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The Sleeper Bank

Becky Martin provides an account of the Sleeper Bank's reawakening over time.

The nursery has not always existed in its current form. The new shop and café building, the glasshouse and sales area were constructed and completed on their present site in 2011. They sit on a hillside which was previously terraced into banks, paths and flat areas used as standing for thousands of potted plants. This had to be levelled mechanically before the development. Vast quantities of ‘803’ were necessary. This is an aggregate, or sub-base, used to make a hard base on which roads or structures can be built. It consists of pieces of rock of maximum size 63mm down to dust-sized particles and is mechanically compacted in situ.

On the lower side of the sales terraces this compacted area is supported by a bank of old railway sleepers, with a slope of about four feet of stones and grit above it. It is totally unsuitable as a growing medium. However, it could not be left bare. After much head-scratching it was decided to plant buddlejas on the bank, since they seem able to grow almost anywhere with minimal soil or sustenance. Two varieties were chosen: Miss Ruby and Blue Chip. These are reputed not to set seed freely, and this has proved to be the case.

Since then this bank has been left largely undisturbed. The buddleja has grown, and so have some undesirable invaders, particularly willow and brambles. With the expansion of the public access area down the slope, and particularly the creation of the bumblebee garden and the edible garden, it was necessary to make this bank a little more aesthetically pleasing.

Starting in April 2019 the weeds were cleared and the sleepers scraped free of moss. This was a laborious and unpleasant job but the results were most gratifying. This process revealed a number of plants which had self-seeded into the bank. Mostly, we think, these came from seeds dropped by birds, and seeds washed down in the run-off from watering plants in the sales area. Along with this water are traces of fertilizer leaching out of the plant pots which have probably assisted the survival of these plants. There are several fuchsias, cotoneaster, a beautiful and very vigorous rambling rose, heather, ferns, pernettya, pyracantha and tellima amongst others. There are a number of grasses in a patch below the table where grasses were for sale.

Over the winter the willows were cut back and the stumps treated with herbicide to prevent regrowth. It is never desirable to use toxic chemicals but in this case there was no alternative. The buddleja was also cut hard back, and most have regrown well.

At the end of last summer seeds were collected from all the spent annuals in the bumblebee garden. These were dried and mixed with compost and then scattered over the entire length of the bank in the spring.. Escholzia get first prize for seeding, followed by marigolds and nasturtiums. A few plants not good enough for sale have also been planted, mostly sempervivums and low growing sedums. Four baby Echium pininana have also sneaked in, though this is a gamble unlikely to succeed. Any plant that manages to get a foothold in this site is welcome to stay put and grow. The result we hope will be colourful and self perpetuating and a true demonstration of the tenacity of plants.