[This text was published in issue 8 of the Young Propagators Society zine.]
A few years ago I was lucky to find a flat in the centre of Düsseldorf. Amazingly, it came with a 200-square-metre walled garden. Hidden behind tall buildings, the garden felt like the most precious oasis. Huge tangles of ivy were growing over the old brick walls from the neighbouring gardens. Wildlife clearly enjoyed their shelter and there was the most beautiful birdsong filling the space. There were a few shrubs and trees in one corner, but most of the ground was covered with grass. Immediately this monoculture struck me as a waste. I began to think how I could encourage more biodiversity. Maximising the ecological impact of my little plot would make it even more precious. The idea to create a perennial wildflower meadow followed quickly.
At the time, I frequently drove to a village about 30km west of Düsseldorf. Endless fields of grain and vegetables line the roads of this flat and fertile landscape. But what drew my attention while driving were the verges, the narrow strips between the tarmac and the fields. The wild flowers stood out in this agricultural monotony drenched in herbicides and fertiliser, a beautiful diversity of species in an unlikely place, kind of what I wanted for my city garden.
After weeks of noticing these flowers again and again I began to think: Why don’t I simply collect a few seeds for my garden? Well, because this was something which simply wasn’t done. Drivers used the roads, farmers used the fields, the little bit of land in-between was treated as if it didn’t exist. To stop the car, get out and pick some of the seeds would almost be like rummaging through a pile of rubbish. And wouldn’t it be stealing? Not exactly. It was public ground and I was a member of the public. And I was only going to take a few seeds, never all of them, of course. So finally, one day I stopped the car. Vehicles roared by as I carefully walked along the road and collected seeds.
But then, I did not dare sow these seeds. Instead I purchased an expensive seed mix which was especially composed to match the native meadow flora of this particular area of Germany, all organically grown of course. With the help of two friends I spent days removing the old turf to reduce the soil’s fertility before sowing. The next summer I had the wildflower meadow I wanted. Various flowers and grasses filled my walled garden with magic. I had followed advice from ecologists, done everything the proper way; my own little habitat restoration had worked.
Still, I kept wondering what would have happened if I had done things differently. I had reached my goal of greater biodiversity in this garden. I had done what was regarded as good practice, a socially approved way of gardening. It was wonderful to sit surrounded by the beauty of tall wild carrot, bright yellow puffs of birdsfoot trefoil and all the other flowers and grasses with insects buzzing in between. Yet, I felt I had used a boxed cake mix instead of my own ingredients to make this wildflower meadow. So why had I done it this way?
Safety was one reason. By purchasing a commercial seed mix I had excluded the risk of introducing invasive species. But would there have been that much of a danger? After all I was able to remove unwanted plants. There were even examples where I was already using this practice. In the spring I carefully removed giant hogweed seedlings whose seeds came from a neighbouring garden. As beautiful as the plants were, I did not want anything growing in my garden that could harm human skin. And I also already knew how to deal with strong species which threatened to outcompete everything else. Reducing the number of ivy plants was a recurring task in a garden where it grew over the walls on all sides.
If I was honest there had been something else preventing me from sowing the seeds I had gathered by the roadside: a kind of shame about where the seeds had come from. Whenever I told people where I had collected them they looked at me with confused disbelief. Nobody seemed to understand my fascination with road verges as remarkably resilient ecosystems.
This was absurd. Why was a flower which was intentionally grown to be sold considered more valuable than one which had managed to flower against the odds?
On my next drive I started collecting seeds again. I was enjoying this even more than the first time I had done it. Over time I began to recognise plants and notice if they liked to grow in damper or drier areas, in more or less fertile soil. Trying to learn the plants’ names was the next step. Quite a few of them weren’t considered meadow flowers. I didn’t mind that. I wanted to experiment. And if these plants would grow in my garden that was great. Biodiversity was what I tried to encourage, not purity.
After cutting and scarifying my meadow, this time I sowed what I had collected. The next summer there weren’t just the tiny white flowers of Galium album in a moist corner but also the yellow ones of Galium verum and in a sun-baked spot there were now the grey rosettes of Verbascum nigrum preparing to send up huge flower spikes a year later.
My meadow wasn’t dramatically different. It was difficult to tell if the newly emerging species were derived from the roadside seeds or the commercial mix which I had sown only 18 months earlier. But I didn’t mind which seed had been more successful. What mattered was that now gardening felt more of a dialogue between my garden, the wider landscape and myself.