without precise or patient enough identification skills!

Summer 2023. Despite cutting low and collecting the cuttings pretty thoroughly each year the balance of plants has changed again. There is much thicker grass but still a large amount of flowers. There are more trees and those planted have hugely increased in size. These will increasingly suck away some of the moisture for the meadow itself, but will have other benefits such as capturing large amounts of carbon dioxide and concealing the road and some of the fast-growing buildings beyond. There is some of the best suited seed of what was sown still appearing, but also copious seed in the soil germinating more suited to the local conditions. Notable plants include chicory (Chicorium intybus), charlock (Synapsis arvensis) and wild carrot (Daucus carrota). The wild carrot was sown and the chicory has quickly spread from the south banks of the mounds. The charlock (a member of the mustard family) is common in London, but is more of an initial coloniser and prefers thin grass or disturbed ground and is slowly pushed out as the grass thickens.
A thick tangle of wild carrot, chicory, and charlock, summer 2023. These are some of the wild flowers suitable for our site. We can start to look at these plants and think about why they are suitable. The chicory and wild carrot has a taproot that can grow under the thick grass to find moisture and nutrients. The small bullet like seeds of chicory seem to be able to find their way through the grass to the soil, which it needs to do to persist as it is biennial. Wild carrot also lasts for two years, but again somehow its copious tiny, bristly seeds also find their way back to the soil. 

We currently have a large amount of flowers and the meadow isn’t too high to problematically block sight lines and, for example, attract too much anti-social behaviour. The soil in this area doesn’t yet have such a high percentage of seed from taller more invasive plants that our more established wild areas in the east of the park have. The various banks of the nearby mounds are also full of wildflowers that can now possibly spread to this new area of meadow. The main one so far is chicory. I was hopeful that some of Hitchmough’s plants from nearby banks would also spread into this area, so, for example, we collected vast quantities of aster seed a few years ago and spread it through the whole area to try to extend the meadow’s flowering season, but none has emerged. Brockwell Bake and ancient wheat expert Andy Forbes also tried to establish a few old varieties of wheat, including one with an attractive, purplish seed head. These patches did great in the first year, but didn’t resow themselves the following year. 

But our work isn’t done, nature has further plans for our meadow, and we have reached the most challenging stage of maintenance. Ideally we would like to keep the meadow as it is at this stage, but there are many more vigorous and potentially problematic plants that want to establish and outcompete the plants currently growing. 

One particularly significant plant is mallow (Malva sylvestris). This year this species has begun to dominate in places. It has pretty purple flowers, but not a particularly attractive structure once it is fully grown, and it both spreads by roots very quickly to form dense clumps as well as dropping copious seed. This would be difficult to eradicate even by spraying; this plant is here to stay. The only way I can think to control it is to cut down and remove all the seed laden stems once it has finished flowering to limit its further spread. But it is a very useful plant for wildlife (and for people foraging for edible leaves in the park).

Mallow (Malva sylvestris) growing through Hitchmough’s azure asters on a west bank of the mounds, close to our new meadow. The meadow itself has increasingly huge amounts of this pretty-flowered but rather ugly-shaped species. It was there all along in remaining root fragments and seed in the soil and is now quickly dominating. 

But there are a great array of taller and even more problematic plants that want to establish in our meadow and re-seeded banks. These include: 

Gallium aparine (cleavers) forms a great mat of foliage over other plants which is hard to remove and looks a mess, though it creates habitat and keeps the soil below moist. We have given up trying to remove this as it comes up en masse in spring, but luckily then withers and completely fades away by early summer. 

Calystegia sepium (Hedge bindweed) Most gardeners will be well aware of the joys of trying to control bindweed. It does seem to prefer richer soil and flowerbeds and hasn’t spread so fast on the three north banks as I worried it would, though it is a problem in places, as is Convolvulus arvensis (hedge bindweed). On another north bank next to the car park, we worked incredibly hard to remulch the failing slope and replant densely but after a few years where it looked really good, a great carpet of bindweed spread quickly through the thick mulch and totally ruined our work. We are now trying to work out how to get rid of it without killing everything else.

Urtica dioica (stinging nettle). This is a great wildlife plant and we have allowed large clumps to establish on the slopes for certain butterflies. But now it is also appearing in the flat areas of meadow, making it less attractive, more stingy for humans and potentially outcompeting the plants we have already described. Hopefully, it will be kept in check by the thick grass and many other plants competing for nutrients but it is hard to eradicate. 

Cirsium arvense (creeping thistle) Like stinging nettle, this spreads by a great network of roots and is very difficult to kill without herbicide. The roots run deep with this plant. It has formed large, tall clumps in various places along the various slopes and has appeared at the far end of the meadow. It has also established in great clumps in places on the new, low nutrient meadow, due to the roots running deeper than the soil replaced. Again it is used by our wildlife including butterflies, but it’s not very pleasant to try and walk through a great clump of it or to have whole meadows turn to thickets of thistles. 

Arctium lappa (greater burdock) Another wonderful wild plant for wildlife and medicinally for us, with an impressive structure, pretty little thistle like flowers and giant leaves with great potential to use as a mulch. But it has the most irritatingly spiky and clingy seed which it produces in massive quantities, a massive root system that is impossible to remove, and can grow two metres high. It emerged in a few places on the second north bank, and quickly became a 50m2 thicket, shading out all the plants below. All we can really do without chemicals is cut it down once it is seeding and remove all the seed and cuttings, ideally using the cuttings as a mulching material elsewhere. 

Artemisia vulgaris (mugwort), similar to burdock, another useful medicinal plant with an impressive structure, but also very tall and very quickly spreading into huge clumps. 

Rumex obtusifolius (broad leaved dock). Another wonderful plant for wildlife but again, grows very tall and can produce 7,000 seeds on one plant. I like the rusty-coloured stems in autumn, but it is another plant that can grow to head height and quickly outcompete other plants. Again, I think the only solution is to remove enough of the stems before all the seed drops each year. 

Conium maculatum (hemlock). Another giant, again useful for pollinators with its copious and attractive white umbel flowers, But a very poisonous plant to us, that will grow into huge tall thickets if not kept in check. Again, all we can do is cut down all the seed laden stems before the seed drops so it doesn’t spread across our new meadow. 

Rubus plicatus (wild blackberry / bramble). Bramble is the most difficult plant to deal with in the park though, of course, provides copious fruit for us and wildlife as well as habitat. But one plant can send out multiple giant stems that can each grow several metres in a season. The stem quickly loops back down to the soil. It then scrambles along, often hidden under the herbaceous layer. 

Adventitious roots quickly appear where the nodes on the endless stems are touching the ground. So one plant can easily become 50 plants in a year. The roots themselves also quickly become huge, deep and difficult to remove and also quickly spread through the soil. We are battling to control this plant in all of our meadows and wild areas in the park. 

Bramble is appearing all over the various slopes next to our new meadow. We hack out the roots and remove all the stems as best we can, but longer term, some careful spot spraying may be needed to control it sufficiently if we don’t want the whole park to become a giant thicket of thorns!

Current Level 3 Apprentice Kiran working hard to control great thickets of emerging bramble on the third north bank. This bank was so overgrown with vigorous wild plants, with such poor soil and the Hitchmough plants mostly gone, that we didn’t bother trying to re-sow it. We did, however, add a widely-spaced planting of hawthorn, wayfaring trees, wild roses and butterfly bushes to create more habitat and another layer of canopy on all three north banks. These are sporadically establishing though have failed in places due to summer drought and increasingly poor soil. Below, staff removing dock, burdock and hemlock stems.
A wild, habitat-rich, consistent space that was formally a ‘failed’ bank and dull lawn. You can see a clump of white flowered hemlock on either side of the path. These need cutting down before the seed spreads further once the plant has finished flowering but it is a more natural space than before. On the left, a wide range of grasses, nettles on both sides for butterflies, and on the right a slope covered in Gallium album (hedge bedstraw) provide excellent ground cover and flowers later but also lesser amounts of the undesirable cleavers (Gallium aparine). 

Conclusions made 

So was all this worth it? Roughly £1500 spent on a copious amount of seed and a lot of hard work. 

We now have a diverse, constantly evolving meadow with a broad range of species, both introduced and already present. If it eventually does become too vigorous and overgrown for our recreational space it can always be cut back for a while, but hopefully this won’t be necessary. 

Before, a vast amount of time was pointlessly spent each week with most of the park staff trying to hand weed these giant banks like huge flowerbeds. With so much else to do in the park this simply wasn’t sustainable or realistic, and the banks were quickly returning to wildness however hard we worked. All we were doing by intensively cultivating these banks was preventing them from becoming useful habitats for wildlife. 

For several years we had a wonderful if rather artificially dense display of flowers that evolved over time. 

The formerly large area of short grass would have taken a ride-on mower a whole morning every 3 or 4 weeks to cut. Now it takes me an hour to whizz along the remaining paths once a month. I’ve actually made the paths a certain width, so people walking along them keep them pretty short without any cutting at all. 

But we have a few days of hard work each year cutting and raking the hay to try to remove enough hay and the build up of nutrients, to keep the grass thin enough for plenty of flowers. Increasingly over time, we will also need more time to control by cutting down and removing the seed of the more vigorous, invasive plants. 

Ideally we would cut it twice a year, not just in spring but also late autumn, but this is very difficult with so much other work such as cutting all the other meadows and picking up a vast amount of leaves each year.

Ideally we would have much better machinery than our knackered handful of strimmers and one mower to cut and collect the hay more efficiently and sensitively, but I will talk about this in later blogs. 

I think the experiment also shows that we have the soil we have, the pre-existing seed bank we have and the range of wild plants we have, suitable to local conditions. We can introduce a wider range of wild native plants by sowing seed, but often nature knows best and will try to find its own natural balance of plants over time … So then our job is to gently adjust this balance so it remains suitable for a busy park. 

And the most important thing about this project is wildlife, so has this new meadow been successful at creating more habitat and is more wildlife present? 

I often don’t have enough time to observe, so this is the job of the Southwark biodiversity team, and local ecologists and wildlife experts and enthusiasts to judge. But despite my lack of ecological expertise I can confirm that there is much more wildlife in this space. 

Bees and grasshoppers and many other insects are present in the longer grass, and the now, not constantly disturbed, north banks, are buzzing with life when I walk across them apart from in very hot periods where the plants shrivel and the insect life quickly dwindles. 

I see more butterflies and smaller moths fluttering around this space than before. Hopefully these numbers will increase over time as the range of plants most useful to them increases such as nettles and garlic mustard. 

There are multiple wrens now nesting in the shrubs or in thick patches of tall grass along the slopes. There are groups of sparrows and other small birds foraging for insects and seeds. 

A few weeks ago I saw a jay flying between the trees perhaps thinking about extending its territory. Several times I’ve seen kestrels hovering above the meadow and the slopes of the mounds. I see people foraging for food such as dandelion leaves and roots and mallow leaves or medicinal plants such as mugwort. More people walk though the space. More people sit and relax in the space now it is wilder, with more shelter from the noisy traffic of the nearby road. It would be nice to put some more large logs in this area for seating as the original ones have perished / been eaten by lesser stag beetles. In the next blog I hope to discuss all the other grass cutting experiments we have done more recently and discuss best practices and machinery for maintenance. I will also do a list of the majority of the wildflowers I have found growing in the park.

Many thanks for reading.

Gregory Smith, Head Gardener.

Making meadows

A wildlife-friendly approach to Burgess Park maintenance

Photo of flowers.
The wonderful new westside meadow built by Groundworks in the delayed last part of the park redesign

Burgess Park is a large, 24-hour, much frequented green space built in stages over what was previously dense housing and industrial land to eventually become the park we know today. As a result, the soil is difficult to cultivate, with, in many places, the history of the past thinly concealed beneath a layer of compacted topsoil. At around the turn of this century, the space was redesigned and the new park grown on top, but with much of the same soil below.

Wild banks with a mix of wild and introduced plants with more wildflower experiments beyond 

The redesigned park1 has become a functioning tapestry of recreational space and wilder areas, short and long grass, redefined or new woodlands and lots of other new planting. This includes the famous James Hitchmough2 being tasked with designing large non-native prairies to interlink with the improved meadows and wilder areas. He worked with the park gardeners to create the beautiful St George’s prairie, and experimented with non-native mass plantings in various other areas with the LDA contractors. The redesign was very wildlife-aware, and had a looser, more modern approach compared to the typical short grass, flowerbeds and trees combination of many urban green spaces, though we have these things too. There was a mixture of native and many new interesting plants in meadows, and on many new mounds and slopes and dips across the park.

The LDA designed new park — tapestry of recreational and wilder areas 

Over the last two and a bit decades the park has aged, and this ambitious planting has matured and either sustained itself or faded, with nature often having a greater say on the appropriate balance of wildness or cultivation than the gardeners. St George’s has established well, though it is a little tatty these days, with native grasses joining the party and plenty of brambles and tree suckers to remove, invasive native plants taking over in places and gaps appearing in the planting under all the large trees. But a beautiful and clever prairie planting of mainly American perennials that flower in a succession from spring until frost has sustained itself over time. Other Hitchmough areas have persisted well, semi-lasted or faded into wildness, with the wildlife benefiting from our aesthetic loss. We have continued to maintain these areas in some way too, or redefine them in some way as habitat. 

Hitchmough’s St. George’s prairie — Lady’s bedstraw and Coneflowers
A great wall of Goldenrod later in summer at St George’s prairie

It is interesting to observe the relationship between plants that grow naturally and what is planted by humans: how this influences the ecology of the space (how much wildlife is present), and how this will change with the weather over time. Burgess is a great place to do this, with the multitude of different meadows, slopes, dips and flowerbeds all with their own balance of wildness to cultivation. Some of these areas we maintain intensively and others have been left to grow as wild as possible, and most areas are somewhere in between, with a mixture of introduced plants growing happily alongside those appearing naturally.  And beyond this intended planting or sowing there is also the turf itself, which is not just grass but potentially a whole range of other wild plants, either growing away happily in the lawn, or in seeds waiting to germinate. 

Various meadows on slopes and new wildflower seeding experiments beyond

So as the gardeners we maintain these mixed plant populations and try to make them attractive to humans as well as useful for wildlife. There are many questions we can ask to try and do this. These could include:

  • What is the best balance of native and cultivated plants?
  • What should we weed out or keep?
  • Which flowers are useful to pollinating insects? 
  • Can non-native plants significantly lengthen the flowering season? 
  • How can we best maintain the meadows, to maximise flowering and wildlife potential?
  • How can we best cut the short grass to provide more wildflowers?
  • How can we best manage the woodlands and wetlands for more habitat?
  • How sustainable is the park as a habitat and food source for wildlife, and for us? 
  • How will the planting at Burgess evolve over time with people pressure and climate change? 
Sown cornfield annuals and False chamomile, between the westside mounds and Albany Road five years ago

Burgess Park’s wildlife potential is limited by its location in the centre of a city, surrounded by tall buildings and busy roads. Increasingly tall buildings around the park will also increasingly block off wildlife from making it here. The park is also potentially full of people on a sunny day, and can be very busy and noisy. The soil is compacted and full of rubble and potentially toxic chemicals. We are in the centre of London, where it is hot and dry, with not enough rain. So there are many factors that limit the amount of wildlife visiting or living at the park.

But despite the location and other limiting factors, we are doing pretty well in comparison to many green spaces … with the butterfly / bird and bug experts reporting back positively on their findings here. (If you are interested in surveying this wildlife, join one of the Butterfly Conservation transect walks, or connect with local bird spotting and other wildlife experts online). It is fantastic to hear that we have any wildlife at all on our slice of urban land far from the country.

A Holly Blue butterfly — one of the many species of butterfly we see at the park laying eggs on Lucerne (Alfafa), photo courtesy of Simon Saville, Butterfly Conservation

But generally there is a noticeable and worrying decline in wildlife, with fewer insects, bees and birds apparent each year. There has been an obvious decline in insect life especially, which has a knock-on effect on the creatures that feed on them, such as birds. This has been especially apparent after the sequence of worryingly hot summers. Meadows and wild areas formerly buzzing with life now seem to have much lower populations of insects.

So it’s really important that we do what we can to provide as much habitat for wild creatures to enable them to survive in our park and to try to sustain the tree of life that ultimately sustains us.

So what can we do as gardeners in the park to create a more diverse and wildlife friendly space?

Gardening is a strange pursuit. We generally dig up all the wildness and native plants, and replace them with neat and cultivated plants, often from elsewhere in the world. But local flora has evolved to sustain local fauna, and many animals depend on specific plants for survival. 

Essex Skipper butterfly and Crab spider on a thistle at Burgess Park, photo by Simon Saville

The longer I am a gardener and environmentalist, the more I’m interested in what grows naturally, as well as which human-planted or sown, native or non-native plants can be added in order to create more diversity, food sources and habitat for wildlife. Going back to James Hitchmough’s large scale non-native sowing and planting: what is perhaps most interesting is which of these plants will persist in our space over time, merging with our native plants and continuing to grow. Will they sustain themselves or even spread into the surrounding space? In a wildlife context, of course, we have to be careful not to introduce invasive species that will outgrow our local plants, but could we add some non-local native plants and non-natives to wilder areas, to supercharge nature by creating more habitat and food, especially as the climate changes and our range of balance of native plants adjusts anyway? Could we make our wildness more beautiful and diverse again instead of letting it fade? Where do the best plants to try to introduce come from, in terms of having similar soil and climate conditions? 

Painted Lady butterfly on a Verbena bonairiensis, or Argentinian vervain, photo by Simon Saville

We are trying to find a successful balance between cultivation and wildness that maximises the park’s ecological potential. If we do introduce non-native plants it’s important that they are good for wildlife too.

So what more can we do? We have meadows and prairies and woodlands, plenty of wild areas in the park. But there is one type of planting, and the biggest area of all, with the most potential to grow more wild plants: the short grass areas or lawns.

In amongst the grass species regularly cut to grow thick and low, to create a green (or often these days more parched and yellow) lawn, are a whole multitude of other wild plants growing away secretly amongst the grass. These ‘lawn weeds’ are smaller broad-leafed plants that can tolerate being mown regularly (in our park about once a month). And there is also seed waiting in the soil below the grass from times past, waiting for an opportunity to germinate. Some seed can remain dormant for great periods. So what viable ecological history and diversity is there still hidden under our lawns? If we let the grass grow longer than usual, some of these plants will say hello with their flowers. So hidden underneath this turf monoculture is all of nature’s remaining wildness and potential to sustain itself. 

It is very important that with the destruction of wildness and colony collapse of so many species we make use of this potential to sustain some more wildlife. 

Leaving lawns to grow long and provide habitat and flowers for wildlife is very topical, with so much concern about wildlife and habitat loss. On social media are endless images of impossibly beautiful meadows alongside neat cut lawns comparing the two, with uncut grass being good and lawns being bad. Anyone on a mower is basically the devil.

Burgess Park gardener on a ride on mower.
The devil on horseback

But rather than cutting being evil and not cutting being good, some kind of cutting has to happen. Nearly all green space is managed. A lawn if left uncut will become a meadow. Over time it will thicken up, and the range of species will change. Shrubs and trees will germinate and grow. Slowly the meadow will become a copse, and then a woodland, then eventually a thick forest. The grass needs to be cut to still be a meadow. The question is: when and how frequently, and with what equipment, to maximise its wildlife value? 

Close up of flowers
A small patch of uncut lawn in spring

So most meadows are actually extensively managed spaces with some kind of maintenance regime, or they wouldn’t be meadows for very long, and many wildflowers benefit from this cycle of cutting and ploughing. I wish we had things like ploughs at the park! Going back in time, the UK had a huge amount of these meadows, wheat and hay fields and foraging meadows, without the use of chemicals to control what grows. Most of these have now been replaced with modern agriculture, with mono-culture and chemical spraying, and most of the wildflowers have gone. 

With these traditional meadows gone, we rely on the remainder of our green space and wild places to sustain the diversity of the wildlife that used to live in the old meadows. And much of the recreational green space in the UK is unimaginatively cut short grass and little else. But there is so much wildlife potential hiding beneath these tidy English lawns. We just have to let some of them grow. 

Photo showing paths across the mounds
Grass at various heights to create a softer, wilder space with plenty of flowers on the westside mounds

There are hundreds of acres of such grass at Burgess, and we still have to cut a lot of it regularly enough to stay a lawn. Contractually we are obliged to do so at a certain frequency. The park is for people and recreation, not just wildlife. People want short grass to comfortably sit, picnic or sunbathe, exercise, play sports, walk pets. The short grass areas are also useful for larger events and festivals. The park also needs to be easily accessible, and it also needs to be open enough to be safe to walk through, especially considering that Burgess is a 24-hour space.

The great lawn on a busy summer’s day

We can have both recreational lawns and plentiful habitat for wildlife too, but we need to ask many questions about how we cut the grass. 

  • Beyond the more clearly defined meadow areas what else can we do to encourage more wildflowers and wildlife?
  • How much short grass does there need to be to keep people happy and the park safe?
  • Does every last blade of grass need cutting regularly or can a more loose and dynamic approach be taken?
  • How often does the grass need cutting to keep it under control?
  • How easy is it to cut the grass short again if we temporarily let it grow long?
  • Do cuttings need collecting and reusing somehow, or can they be left in situ; and how does this affect the soil and more plants growing?
  • How messy do different approaches look? Can we tolerate a bit of hay for the sake of wildlife?
  • Does leaving grass to grow long create other problems, with more litter, toileting and more anti-social behaviour?
  • Can the grass-cutting regime be changed but still be understandable and realistically achievable for the grass cutters?
  • Do we have the machinery that can cope with cutting and potentially clearing longer grass areas?
  • How are the plants that appear affected by location, the soil and environmental conditions?
  • Most importantly, once we cut the grass at lower frequencies, what different wild plants appear and what wildlife do they attract?
A mass of daises in an area left uncut in spring

So we have left many areas to experiment. This year we:

  • Continued to experiment with encouraging wildflowers along Albany Road in the west side of the park, after creating a large new meadow between the mounds and the road (there was previously just short grass). This has involved various re-seeding, and cutting and collecting at different times, with different amounts of hay-raking.
  • Continued to leave various other previous short areas of grass un-mown or mown at different frequencies to see what wildflowers appeared. These areas included:
  1. The grass all the way around the car park
  2. A large triangle of grass opposite St George’s church 
  3. The steep slopes next to the BMX track 
  4. Areas of previously cut grass around the tennis court cafe 
  5. The complete south-facing bank of the great lawn
  6. Much larger meadow patches at Rust Square 

We also:

  • Were slower to cut the grass in April/May — cutting as little as possible or leaving large areas uncut 
  • Cut around significant patches of wildflowers when we found them throughout the season
  • Experimented with hay: can it be turned into a rough ‘strulch’ for flowerbeds or used as a mulch around trees?
  • Observed the changing ratios of plants, native and non-native, in all of our more permanent longer grass, meadow areas, prairies, hollows and banks 

The basic conclusions made from of all this grass-cutting experimentation are interesting, and, I think, show that:

  • Experimenting with grass-cutting heights, frequencies and techniques with the typical range of equipment and staff available is perfectly achievable in most green spaces with a bit of thought and a more dynamic approach
  • There is a fear that if we don’t keep the grass cut short and regular everything will grow out of control; there will be chaos instead of order and then the world will likely end! This is far from true. Grass can easily be left to grow longer, so the wild plants can flower and seed, and then be cut short again when appropriate with suitably powerful mowers or other better suited equipment such as scythes and flails if available
Making a mess — Cutting longer grass shorter just creates a bit of hay, which looks a bit messy for a few weeks, then disappears. Alternatively, the cutting short could be done in a few stages so there is no hay, or the cuttings can be raked and collected. One thing our tidy minds should be able to tolerate is a bit of hay in the first place, if it means we can have many more meadows that we don’t have time to rake

Making our lawns more wildlife friendly is perfectly achievable with a bit of thought and a ripping up of old grounds-maintenance contracts that specify that all grass must be cut low. 

With a more multi-layered approach to grass cutting all kinds of wild plants can appear. The lawns can cease to be dead zones for nature and become useful habitats. These useful habitats will link all the intentional planting in the park to create a more complete ecology.

But in many places longer grass is inappropriate, or the resulting meadow not impressive-looking to us or floriferous for wildlife. Wildness can cause other problems with rubbish and questionable human behaviour! A lot depends on the site: how it is used by people, the presence of the right conditions for specific plants to grow, and whether those wild plants are still there in the first place, having been reduced to short lawns for so long.

In the next blog I’d like to discuss these meadow experiments in more detail and how successful they have been, as well as suggesting the best practice for cutting meadows and an updated approach for short-grass cutting that we have started using in small areas of the park already. 

Gregory Smith 
Head Gardener, Burgess Park

Chicory and Wild rocket on the west facing westside slopes

1 Landscape Institute case study, LDA Design Consulting LTD, Burgess Park Regeneration Project

2 The Landscape Institute, The Landscape Legacy of the Olympics, Part 7, The Olympic Planting Strategy, Olympic Park designers Professors Hitchmough and Dunnett interviewed 

REF 2014 impact case studies — The development of new, designed sustainable plant communities for use in urban greenspace

Celebration 26 March 2023 Passmore Edwards bicentenary

Old sepia image of the library and overwritten with event details
Join Friends of Burgess Park celebrations Sunday 23 March 2023

Celebrate the Grade II listed building and it’s benefactor Passmore Edwards.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Passmore Edwards’ birth on 24th March 1823, and Friends of Burgess Park is joining with others around the UK to celebrate the Passmore Edwards 200 Festival. We’ll be holding a programme of events based at the old library, baths and washhouse on Wells Way on Sunday 26th March. There’s an exhibition about the man and his legacy, children’s activities, a commemorative tree-planting, and a reading by local author Jacqueline Crooks from her new book, refreshments and more.

Bike Tour 2-4pm We’ve also organised a short Bike Tour around three of Passmore Edwards’ south London buildings, guided by a renowned local architect. You can book now for the bike tour 2pm to 4pm on Eventbrite – places are limited to 25, so book early!

Commemorative Tree Planting 4.00- 4.30pm- Across the country Rowan trees are being planted to celebrate the Passmore Edwards bicentenary, join us from 4pm for the tree planting and reading by local author Jacqueline Crooks from her new book Fire Rush, and refreshments.

Exhibition 1-5.30pm – Find out more about Passmore Edwards with an exhibition on loan from the Passmore Edwards legacy. Plus more about the old library bath and washhouse building its history and future role benefitting local people.

Read more about Passmore Edwards and the library.

Anti-littering graphic

Tackling litter

Michael Faraday primary school art work for anti-litter banners
Thank you Year 3 pupils (summer 2022) and for helping litterpic. See the banners in Albany Road near Giraffe House and Wells Way near the old library.

FOBP weekly litterpic Every Monday morning 8am to 9am

FOBP provide litterpics, gloves and bags.
Meet at Chumleigh Gardens – in the gardens behind the behind the cafe.