6 March: We tentatively venture onto the meadow after a gap of five months to find small green shoots springing up across the sown section of Lark Meadow. It's too early to tell for anyone but the most expert botanist to work out what's germinated while the damp, unsown section is still too wet to even walk over.
19 April: A journey back to the meadow shows that the plant growing the fastest is a wild mustard called charlock whose seeds, after lying dormant for years have taken the opportunity to shoot up and flower.
There's also speedwell in flower and we can now identify the leaves of cranesbill, corncockle and oats. Lots of oats - a reminder of the crop that was harvested last summer.
4 May: We start to prep the section of the field that was too wet to sow last autumn. Measuring some 2000 square metres, it's about a fifth of the whole field, so a not insignificant amount. String is used to delineate areas to sow so that we can roughly keep to the 4g per of seed per sq-m recommended by the seed company, Emorsgate. The ground is rough, lumpy and is providing a home for lots of spiders that have spun tiny dense webs over small crevices in the soil. Long tailed tits and goldcrests use strands from spiders' webs in their nests but we doubt that they'd venture out onto the meadow.
However, the webs are a positive sign of life returning.
7 May: We're old hands at sowing seed now so nip relatively nimbly across the field with our trugs distributing seed mixed with sand as evenly as we can. And Sam, one of our trustees, has grown over 100 yarrow plugs for us to plant out as well.
13 May: The ground is already as hard as iron but we forcefully use our trowels to break open the ground and, carefully untangling the roots, we lower each of the yarrow plugs into their chosen spot. Much loved by a host of insects, yarrow is a tough plant and can cope with both drought and damp.
20-22 May: A small group of hardy volunteers gather on the newly sown section of Lark Meadow to hand pull oat seedlings. Generally, the recommended advice for a newly sown meadow is to cut growth down early on in the first year to give newly germinating perennial native flower seedlings the best chance of establishing. But we chose to have a splash of colour in the first year from annual plants like our corncockles so we can't do a cut until after the annuals have flowered. But, taking care not to flatten the annuals, we slowly work our way across this part of the field remembering that not so long ago, hand-pulling wild oats from crops was part of labouring life for agricultural workers.
4 June: There are a few common spotted orchids in bloom along the bank at the far end of the meadow. Each of the plants can produce over half a million seeds so it's tempting to dream of a carpet of common spotted orchids spreading out across Lark Meadow in the years to come. On the way back, we spot a fuzzy oak eggar moth caterpillar. Glowing a rich chestnut colour in the sun, we realise just how vulnerable caterpillars such as these are. This species pupates on the ground tucked away in vegetation before, all being well, it emerges as a beautiful furry moth next spring.
June - July: Lark Meadow is awash with yellow and mauve as the charlock and corncockles are in full bloom. There's also a fine display of native grasses taking root including crested dog's tail, common bent, sweet vernal grass, red fescue and yellow oat grass. It's easy to forget that the caterpillars of many butterfly species including gatekeepers, meadow browns and various skippers feed on grasses. So the native grasses growing here will provide a vital feast for several species.
A couple of us have expanded our oat pulling to include charlock and though it seems mad to 'weed' a field, we've probably cleared about a quarter of the field altogether. One robust plant of charlock can produce 2 - 4,000 seeds per plant so we felt it needed knocking back, just a bit. Due to the incredible heat, we work in the evenings and though tiring, it's strangely satisfying to get to know the land and plants so intimately. Oats have such shallow roots but leave just a scrap of root attached to the plant in contact with the soil and the plant continues to flourish. On the other hand, corncockles put down deeper tap roots whilst if we, by accident, try to pull up narrow leaved plantain it's almost impossible. Deeper tap roots like these benefit the overall health of the soil by promoting beneficial soil microbes, such as bacteria and fungi, and inhibiting plant pathogens. Beneficial soil microbes also increase carbon and nutrient cycling in the soil, ultimately benefiting plants, the insects that feed on them and, of course, the animals that feed on the insects.
28 July: Pete, one of our trustees, has created a beautiful hand-made wooden sign for the edge of the meadow to draw people's attention to the site. As it's erected, a hoverfly lands to inspect the board which we take as a very good omen. The yarrow plugs are doing well and there's a fresh sprinkling of corncockles about to flower in the most recently sown section of the meadow.
7 August: A survey for Butterfly Conservation's Big Butterfly Count reveals 23 common blues, 4 brown argus, 2 large skippers, 8 gatekeepers, numerous azure dragonflies, an emperor dragonfly and a skylark sheltering from the heat in the shadow of some towering corncockles. Out of 70 sites surveyed in Long Ashton, Barrow Gurney and South Bristol, Lark Meadow has the most common blue butterflies, by far. And it's one of only two sites to have brown argus. Common blue caterpillars love bird's foot trefoil and it's in our seed mix so hopefully there are tiny seedlings already establishing in amongst the grasses. For a meadow as new as this, seeing this number of butterflies here is deeply satisfying. More on this story can be found here.
4 October: The burgeoning vegetation of Lark Meadow has received its first cut and we can see that there are still some bare patches of earth particularly in the recently sown section. Thankfully, we've got enough money left over from our original grant from Quartet Foundation to buy more wildflower seed from Emorsgate. We can also afford 1 kg of yellow rattle seed. since the native grasses are establishing well, we've chosen a mix without grasses focusing on flowers like knapweed, ladies bedstraw, birds foot trefoil and other species beneficial for local wildlife.
20 October: We've sown the seed and taken a photo of the last handful to be sown. Such promise held in the palm of our hands. As we made our way across, the meadow, we noticed a few small holes dug alongside and underneath some of the small stones scattered across the field. Probably the homes of short-tailed field voles, it's another sign that life is returning to this corner of Long Ashton. With voles like these in residence, there could even be a barn owl hunting across the meadow this winter.
Due to the success of our yarrow plug plants, we're growing more species over-winter ready to plant out in spring so if you've got some space in your garden to pop a plug plant tray or two please drop us an email.