Euroflor, a range of annual and perennial flower seed mixes already in wide use in French cities, is being launched in the UK. Developed by French seed breeder Top Green.
The range's widespread trialling and use in French cities has been largely down to the efforts of a fellow British expatriate and landscape consultant Howard Wood, for whom the south-eastern city of Lyon has been the idea's test-bed for more than a decade.
He explains that the city originally set aside 12 sites, with a number of objectives - from environmental improvement to cost reduction to serving as an educational tool for parks staff.
The parks department has since adopted the approach city-wide. "It has been able to absorb a 10 per cent increase in the area it maintains during the past four years without a budget increase," explains Wood. "Herbicide use is reduced by 90 per cent compared to four years ago and pesticides have now been almost totally eliminated. It's about five times cheaper to install and maintain than a normal flower bed. Others have come up with figures up to 10 times cheaper."
The department has since gone on to be the first in France to be awarded ISO 14001, the environmental standards certification. Wood has helped the city introduce other sustainable methods, such as co-composting manure and plant waste, earthworm breeding and thermal weed killing.
"I studied environmental science before going into the landscape industry, but this brings ecology and landscape together," he says. "Using the seed mixes has a low carbon footprint compared with pot plants, which need containers, fertilisers and transportation. With this you just sow 3-4g in a sand mix per square metre." Seed is sown from mid March to the end of May and can be staggered for later flowering.
"The biggest negative is the soil bed preparation," says Wood. "Unless it's only going to be seen from a distance, the bed has to be clean first, so you'll have a weed problem to deal with. You can prevent that by first covering it with plastic sheeting, which raises the temperature as well as cutting out the light. But you only usually have to do that for the first year and if you're converting an old flower bed they are usually pretty clean to begin with."
A range of mixes has been developed, including a honey mix, a rainbow mix, a cottage garden mix and even a ground cover mix, which grows no higher than 30cm and that Wood says is "already used over here for years on areas like roundabouts".
Possibilities in bespoke mixes
Bespoke mixes offer further possibilities, he adds. "You can form a mosaic in particular colours - it's a possibility for landscape architects to exploit, though you need a balance to ensure succession and prevent one species dominating, and you don't want them falling over."
Wild flower mixes from turf companies are not new. But Wood says the Euroflor range trumps them on amenity value. "Indigenous wild flower species are difficult to get established," he says. "People were being sold them on false premises - that you just had to sow the mixes once and they would go on forever."
With Euroflor, on the other hand, "even though many of them are cultivars, it still corresponds to the public's idea of what wild flowers ought to look like." This appears to be borne out by recent trials in the UK, which have taken place on golf courses and public parks in southern England.
In Torbay, Devon, green space is maintained by TOR2, a joint partnership between Torbay Council and services company May Gurney.
"Initially we experimented with using Euroflor urban flower mixtures in small areas, but have since introduced a large area of flowers in one of our parks," explains parks service manager Richard Barton.
"I had some reservations about the initial establishment and the public's perception of seeing bare soil. However, we have had increased visits to the park to look specifically at these flowers, which are more cost-effective than using bedding plants. The public have been so impressed that they have been taking photographs and emailing them to us, which is a first.
"There has also been a significant increase in beneficial insects, bumblebees and butterflies. We are now looking to introduce Euroflor mixes to other parks throughout Torbay."
Trials cover different conditions
Wood is continuing to trial mixes under different conditions. "I have been taking them further south, to Spain, Portugal, even Tunisia, to see what the limits are and how little water you can get away with," he says. "Now I'm doing the same thing going north - how cold can it go and how much rain can it take? I'm already up to the Midlands and will go on from there next year."
He says of trials in areas of London's St James's Park and Regent's Park: "One ecologist said he wasn't bothered about the horticultural varieties, but was concerned that native species like poppies had a genotype from elsewhere. But there's no reason why you couldn't use a percentage of local or regional seed instead."
He adds that after trials at two golf courses in Cornwall: "The members have gone wild about the flowers, which makes us think it has potential for the home garden too." In France, some vineyards have sown the mixes under the vines as a season-long nectar source for insects, which no longer have to be brought in to pollinate crops.
Rigby Taylor will distribute the mixes in the UK. Seed research director Brian Robinson says: "Local authorities are thinking twice about using as many bedding plants, but flowers remain extremely popular with the public. Flowering areas that require little maintenance are a highly attractive proposition, especially when sustainability and biodiversity are also key concerns."
A grass seed mix can be put in with the flowers to prevent broadleaf weeds invading, he adds. Interest has already been expressed regarding use along motorways as well as in urban areas. And with only two interventions a year - to sow at the start of the season and cut at the end - considerable savings are possible compared to the typical five or six mowings required for grassed areas, the company says.
But University of Sheffield senior landscape lecturer Nigel Dunnett says the concept differs little from the Pictorial Meadows range, already in use by local authorities. "I am all in favour of this concept, because I developed exactly the same thing more than a decade ago," he says.
"It is absolutely necessary to be clear upfront that, like Pictorial Meadows, these are not wild flowers, that all are non-native and also sourced from outside the UK. There is a moral requirement to make it clear to customers exactly what they are using."
He also has reservations about their proposed use in commercial horticulture and on agricultural set-aside land. "I think there would be a lot of concern about the use of non-native seed mixes in open countryside. I am always very careful to be clear that Pictorial Meadows are really only intended for urban contexts, parks and gardens."
THE CARBON SINK UNDER YOUR FEET
Low maintenance flower mixes are just one way that green spaces can become carbon positive, according to landscape consultant Howard Wood.
"Energy imports and exports - notably transportation of biomass such as hedge cuttings, grass clippings, leaves and branches - could easily be rationalised out of landscape projects at the design stage, with parks becoming self sufficient units, recycling everything in situ as nature intended."
This year, Wood has conducted a carbon audit of Romsey War Memorial Park in Hampshire, believed to be the first of its kind. It compared the volume of carbon absorbed by the lawns, trees, shrubs and flowers in the 2ha park with the volume of carbon released in their maintenance. "We found the park took in four times as much carbon as it gave out," he reports.
Turf, in particular, is underestimated as a carbon sink, he adds. "And it turns out that turfgrass is better for the job than ordinary grass because it's denser, although you have to cut and feed it more. It's a question of balance."
In trials, Top Green has demonstrated carbon soil sequestration of up to 10 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year using specially selected turf mixes and has also trialled low maintenance mixes yielding 20-30 per cent fewer clippings. "For local authorities, there is enormous potential to address carbon sequestration rather than carbon emission," says Wood.