Left - An annual wildflower mix (Whipsnade Zoo) Right - A verge with native perennial wildflowers (Ewelme)

I find myself looking at verges when I am out and about.  They are all so different, influenced by various factors, including soil, topography, climate/weather conditions and management.  So much variety within our County! Each year some verge plants seem to do particularly well, depending on current environmental conditions.  This year in early spring, I noted areas of plentiful red dead-nettle, and then in the summer, perforate St. John’s wort appeared to be thriving.  Some species have become particularly prolific in certain areas, which creates some concerns and challenges, for example, hemlock, which can be invasive and shade out other native plants.

Road verges with native perennial wildflowers can look subtle compared to the intensity of those sown with an annual mix with a low percentage of grass seeds. Ever looked at a verge in bloom with native wildflowers and thought it would look lovely as a photo, only to find that a photo doesn’t do it justice?

Bee orchid in a verge in South Oxfordshire (c) Imogen Parker

Managing Wildflower Verges

There is a wealth of information available on verge management and the importance of these linear habitats as wildlife corridors.  One of the most widely used sources of valuable information is Plantlife’s ‘Managing grassland verges: A best practice guide’. Visit the our reference section for a collection of useful guidance on verge management.  A discussion of verge management frequently sparks differing views on how best to balance practical requirements with ecological benefits. Then there are the varied opinions of what is acceptable aesthetically. Verges need management if the objective is to maintain or enhance floristic diversity and to prevent scrub and coarse vegetation increasing at the expense of wildflowers, as would be the case for species-rich grassland. Cutting times and the removal of the arisings are crucial for areas managed for floristic diversify.  A verge may be managed for key species and this management may be organised around the flowering times or ecological requirements of these particular plants.

Oxfordshire has 35 Road Verge Nature Reserves (RVNR), managed by Oxfordshire County Council’s Highways and Transport Team. They are cut every year to maintain their species diversity.  Former Oxfordshire County Ecologist, Craig Blackwell (who was originally involved with surveying and designating the RVNR), will be giving a presentation on RVNR at this year’s Local Environment Group (LEG) Conference.

Other management options may be considered, such as enhancing a verge with seed or by using plant plugs.  It is important to survey the verge first to assess current botanical interest.  Planting may be a good option for a new verge, or one previously managed as an amenity area where there isn’t a nearby seed source. Planting should be suitable to the local area and soil type.  

Many mixes contain seed from non-UK species or those of Continental provenance, and therefore a mix needs to be chosen very carefully due to the risk of spreading to neighbouring land or cross-breeding with native flora.  

Is it ever appropriate to sow a verge with a ‘pictorial meadow’ (picture-perfect) mix?

Non-native flower combinations are generally not suitable for verge planting, although they may be acceptable in a contained urban setting. The name of many packet mixes can be misleading due to the dubious use of ‘wildlfower’ and/or ‘meadow’ in the title.  It is advisable to buy from a reputable source which lists exactly what is in the mix, and in what proportions.  An annual mix requires the soil to be prepared every year (or you may get away with every other year), and therefore practical considerations are essential.  

Even seemingly uninteresting verges may provide quite specific benefits for some species.  For example, several of our native grasses are larval food plants for some of our butterfly species - such as Yorkshire fog, which is food for speckled wood and small skipper butterflies. Tussocky grass will provide shelter for small mammals and overwintering habitat for many species of invertebrate.  A verge combined with adjacent habitats, such as a hedge, will offer even more value for nature.  

The theme for this year’s Wild Oxfordshire LEG Conference is ‘Linking up for nature with hedges and verges’.  The conference is taking place on the 28th October at Kirtlington Village Hall. Find out more and book tickets here! 

Further Resources

1. Which Wildflowers Provide The Most Nectar And Pollen For Bees?