Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

A couple of weeks ago, after months of squelch, The Priory meadow was dry enough to support the weight of the Etesia ride-on mower … as well as my added weight sitting on top.  Had I tried to use it before the ground was firm, the Etesia would have carved up the grass like a Panzer on fondant.

And so, one sunny morning, I drove the circuitous route out of the garden, through two gates, along the west pond and out to an acre of ankle-deep grass.

Meadow paths

Each spring, I recut a network of pathways and mow them weekly until all of the meadow is shorn in autumn.  The paths are very visible after the meadow is cut in September (above): bright green bands curving to select rendezvous but after a spring surge of grass, they are mostly invisible.  Nevermind, I know by now where the paths should run; where to steer, where to avoid.

Common spotted orchid

The distinctive foliage of the common spotted orchid

I keep to the same layout year after year because I’m a creature of habit … and to avoid flowering bulbs.  I still have a little leeway however, a little discretion to swerve around something special, something I want to encourage.  Like an orchid.  Or a wagtail.

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A very good mower indeed – the Etesia Hydro 80

In November 2009, I planted 600 Fritillaria meleagris bulbs on the meadow as well as daffodils and Camassia.  The Camassia quamash has flourished, the daffodils less so.

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It is the fritillaries that have really prospered in this their favoured habitat: wet meadow.  Wildflower meadows are far rarer than they were a hundred years ago, of course – wet ones are even rarer.  It seemed obvious to try to develop one at The Priory, on what had been a large expanse of mostly wildlife-devoid rough mown grass.

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The snake’s head fritillary is my favourite flower but I can’t explain why.  Any more than I can explain why four is my favourite number and green my favourite colour.  It just is.

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This has been a good year for snake’s heads – better than last – but if there are colonies of several dozen, I still haven’t quite the number, quite the spectacle I expected when I slipped the bulbs into spade slits all those years ago.

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Vita Sackville-West called the it “a sinister little flower, in the mournful colour of decay.”  But then Vita Sackville-West was very wrong.  Mournful isn’t a word that springs into my head when I see these beautiful, delicately patterned bells quivering in an April breeze, pulling in passing bumble bees; with an occasional and very lovely white, green-lined companion.  Sinister, Ms Sackville-West?  Don’t talk nonsense.

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There is some debate, some muttering, as to whether Fritillaria meleagris is a true UK native … or a cultivated plant which slyly cast its seed over a garden wall.  But as it’s recorded as growing wild in C17th England, it is as native to me as incomers stinging nettle and ground elder.  And of the three, I know which one I want.

Fritillary seed

In June, I profligately scatter my seed

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so that, one day, there might be as many nodding, sinister plants as I could wish for.  Can you tell that Vita’s comment really irks me?

Three years ago, I wrote: “The snake’s head fritillaries have been pretty good. Not fall-over-fantastic but then I’m resigned to it taking years, decades even, for them to fully colonise the meadow.”

Meadow mown paths

I’ve now re-cut the paths for another year

Why then, knowing that, do I always hope that the display will be marvellously better than the year before?  Silly optimism?

Yep, but better a silly optimist than a silly pessimist.

Grass Cutting – Again

(I’ve written about cutting the two meadows before but as it is such a big part of my working life at this time of year you might forgive me for revisiting the subject).

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Cutting the Priory meadow is a job that looms large from late-summer onwards.  Cut it too soon and I lose late flowers and attractive long grass; cut it too late and I risk autumn rain turning the ground to mush; and too sodden for mighty machinery.

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We’ve had a glorious few weeks here in Sussex (and as I type we still haven’t had a frost) but after anxious nail-biting, I finally blinked and phoned my mowing man, Sam, a couple of weeks ago.

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I’ve featured Sam’s amazing apparatus before but I haven’t actually seen him for three years.  Like a mowing pixie he has swooped down on the meadow over a weekend, trundled around and been long gone by the time I return on Monday morning.

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Having twice cut the meadow myself (which is a hell of a job – if better than the raking), I watch Sam going about his business with enormous satisfaction.  And relief.

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What would take me several days, Sam does in about an hour.

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I’ve made life more interesting for Sam with anti-deer fruit tree cages

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and, of course, various large trees.  Having collected all the mowings in that drum, Sam dumps it all at one end of the meadow where it will rot down over the winter.  Not an ideal solution but the easiest, cheapest I’ve come up with.

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Withdrawing to the north lawn, I watched contentedly as he passed back and forth before, waving goodbye, I left him to it and drove home for my tea.

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The following morning the meadow was stripped bare.  But the job wasn’t quite done.  I spent about a day tidying up: strimming all the bits Sam couldn’t reach and cutting the grass shorter still with The Priory ride-on.

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Since when I’ve cut it once more and will continue doing so until either the grass stops growing or the ground is too boggy.  You can see how wet it is already … but those muddy tracks make good strips for sowing flower seed.

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Meanwhile, several miles away at The Old Forge – ‘my’ other garden – I’m faced with a similar task.  Here the area of uncut rough grass is huge; the ground far less even.

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Various old humps and dimples (ancient field boundaries, I think) make it difficult for Sam’s tractor.

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And so, I cut it myself.  It is a full day’s job but an annual chore I rather like.

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Especially on a beautiful October morning.

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I hire a remarkable machine called an Etesia Attila.  I’m not too bothered with machines.  I mean, they’re just machines right?  But when one does a job exceedingly well and fairly effortlessly, I happily doff my cap and give it a little pat.

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The Attila chuckles at slopes, winks at ditches and guffaws at long tussocky grass.  It occasionally stalls but considering what I ask of it, I don’t get too hissy.

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My only true concern when chopping this long, tough grass is avoiding the fleeing field-mice and scuttering voles.  I need to be vigilant to avoid mowing a vole.  Who wants that?

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But vole escapees still had to avoid a pair of vigilant crows and a hunting kestrel.  I didn’t have time to fetch my camera that day but here’s a photo from a couple of years ago.  It fed well.  Sorry voles.

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This was more of an agricultural day’s work than a gardening one.

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I was tired after 8 hours mowing in ever-decreasing circles.  Unlike The Priory, all the grass at The Old Forge is left where it falls (except the mown paths which I have since cleared).   It looks quite unsightly but an annual mow halts a steady encroachment of bramble, blackthorn and dogwood.

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As I said, I don’t mind mowing the long grass at The Old Forge.  It’s time spent listening to top tunes on my MP3 player, smack in the middle of the South Downs National Park and with a hunting kestrel for company.

I’ve had worse days.

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