A Community Group in Action

A Community Group in Action

©Bruce Larner

Discover the Wilder journey of Friends of Portswood Recreation Ground and how they’ve transformed a space that can be loved by the community and local wildlife.

We are the gardening group attached to Friends of Portswood Recreation Ground (FOPR) or as it’s known locally, The Rec. It’s a small local authority park of about 2 hectares in Southampton. The park is widely used by the local community including the school that’s immediately adjacent. It has tennis courts, a children’s play area and a sports field, and is much loved by dog walkers, joggers, pick-nickers and people-watchers…something for everyone! 

The Rec also has a garden area which, until comparatively recently, was maintained by Southampton City Council (SCC). Unfortunately, due to increasing budgetary constraints, the garden had become rather neglected and overgrown. So, in 2018 our gardening group was formed with a view to restoring the beds and borders, whilst making them as wildlife friendly as possible.  

Portswood Rec flower border

©Bruce Larner

We started with a large, circular bed in the centre of the garden. The University Grounds Team helped us clear some of the unwanted shrubs and weeds. Unfortunately, our main adversaries were 2 plants with excellent wildlife credentials, namely bramble and thistles. But there’s a place for everything and in their case, this wasn’t it! In the summer of 2019, we planted the bed with shrubs and perennials that would appeal to pollinators. The bed is ideally placed, being in full sun all day and the plants were chosen to give as long a flowering season as possible. The bed looked impressive last year despite the drought we had during the first lockdown. It then took a while to get going this year, due to frosts later in the spring, but is now flourishing and attracting lots of bees and other insects. 

We then went on to clear a second bed which was also overrun with brambles. The council suggested that weed killer would be the most efficient way to deal with it, but we were determined we weren’t going to use any chemicals. It’s been a case of attacking it with loppers and trying to dig the roots out. It’s largely under control but we have to be constantly vigilant because it still pops up whenever our backs are turned. Again, when it came to planting, we’ve tried to use things that are attractive to both people and insects. 

The bed we’re working on at the moment is backed by a beautiful old beech hedge and has a number of existing shrubs; some that were planted and some that have seeded themselves, though perhaps not in the best location. The bed is south facing and has a patch of earth which we’ve cleared and planted using species with moth appeal. One of our members has grown them from seed and lovingly tended to them over many weeks. The tobacco plants have really come up well, less so the stocks, and we’re going to have to wait until next spring for the dame’s violet to flower. Last year there were a pair of blackbirds nesting in the beech hedge and we had the pleasure of watching them busily gathering food for their young whilst we were gardening.  They particularly liked to root around in the bark mulch we’d laid and even incorporated some small bits of string we’d left lying around in their nest! 

Portswood Rec moth border nicotiana

© Bruce Larner 

There is an untidy, overgrown patch in one corner of the garden that we thought we’d leave undisturbed for wildlife, although almost the entire perimeter of the park has been allowed to grow wild for the benefit of nature. This year we’ve been able to create further habitat by planting a wildflower meadow beyond the garden area. The turf was surplus to what SCC required and looked unpromising when we first laid it at the end of March. At some effort, we managed to keep it watered during a rainless April, to enable it to bed in. Since then, we’ve had sufficient sun and rain to sustain it and it’s been a huge success. The Council will ‘harvest’ it in August with a special mower that removes all the cuttings, to avoid enriching the soil. The only disappointment is that the wildflower turf was grown on a plastic mesh, and we were told by the company that supplied it, that although the plastic will break up, it won’t completely biodegrade. This company appears to be endorsed by a number of Conservation groups and I’ve contacted them to express my concern. It feels like we’re addressing one environmental problem only to create another…not ideal! 

In the spring, we carried out a marathon planting of 1000 snowdrop bulbs in various locations throughout the park; hopefully a feast for the eyes next year as well as food for early insects. We also installed a beautiful bug hotel made by one of our members, as well as a couple of robin nesting boxes which are safely tucked away in the hedges on either side of the park…sufficiently far apart to prevent territorial disputes - hopefully. We had planned to position more nesting boxes in some of the many trees in the park but were told to wait on advice from SCC’s Environmental Officer. Unfortunately, it means that we’ve missed out on this year's breeding season, but we’d still like to install them as soon as possible so that the birds can familiarise themselves with them and potentially use them as night roosts. 

We have found stag beetles in the park and have recently scattered a number of logs, in varying states of decay, around the garden area. We’ve also put out 3 water containers for hedgehogs, birds and insects because there is currently no other water source at the Rec. I’d like to install a wildlife pond but clearly that would be a huge project with several obstacles to overcome. We’d need to make out a really strong case to obtain permission from SCC, convince the general public that we’d mitigated the perceived risks, obtain sufficient funding etc. I’d be really interested to hear from anyone that’s managed to create a pond in an open, public space and how they dealt with the challenges. 

The Council are currently trying to minimise the use of herbicides in their parks and public places. Glyphosate is used annually to control growth at the base of all the fences in the Rec. This year we negotiated leaving a section unsprayed, to evaluate the outcome and get the views of park users. It’s my hope that people will come to accept a more relaxed look and all the benefits that brings. Then we can move to a point where regular pesticide use is no longer needed, which has to be a good thing. 

Plenty achieved, but plenty still to do!! So, if you’d like to know more about the group and possibly join us, please contact me at denise.long2@btinternet.com