Is there anything more delightful than lying in a meadow with a blade of grass in your mouth like Huck Finn? Imagine the peaceful sound of buzzing bumblebees and the pleasure of little butterflies, scurrying from one colourful wildflower to another and the enjoyable titillation of soft grass on your feet. Doesn’t it sound idyllic?
Although most of our wildflower meadows have been lost since 1950, mainly due to changes in farming practice, all these great pleasures are not too far away from reality. With a little bit of space, time and patience you can create a wildflower meadow in your own garden.
Creating a habitat
Apart from all the joy a flowering meadow will bring you, the greatest benefit is to local wildlife. By opening your garden to many insect species like butterflies, bees or grasshoppers, you will be providing a valuable habitat and help the local biodiversity. In turn, insects and wildflower seeds may also attract birds and small mammals such as shrews and hedgehogs. I’m sure most of you would admit that, compared to an ordinary, short-mown lawn, this is a more desirable image.
If you are starting with a bare area or wish to replace an existing lawn or other existing vegetation, the first step is to achieve a weed-free soil. Therefore, you need to get rid of any existing grasses or weeds (like docks or nettles). You could spray the area with a systemic weed killer (at least twice, with a break of 2-3 weeks in between) or, for an organic approach, you will have to weed it constantly for a certain time until all vegetation is gone.
The ideal soil for a meadow should be quite poor, otherwise grasses will become dominant and crowd your lovely wildflowers out. Don’t be tempted to add any fertiliser to the soil!
Before you start to sow your new meadow, the soil should be levelled. To avoid subsequent problems when cutting, a reasonably flat surface is necessary. You can achieve this by digging and raking. Clearing the site of stones and fragments of roots gives your new grass and plants a better chance to grow well.
Choosing grasses and wildflowers
By the time you have reached a weed-free, bare and fine soil you can order a fine grass seed mixture – fescues and bents or luxury lawn mix. Make sure that the mixture does not contain perennial rye grass, because it will quickly dominate other vegetation and doesn’t provide enough food for many insects to survive, thus offering poor wildlife value.
Depending on which time of the year you would like to have bright colour in your garden, take note of the different flowering times of flowers. Cuckooflower, Cowslip and Primrose flower in spring and allow the meadow to be used as a lawn during the summer.
To create a summer-flowering meadow, plant Knapweed, Ox-Eye Daisy, Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Yarrow, Lady’s bedstraw, Harebell, Meadow buttercup or Yellow rattle. Long season wildflowers such as Ribwort plantain and Self-Heal flower over a longer period of time.
All of these pretty wildflowers are perennials, which means they will come back for many growing seasons (if conditions allow). Don’t be disappointed if they don’t flower in the first year. In the early days of a meadow, perennial wildflowers establish their root system and foliage. Annual wildflowers such as cornflowers and poppies are beautiful, but you should be aware of the fact that their establishment in your meadow is labour-intensive. The management of annual meadows is difficult, because you have to resow and recreate them every year.
To avoid problems with existing grass and help with the establishment of perennial wildflowers in your meadow, it is advisable to grow them in plugs (and later in pots) instead of sowing a seed-mix. The stronger the wildflowers are before you place them in your new meadow, the more able they will be to withstand competition for light, moisture and space from more aggressive weeds.
Keep it native
Whether you sow seeds or place plants, try to keep your meadow native to support your local wildlife! Native plants are likely to be successful and have a higher wildlife value than so called ‘exotics’. Some species of native wildflower can support several hundred different insect species along with those animals that feed on the insects: normally more than any non native species can support. There are even some insects that require one particular food plant for its larvae, always native, and which will not survive without it. If you buy seeds or plugs from a nursery, make sure that they are nursery grown stock from local seed. Never try and transplant wildflowers from the wild, it doesn’t have a good success rate and may even be against the law.
How to grow
The best time to sow your seed mix is either early autumn (late August/September) or spring (April/early May). If you want to sow grass and wildflowers at the same time, mix 1.5g of pure wildflower and 3.5g of grass seed per square metre. After sowing, firm the ground to ensure good contact with the soil. Keeping the soil moist helps the seeds to germinate. If the period after sowing is dry, we recommend you water the seedbed lightly. You should be able to see the first results a week or two after sowing; green blades of grass will shoot out of your seedbed. Wildflower seeds may take up to 8 weeks or longer (some may need to overwinter first) to germinate.
When sowing the grass first (3-4g per square metre) and planting wildflowers raised in plugs (about 10 per square metre) or pots (3-5 per square metre) afterwards, you increase the chance of wildflower success. Several plugs of each species should be planted close together to facilitate pollination in the first year or two until the plants get established. If you sow the grass in autumn, plant wildflower pots or plugs the following spring. If you start in spring, wait until autumn. Rake the grass and use a spade or trowel to dig little holes for the wildflowers.
Managing your meadow/cutting regime
Wildflowers need a low nutrient level to thrive with the grasses. You have to keep the level low, otherwise your wildflowers could disappear and be replaced by perennial weeds. Negative indicators like nettles, docks and thistles show that the nutrient level is too high. The easiest way to keep your soil ‘wildflower-friendly’ is to remove the clippings when you cut your grass. The meadow should be cut to about 5cm (do not cut any lower as you may damage the roots or basal leaves of the flowers).
Cut at least three times in the first year to support the root development. From then on, once a year should be enough if the grass is not too vigorous. The usual cutting time for a spring-flowering meadow is from July onwards. A summer meadow should be left uncut until mid-September. The cuttings should be left for a few days to allow any remaining seeds to fall, and then removed to keep the fertility of the soil low. Raking helps to break up the surface and creates gaps in which new seedlings can establish themselves.
A wildflower meadow is a long-term project and may need a few years to establish. But once it is prepared and managed correctly, your patience and effort will be rewarded with a low-maintenance oasis.