Arable fields – the fields used to grow Wheat, Barley, Sugar Beet etc. – are a specialised habitat. Every year the ground is cleared of vegetation, broken up by ploughing and then seeded. Only plants that can tolerate such disturbance can survive, and almost all of these are annuals – species that complete their life-cycle, from seed to flower and back to seed, within a year. An arable flora is very different from, for example, a meadow, which is dominated by perennials.
Agriculture was first brought to Britain around 4,500 bc by Neolithic farmers. Mixed in with their seed corn, the first farmers brought weeds, and each successive wave of farmers that followed brought more. In this way, flowers such as Common Poppy, Cornflower, and Corn Marigold became part of the British flora. Some natives, such as Scarlet Pimpernel, found the new habitat of arable fields to their liking too, and weed-filled fields became one of the most colourful parts of the landscape.
In the period since the Second World War the use of herbicides has eradicated many arable weeds, and most crops are now monocultures. Part of a drive to produce ‘cheap’ food, the cost has been the loss of colour and variety in farmland, and dramatic declines of many farmland birds and insects, which depend upon flowers and weed seeds for food. Our arable beds have been sown with a crop of Wheat, but also with a wide variety of ‘weeds’, in order to recapture some of the colour and variety of the past.