Why inspiring children through natural beauty is our great chance to safeguard the future of our environment
As a child I was obsessed with flowers, particularly bee orchids and cowslips. These two flowers have recently had something of a comeback along the banks of our motorways. It is an interesting by-product and speaks of the resilience of nature. It is useful for the flowers but it offers little for the hungry imaginations of the next generations. I was able to stand in an old holloway, in silence, peering at the intricate details of cowslips as a child. I hope that today's children will not be forced to stand beside the A14 to get a glimpse of these beautiful flowers.
Many of today’s pasturelands are heavily fertilised and house huge numbers of sheep or cattle as farmers strive to make a living. This high presence of nitrogen means that grass outcompetes more fragile wildflowers. Many of these wildflowers prefer nutrient-low soil, such as the soil piled beside motorways. In many gardens people seek to cultivate a square of green which also provides few homes for our important wildflowers. To bring these beautiful flowers back to their old homes in fields and in our gardens there are a few things we can do. Through the beauty of flowers, or any of those creatures which form the ecosystem around them, we have a chance to inspire children to love their environment.
Our gardens can, together, create corridors of life through which insects, birds and all manner of wildflowers can thrive. If you take part in ‘No Mow May’ you will have seen that in the first few years grasses will dominate the garden. Slowly, though, you can rebalance the land to accommodate a range of species. A great flower to plant to speed up this process is called yellow rattle. This small and somewhat unremarkable flower has a special talent. It is semi-parasitic on grass. Once it gets established it contests the dominance of grass and opens space for more fragile flowers to thrive. The greater the diversity of plantlife the higher the chance of more insects and birds choosing to visit your garden.
If you have children that like to play outside or you wish to access parts of your garden then simply mow paths to where you would like to go. This can also have a very beneficial effect. As you create different heights of ground cover then different species will be able to find a space which suits them. For example, daisies love the low grass level and will often flourish in paths which people mow. Another positive side effect is less time spent mowing grass and subsequently less money spent on fuel (and lower carbon emissions!).
An important element of lowering the fertility of soil to allow for a greater range of plants is to remove the grass cuttings when you do mow. Removing these will help redress the dominance of grass in time. Changing how your back garden looks is a great way to encourage children to notice what is around them. Explaining that you are hoping to bring more flowers and perhaps even taking part in a flower count is another great way to make this whole change a fun experience. Children often have very keen eyes for flowers and at their height are likely to spot something adults may miss!
An old and brilliant trick to quickly improve the diversity of life in your garden (or in fields if you have them) is to find a local farmer who has a species-rich meadow and buy some of their hay. Spread this hay on scarified or bare ground and then wait and see what grows the following year. This is far cheaper than buying large quantities of wildflower seeds. It is also more likely to be successful as you will be spreading species that are successful in your local area. It is important to remember that creating a space for wildflowers takes time and some seeds may lie dormant until the conditions are right for them to thrive.
Teaching children about those flowers and plants which are locally abundant is another great way of grounding children in their local environments. There are a huge range of studies which highlight the mental and physical health benefits that children gain from playing outside. I would also argue that as a species we rely on the connection we made to nature as children. Even if it was a lone tree we played on in the local park as a child it is connections such as those that inspire us to protect green spaces as adults. If we can turn uninspiring back gardens into habitats that are teeming with life then we can inspire deep connections for children that are growing up in nature-depleted landscapes.
If we can do it in our back gardens then we can do it anywhere. Our hedges and our footpaths should be teeming with life too. Once we are aware of the life we could be surrounded by then it will become even clearer when we walk past places which have none of the diversity which should be present. It is all totally possible we just need the will to do it. The solutions which I have suggested are inexpensive and when we consider the cost of fuelling council mowers or the cost fertiliser it seems to make no sense to spend so much money creating a lifeless landscape.
It is our duty to create something beautiful and something varied. Those generations that came before me passed down a landscape which was infinitely poorer than the one they grew to love as children. It is our responsibility to ensure that we do not do the same. This is an opportunity to create something. It is an opportunity to be proud rather than angered. There are few generations which have the chance to pass on an infinitely more positive landscape.
It is clear, throughout history, that in England the ruling class never change until they are forced to. We must inspire and encourage as many as we can in order to create towns and fields full of life. There is a positive tide growing but we can’t stand idly by waiting for something to happen. If we do, we will not be thanked by those children who encounter only straight lines and fields of green.