Guest Post: Forest of Flowers

With foreword by Helmsley Walled Garden:

“Sourcing products for our Garden Shop is very exciting. We try to source from local and UK suppliers, as sustainably as possible, and with businesses (people!) that we feel closely align to our own values. We’ve recently introduced a number of new local suppliers to our shelves, to give our shop a little refresh. One of these is Forest of Flowers, based just down the road in Huby. Their wildflower seeds are proving very popular.

The challenge of climate change presents an important opportunity for us all and Helmsley Walled Garden aspires to set the standard for sustainable gardening practices. Much emphasis is placed on the choice of plants that are bee and butterfly friendly, and we have created an environment that encourages insects, birds and bats to visit, feed and nest in the Garden.  It is therefore a pleasure to work with suppliers such as Forest of Flowers, a rewilding project that has created a haven for wildlife, with 74 acres of new woodland and wildflower meadows now flourishing. We asked Tom and Alwyn at Forest of Flowers to write about the biodiversity on-site and how sowing wildflowers and taking other simple steps can make a difference to nature.”

Creating a Forest of Flowers

Before our project began in 2016, the land was a conventional arable and sheep farm. Hedges and old trees around the field edges provided some sanctuary for birds and other wildlife, but with herbicides, pesticides and fertilisers used across most of the site, biodiversity was poor.

We saw the potential to offer something wonderful for nature – a rich ecosystem with trees, wildflowers and ponds all supporting wildlife. So, after much planning and the support of the Woodland Trust, we took some radical, but simple steps. We planted 42,000 trees and sowed 35 species of wildflower, all after a deep plough inverted the topsoil, reducing fertility. In recent years we’ve also created 17 large ponds.

Photo: Mandy McKechnie

The habitat today

The site has completely transformed, almost beyond words! The Forest of Flowers is now a flourishing habitat, alive with vibrant wildflowers and a plethora of wildlife, with the sound of birdsong often filling the landscape.

The trees and shrubs have shot up, with incredible growth thanks to the topsoil inversion. The wildflowers are thriving, with a balance of species offering a long flowering season from April to September, and seed heads for birds to enjoy through autumn and winter.

It’s clear that biodiversity has ramped up, but we capture a range of data to help confirm this. With the support of our volunteers, we monitor butterflies each week in Spring and Summer, giving a key biodiversity indicator. Over the last three years, our annual butterfly sightings have reached the highest of all areas surveyed in Yorkshire, with over 3,000 individuals recorded each year on average. This is an incredible comeback for a site that only seven years ago offered little for butterflies. This has huge benefits for the wider ecosystem as butterflies and their caterpillars provide a vital food source for birds.

Our butterfly population reflects a habitat rich in native foodplants to support caterpillars, with suitable flowering plants also offering nectar for the adults. This shows the difference that planting wildflowers can make. Insects have evolved alongside them for millennia, with the two often depending on one another for survival. As an example, we wouldn’t see the stunning Orange Tip butterfly in the UK without cuckoo flower (Cardamine pratensis) or garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata) to lay its eggs on.

Native wildflowers (especially perennial and biennial) can support multiple types of wildlife in different ways. Teasel (Dipsacus fullonum), for example, offers:

  • Nectar for pollinators
  • Water held in cup-like leaves, benefitting insects
  • Seeds for goldfinches in autumn/winter
  • Tall hollow stems for beetles to hibernate in.

Supporting wildlife by growing wildflowers doesn’t require acres of land – even a small area can make a big difference. The total space of private UK gardens is estimated at 433,000 hectares (1,070,000 acres). If wildflowers grew in every garden, the support for our native wildlife species across the UK would be phenomenal.

There are selfish reasons to grow wildflowers too! Adding lots of interest and colour, in all shapes and sizes, it’s no surprise that native plants (usually thought of as ‘weeds’) appeared in a third of the Show Gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show in 2023.

All you need to grow wildflowers is a patch of bare or disturbed soil, water and patience. There are even wildflower species that thrive in very damp areas, or those without much sun.

After seeing the difference growing wildflowers has made to our project, we would argue it’s one of the best things you can do for biodiversity, while providing an incredible display of native flora and visiting wildlife. We recommend any nature lover to try it!

Photo: Mandy McKechnie

Creating a biodiverse habitat

With the support and advice of the Woodland Trust, the Forest of Flowers project took these steps across the 74-acre site to maximise biodiversity:

  • We used a 1-metre plough to invert the topsoil, burying the fertile agricultural soil and replacing it with low fertility subsoil. This helps young trees establish without competing vegetation on the surface, while their roots benefit from the open soil structure and fertility below. Low nutrient levels on the surface are also ideal for wildflowers, vastly reducing competition from grasses, nettles and thistles.
  • Once ground preparation was finished, we sowed 35 species of pure wildflower seeds across the 74-acre site, all either hand collected across Yorkshire, or sourced from sites in north-west England.
  • With the support of partners and the local community, the project planted 42,000 native trees and shrubs, grown locally at Thorpe Trees, among the newly-sown wildflowers. Open glades and rides throughout the new woodland break up the landscape and create a range of habitats, with around 30 tree and shrub species blending together to reflect natural structural variety and avoid a dense, uniform canopy.
  • We created 17 large ponds, 7 of which were thanks to Natural England funding for great-crested newt habitat, with support of the fantastic Wildscapes CIC.

Hand-collected wildflower seeds from Forest of Flowers are available in the Helmsley Walled Garden shop now. If you’d like to visit the meadows and new woodland near York, Tom and Alwyn host regular Guided Tours and expert-led events all year round, including workshops on wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies and more. 

Photo: Mandy McKechnie


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