A wildflower meadow is a valuable habitat for insects and small mammals
Most of our natural flower-rich wildflower meadows have disappeared over the last 60 years, due to the intensification of agriculture; so it is important that we, as gardeners, try and replicate these lost habitats in our own gardens. A wildflower meadow is made up of a large percentage of grasses with flowers suitable for the soil conditions. These flowers and grasses are food and a refuge for a myriad of insects and small mammals, such as shrews and voles; which in turn are food for birds. A wildflower meadow can vary in size from a large field to a small patch of a few metres. There are two ways to make a meadow; either improve an existing patch of grass or sow a new meadow from scratch.
Creating a new meadow from scratch
Take out all the vegetation from the chosen area. Prepare the soil by raking and removing stones and breaking up the clods of earth. Remove all the roots of pernicious weeds such as thistles, docks and nettles. Do not add any nutrients in the form of compost, farmyard manure or fertiliser as the flower meadow needs to be grown in poor soil. Rich soil will encourage the vigorous growth of the grasses which will eventually out-compete the flowers.
Take a soil sample to determine whether the soil is acid or alkaline; this is important as some flower species only grow in particular soil types. Some species need a damp soil, such as: Autumn Hawkbit (Leontodonautumnalis), Cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis), Devil’s-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis) and Marsh-marigold (Caltha palustris). So make sure you have the right species for the soil conditions.
Obtain seed from a reputable supplier which supplies seed for the different soil types. Some of the cheaper mixes contain a lot of grasses so you may have to supplement these with plug or pot grown plants. Some flower species, such as: Bugle (Ajuga reptans), Common Rockrose (Helianthemum nummularium), Dropwort (Filipendula vulgaris) and Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) are difficult to grow from seed, so these species may have to be bought in as plants. Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) is a good plant for meadows as its roots take nutrients from the surrounding grasses, which stunts their growth leaving more room for the flowers.
You can collect seed from roadside verges and wildflower meadows, with the landowners consent. It needs to be collected from nearby as this increases the chances of the soil conditions being the same, and therefore increases the chance of success. It is against the law to take plants from the wild, but seed collection is allowed. Collect over a period of several months, from June to September, to ensure you have a long flowering season. Clean the seed from the chaff and dry on newspaper. When dry store in paper bags or envelopes, in the fridge.
Sow the seeds either in early autumn, or spring if the ground is liable to become waterlogged in winter. Leave the soil bare for 3 – 4 weeks before sowing to allow any weeds to germinate, which can then be removed. Sow the seed at a rate of 2 – 5 grams per square metre; mixing the seed with sand will ensure an even distribution. Settle the seed by treading down or lightly rolling. If the soil is dry water with a fine rose as a strong jet of water will wash the seed together into hollows. Annual flowers can also be sown, which will self-seed, but these usually need a richer soil so may not perform as well as the perennials.
Enhancing an existing lawn
Leave the lawn uncut one summer so that you can see what wild flowers are already present. Plug or pot plants are easily inserted into the lawn. Seed can be sown in the autumn after the lawn has been cut short. It needs to be raked to remove any vegetation and to create bare patches, which can then be sown as described above, but at a rate of 1.5 grams per square metre.
Wildflower bank at Sizergh Castle
In the first couple of years remove any pernicious weeds. Keep an eye out for slugs and at the first signs use an environmentally friendly slug deterrent. Make sure the meadow doesn’t dry out; you may need to water every day when the weather is hot. Don’t fertilise as this will only encourage strong grass growth. Make sure the area doesn’t get trampled on. Cut at least once a year after the plants have stopped flowering and remove all the cut vegetation and either put on the compost heap or use as animal fodder. Leave uncut patches around the margin for insects to escape to, and as a refuge in winter. Don’t cut any shorter than 5cm (2”).
Daughter of a farmer and market gardener so have always had a connection with the outdoors, whether it was keeping animals or producing fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. Along with my work at Hayes Garden World I also have a smallholding, mainly breeding rare breed pigs. I gained an HND and BSc in Conservation and Environmental Land Management, as a result I am an ardent environmentalist and have a keen interest in environmentally friendly gardening. In my time at Hayes I worked for several years in the Outdoor Plant and Houseplant areas