Are you sure your meadow is a meadow?
Perhaps the most frequent enquiry we get at Plantlife is, “How do I grow a wildflower meadow?” This is almost always immediately followed by, “I tried it once and it looked fantastic in the first year, but then it looked rubbish”.
What could be more disappointing and dispiriting? Who’d want to carry on growing wildflowers after that sort of experience?
The problem is that much of the seed sold to grow a “wildflower meadow” is not meadow seed at all. It’s something entirely different.
When a meadow isn't a meadow...
A true ‘meadow’ is an area of grass maintained by an annual hay cut. It’s made up of perennial plants – species that grow and flower each year, re-appearing from their underground roots each spring. It includes meadow flowers like:
- grasses, such as Crested Dog’s-tail, Sweet Vernal Grass and Yorkshire Fog
- types of daisy, including Greater Knapweed, Oxeye Daisy and Cat's-ear
- types of pea and vetch, like Red Clover, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Bush Vetch and Sainfoin
- many others, such as Buttercups, Meadow Crane's-bill, Lady’s Bedstraw, Cowslips and Wild Carrot.
But many wildflower seed mixes that claim to be meadows are not meadows at all. Instead, they contain only annual plants – species that germinate, flower, set seed and die in one year. For the display to continue in future years, fresh seed has to germinate each year. These seed mixes include many colourful and familiar cornfield flowers such as:
A floral display for years to come...
Why does this matter? Well, it matters a lot, because the two have to be cultivated very differently if you want flowers to appear every year:
- Cornfield flowers are annuals and the patch of soil where they’re growing has to be cultivated - dug over or rotarvated - every year. If this is not done, they’ll quickly disappear.
- A true wildflower meadow of perennial plants, on the other hand, is basically a grassy lawn with lots of flowers. Once you’ve sown the seed in the first year, all you do is mow the meadow in late summer, remove the cuttings, and then leave alone until the following summer.
This essential difference is rarely explained. But, if you sow a mix of cornfield annuals and treat it like a wildflower meadow, it will look spectacular in the first year and rubbish thereafter. Without the annual cultivation of the soil, the flowers won’t germinate and grow. If you’re prepared to dig over the patch of soil each year though, you’ll keep that spectacular display going.
A true wildflower meadow seed-mix will contain just those perennial flowers. The display in the first year might not look great (perennials usually take a few years to get going) but as long as you don't mow until late summer, it will improve and get more spectacular each year.
For more on how to grow a meadow, see our guide here.
A note on 'Pictoral Meadows'...
Mixtures of cornfield annuals are wonderful. They provide bold splashes of colour, they're very easy to grow, and are a superb source of nectar, pollen and food for all sorts of insects and other wildlife. Every garden should make room for a patch of them.
In order to separate them from true wildflower meadows, they're often called 'pictoral meadows'. This helps, but it still uses that word 'meadow', which they're not. As a result there's confusion around what real grassy meadows are like - many people expect all meadows (including those in the countryside) to be the riotous blaze of colour that in reality can only come from annuals.
We prefer the terms 'cornfield flowers' or 'cornfield annuals' to describe these mixtures, especially the latter as hints at the annual cultivation needed to keep them going.