Why make a wildflower 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 British native flowers, 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.
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The basic principles of planting a meadow
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
Certain 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). 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 with your meadow
Choosing your flowers
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 take a walk through the wild areas in your area and use a wildflower guide to help you identify them. Local nature conservation groups might also have information for you.
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. 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.
Planting your meadow
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.
Read our guide to making a large garden easier to manage
Growing strictly native wildflowers
Growing British native flowers and grasses is more eco-friendly because native flora is the preferred choice of British bees, butterflies, moths 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 through www.wildflower.org.uk.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Flower Farms (near Marlborough) sell home-grown seeds produced by Charles Flower on their Wiltshire Flower Farm - www.charlesflower-wildflowers.co.uk.
Bumblebee Conservation is a good source of information - www.bumblebeeconservation.org.
Buglife has lots of information about insects, including identification for members. www.buglife.org.uk.
Where Have All the Wildflowers Gone by Charles Flower published by Papadakis at £25.00.
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