Jackie Isard: My wild patch. I've also bought seeds to sow this autumn. Can't wait until next year! via Facebook
Growing a wildflower meadow area in your garden can be a satisfying way of attracting wildlife, is beautiful to look at and you don't necessarily need loads of space. Encouraging a slice of the wild in your garden can be a satisfying way of attracting a wide diversity of birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife. Over 97% of wild flower meadows have been destroyed since the 2nd World War and, whilst gardens cannot substitute ancient meadows in the wild, creating our own will attact lots of wildlife into your garden and helps to remind us how important it is to take care of what is left.
Here are some tips and advice to get you started on a wildflower meadow in your garden.:
1. Choosing your patch
The best way to grow your meadow depends on the site you've chosen:
The average lawn, possessing quite a few weeds: The easiest way is to simply "say no to the mow" leave your lawn unmown. If it’s old and weedy you’ll be amazed at what can come up. If you want to add more types of flowers, you can try adding plug-plants in the autumn (make sure the species are suited to your soil type and condition) or you can grow your own plants from seed.
Well tended, weed-free lawns: If you have a new or beautifully tended weed-free lawn you might be better off starting from scratch (see below). Alternatively you could try mowing it regularly and removing the clippings for a few years to reduce the fertility. With patience, some wildflowers should start to appear after a few years. You could speed things up by planting plug-plants or by sowing seed in small bare patches.
- Patch of soil or a dull lawn: It’s best to start from scratch. Firstly, remove the top few inches of fertile topsoil in late summer, perhaps using it to make some raised beds for vegetables. This can be hard work but is essential as wildflowers must have poor soil to thrive. Rake over the area and sow a mix of flowers that are suitable for your soil. Buy your seed from suppliers that source native British plants or, better, contact your local Wildlife Trust as some now collect seed from their reserves. If you're buying wildflower seed, please make sure you know what's in the packet; many mixes contain cornfield annuals like poppies, cornflowers and corn marigolds. These are not meadow flowers and, although they'll look fantastic in the first year, will just vanish in future years.
One flower deserves a special mention: Yellow Rattle is a lovely meadow flower with a slightly sinister character. Its roots tap into those of grasses, stealing their nutrients and suppressing their growth. This keeps them in check and allows many other meadow flowers to thrive with the reduced grass growth. It does such a good job it's sometimes called "the meadow maker". Introduce Yellow Rattle into your meadow by sowing fresh seed from a local source in autumn.
2. Consider light and soil type
Before you get to work on your wildflower meadow consider the availability of light and your soil type:
Light: All meadow plants prefer an open, sunny place. Avoid sites under trees as these will be too dark and too dry. Small native trees and shrubs (such as hawthorn, blackthorn and gorse) or fruit trees scattered through the meadow are beneficial for other wildlife, but can make mowing more difficult.
Soil: Your soil type will determine which flowers will grow. Drier sites with poorer soils are easier to manage; damp soils will be fine but avoid extremely wet sites. The list below gives an idea of the types of flowers you can try on different soils:
- Oxeye daisy
- Clustered bellflower
- Common spotted orchid
- Bird's-foot trefoil
- Field scabious
- Oxeye daisy
- Common knapweed
- Meadow saffron
- Bird's-foot trefoil
- Meadow buttercup
3. Mowing your meadow
Once you have a meadow with some grass and flowers, the absolute key to maintaining it is through mowing.
The basic yearly pattern is to leave the meadow alone until the first grass cut in late summer, any time from the end of July until mid September. This gives wildflowers the chance to set and shed their seed. The exact timing depends on the year and the weather, but a later cut will help species like knapweed and orchids to spread, while earlier cuts can help control competitive species. Try cutting different areas at different times and see how your wildflowers respond. Cut the grass down hard to a few inches in height but, if you can, it's also good to leave some strips or edges uncut as refuges for insects.
When you cut the grass, it's very important to remove all the cuttings - this helps to keep the soil fertility down. Try strewing the cut grass on other patches of lawn as the widlflower seed they contain can establish new plants; avoid putting cuttings in the compost unless you want wildflowers appearing in every part of the garden! It's best to mow the meadow again a few times until around Christmas, removing the clippings each time. Then leave the meadow alone and enjoy the riot of flowers through spring until the following summer.
This annual cycle of management mimics the traditional pattern of hay-cutting followed by grazing to which many meadow flowers are adapted.