How to make a meadow

By Val Bourne , Tuesday 26 February 2013

Not just a thing of natural beauty, a meadow also helps sustain wildlife. Val Bourne tells us how to get started.

Marbled white butterfly on knapweed by Val BourneMarbled white butterfly on knapweed by Val Bourne
Why make a meadow?

Meadows are pleasing to look at, much more so than a shorn lawn. They are guaranteed to draw more wildlife into your garden and, if you include some British natives, you will helping to sustain our endangered wild bees and other pollinators. Their survival is crucial because most plants, including all vegetables and fruit, need a pollinator at some stage. 

You will also provide shelter to small mammals, birds and amphibians in your garden. Leaving long grass will pull in more butterflies, particularly those members of the brown butterfly tribe, as they lay their eggs on certain grasses. Skippers, ringlets, meadow browns, gate keepers and marbled whites might well grace your garden in summer, as do they mine.

Your sward of grass and flowers will save fossil fuel too, as you will only mow once a year from year two onwards. It needn’t look untidy either. Just cut some smart paths through your flowing sward.

The basic principles

Making a meadow takes time, but the golden rule is to keep fertility down. This will encourage your wildflowers by reducing the vigour of more aggressive grasses, thus giving wildflowers enough space to grow.

Mow once a year, after most of your flowers have set seed. Leave the clippings on the grass for two or three days at the most, to allow any seeds to drop into the soil. Then collect up all your hay and consign it to the compost heap. If you leave the clippings in situ they will produce nitrogen and the coarse grasses will then out compete your wild flowers.

Never add fertiliser.

Using hemi-parasitic plants to subdue your grass

Yellow rattle by Val BourneCertain plants called hemi-parasites feed on the roots of grasses and this process subdues their growth and the two co-exist together, generally finding a balance. It's a good idea to include a hemi-parasite like Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor), right. It’s an annual which produces a spire of yellow hooded flowers in summer. When the seed heads mature they rattle in the wind - hence their common name.

Seeds of yellow rattle can be bought from many sources. However they must germinate on grass. The best technique is to scarify your grass in the autumn straight after mowing, by raking it with a metal-tined rake. Sprinkle the seeds on to moist soil in early September and tread them in well. Young plants will germinate in the following  April and, once some are established, they will self-seed every year.

Yellow rattle seeds will not germinate in a pot of compost - the plants need grass roots. There are other hemi-parasitic plants, but Yellow rattle is the easiest.

Getting started

  • The very first thing to do is to home in on your native flora by studying the plants that grow naturally on your soil, in your region.
  • If you're unsure of your local flora you can print out a comprehensive list using your postcode via The Natural History Museum's website.
  • Once you have an idea of the plants you want to grow, the next challenge is to find a bona fide supplier of wild-grown seeds or plug plants.
  • Winter and early spring are both excellent times to make a start on a meadow. Plug plants can be planted into turf in spring, but do make a large hole and keep the plants well watered. Plugs can also go in during September. You can also clear areas and scatter on seeds, as below.

Getting started from bare earth

  • Choose a mixture. There are lots on offer. Some of them contain bright annuals - not necessarily native to Britain. Ask your suppliers advice about when to sow - it will depend on the mixture.
  • If starting from seed, you will have to remove the grass first to expose bare soil. The seed bank already in your soil will quickly begin to germinate. Allow this to happen, as these will almost be certainly be weeds. After two weeks hoe all the seedlings off, back to bare earth, and then sow your wildflower mixture. The optimum time is the first week in September.
  • Rake them over thoroughly and firm down the seeds with your feet. Keep the area watered in dry weather.
  • You will need to mow at least three times in the first year of growth, to a height of about 5cm, remembering to remove the cuttings to keep down the fertility.
  • In the second year, the meadow should start to flower and you will only need to mow once, after the flowers have set seed. A good meadow takes centuries, but at least you have made a start.

Large expanses from seed

If planting a large area use a meadow specialist. They sell seeds in bulk and they will advise you on how much you need. They also put together mixtures including ones for clay, chalk, wet pond sides, sandy soils and for ordinary garden soil too. Generally mixtures contain annuals and perennials that give flower between May and August.

The ground needs to be cleared and 1.5 grams of seed per square metre or yard is usually the recommended amount. You can also buy mixtures of plug plants in any combination - www.meadowmania.co.uk.

Going strictly wild

Growing British native flowers and grasses is more eco-friendly because native flora is the preferred choice of British beesbutterflies and other insects.

If you do decide to go native, your seeds or plugs must be carefully sourced. The charity Landlife sell British grown native plants and home-produced seeds - www.wildflower.org.uk.

Using plugs

Lots of nurseries sell plugs of native plants and some nurseries will make up mixed trays. These can be added to your grassy area in spring or autumn. However September planting is often more successful. This is the quickest way to establish wild flowers initially.

Bulking up with a few plugs

If you buy six plugs and plant them in a square of soil (2ft x 2ft) this will allow you to collect seeds from these plants and then, if you sow them in September, you can raise lots of plants from your six plant originals.

Suitable starting points for your meadow

Blue cornflower - Centuarea cyanus

This bright-blue, willowy annual is easy to grow from seed and this native is the preferred flower of the endangered red-tailed bumble bee (Bombus lapidarius).

Yellow Rattle - Rhinanthus minor

Distress the ground and rake in the seeds in autumn for early germination. This native, hemisparasitic July-flowering annual needs grass roots to germinate - so it’s not for seed trays.

Field Scabious - Knautia arvensis

The perennial native scabious, commonly seen on roadsides, flowers in the second half of summer producing wands of blue pincushions.

Common knapweed - Centaurea nigra

This butterfly magnet has purple-red, feathery flowers and diamond patterned buds.

Field Poppy-  Papaver rhoeas

The red Flanders poppy thrives on disturbance so you must spread the seeds and rake up the soil to bring them to the surface. Hoverflies feed on the pollen.

Wildlife tip

Have a supply of flowering plants throughout the year, if possible, and always have some spring-flowering plants because solitary and bumble bees hibernate with no food reserves. When they emerge early in the year they need immediate energy-boosting nectar and pollen.

Useful addresses

Join the charity Plantlife - www.plantlife.org.uk and help conserve Britain’s flora.

Plantlife recommend Landlife Seeds - www.wildflower.org.uk - for home-grown native species.

Flora Locale also promote the use and sourcing of British seeds and they produce a list of reputable suppliers. They also run courses for individuals, parish councils and schools who may wish to plant for the future www.floralocale.org.uk. They will also offer advice.

Flower Farms (near Marlborough)

Sell home-grown seeds produced by Charles Flower on their Wiltshire Flower Farm - www.charlesflower-wildflowers.co.uk.

Bumblebee Conservation

A good source of information - www.bumblebeeconservation.org. Join from as little as £1 a month.

Buglife

Lots of information about insects, including identification for members. www.buglife.org.uk.

Extra reading

Where Have All the Wildflowers Gone by Charles Flower published by Papadakis at £25.00.

Read Val Bourne every month in Saga Magazine .

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.

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