You can make a wildflower garden anywhere!

Gill Williamson

Part 1                    April 6th 2021

“You can make a wildflower garden anywhere” is the message of the day. It seems an over-statement! But – who knows – there just might be something in it. For the last three years, my roof-top terrace has had containers full of oriental plants, chosen for their hardiness and varied leaf structures. They had done well in Japan and East Asia for centuries. They positively exploded in size and splendour 30 feet above the ground in Buxton, exposed most of the time to the south- and north-west winds, hours of intense sunshine on occasion and winter “Beasts from the East”. (The latter, of course, were old friends.) They were now too big and it was time for a change of planting. A wildflower garden, maybe?

A rooftop terrace has some special characteristics, which humans, plants and fauna need to accommodate. You cannot put heavy weights on them or they collapse into the pothole below, which might be your bedroom or study. They need a waterproof membrane underneath, which neither plant nor human may pierce in any circumstances. The drainage provisions made by their builders should not be interrupted. They (the drainage provisions) were designed with different land use in mind – for bistro tables, a few chairs, one or two elegant pot plants and maybe a wine cooler. The “ground” may take the form of quarry- or rubber-composite tiles, decking or bonded strips. There is no soil. Growing medium is imported and comes depleted of bacteria, worms and other good things. You should not hang anything anywhere – the legal eagles drawing up the lease make sure of that. You cannot nip round to the neighbours to ask them if you could do a tricky job from their side of the boundary. Going beyond the limits of your territory is not recommended. If the matter of making a wildflower garden in this location were put out to consultation amongst wild-flowers, birds and invertebrates, what would they think:- “No chance” or “Well, it’s not quite what we are used to, but it might just be workable”?

There was only one way to find out. Give it a whirl for a year or so and see how the natural world reacted. The biodiversity base-line for the terrace did not present unsurmountable challenges. Hoverflies, occasional bees and lace-wings would fly by to prospect and then move on. Wasps came, when human refreshments were present. A snail made it up the thirty feet and took up residence.  The one glorious exception was swifts wheeling overhead between April and early August – but their wonderful energy and not-a-care-in-the-World flying skills had no relationship to the terrace or its provisions. There was nothing to lose: almost any planting concept would be better from the biodiversity viewpoint.

The starting point. The terrace looked like this today, on the morning of April 6th.

So, what to do first to make it into a wildflower garden?                                                                (To be continued.)

PART 2                 7th April                                                                                                                                                                       

The decision was taken. A plan had to be made. Working with the Pooles Cavern Wildflower Garden team, which includes several Club members, had taught me a thing or two. Whilst poppies might grow effortlessly on new motorway verges and dandelions flourish despite practically all odds, wildflowers in their plurality are …demanding and initially lack resilience. Whatever is presently established must go completely. You don’t want the shoots from the roots of former vegetation popping up uninvited. The soil must be prepared to give small seedlings a fighting chance. You can’t just plant potatoes to clean it all up, as you might preparing the ground for a traditional garden. Out comes the vegetation, roots, stones, drinks can pulls, glass and crockery fragments, bits of plastic toys and other ephemera. Only then do you move onto the creative bit. So, how to apply this on my terrace?

Eleven plants had to be removed. They ranged in height from two to four feet and breadth was similar. They were good plants and had done me proud in many ways. You don’t have a compost heap on a rooftop terrace and my only option seemed to be chopping the plants up and taking them to Waterswallows. What a waste – and all that carbon released! A meeting Rachel Purchase and I attended provided the way forward. Its purpose was an exchange of news and ideas related to wildflower garden projects, with Dave and Sue Carlisle of Friends of Buxton Station. It was useful. It had the added personal benefit that the penny dropped, when we walked through the Japanese Garden: Dave made the comment that quite a lot of plants had suffered during the winter. The Japanese Garden was to be the onward home for my plants. 

Due to the weight factor, plants on the terrace are drained through salvaged polystyrene chunks. The current plants were practically pot-bound and had pushed their roots, kebab style, through the chunks. Every plant came out – or not – with a mass of polystyrene hanging from its root system. Most did not clear the rim and the polystyrene had to be cut off the root-ball or unthreaded like beads on a string. Many hours passed bent double, with hands underneath the root-balls, trying to clear the way to get them out. Assorted images came to mind, as they do during a boring job. I thought about the siege-breakers of medieval walled cities, excavating below the walls to create a collapse and breach. I conjured up an image of what it must be like as a farmer, assisting a ewe with a tricky delivery, Countryfile style, and having to work by feel alone. However, after several days, the job got done.

Excavating the largest plant

The challenge 

Only five more to go!         

Plants were brought down through the block of flats to the garden of helpful neighbours:- this abutted the car park. The planting medium was mixed in my study and the whole lot was potted in the garden ready for transport to the Station. I had the pleasure of seeing all the plants placed in their new locations, with much more space and shelter than on the terrace: they had a very good chance for a long, onward life. The Friends of Buxton Station were also pleased.

12TH April 2021



Exceptional views

Varied menus

Very airy – social distancing optional

No ground predators

Plant-based dishes for smaller winged friends will follow in due course!