A Wildflower Meadow; an easy option or hard work?

By Andy McIndoe

A Wildflower Meadow – an easy option or hard work? Are meadow flowers easy to grow?

The wildflower meadow has been high profile for the past few years, but I’ve seen lots of articles about them in the press: some well informed and some rather misleading.  Is a wildflower meadow really an easy option?

Can anyone recreate the rural idyll in their backyard on any old patch of vacant land? Can you just let your lawn grow longer, put your feet up and stop mowing?

Will you achieve that vision of poppies, cornflowers and ox-eye daisies that springs to mind; a Monet masterpiece in your backyard? I have a fair bit of personal experience with meadows: some of my own choosing and some forced upon me!

Sandhill farm 17

Firstly my own wildflower meadow:  We have a two acre garden on a sandy north-east facing slope in Hampshire, England.  When we moved here the grass hadn’t been cut for around ten years.  It was lush ‘Yorkshire Fog”, well that’s what I call it anyway: that rather soft, sage green grasses with a purplish flower head in midsummer. 

One heavy rainstorm and the grass collapses and lies there till it rots.  In doing so it adds nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil, thereby increasing the fertility. The result is more lush grass next year. 

The nitrogen content is also improved by the growth of clover: the robust meadow variety which fixes nitrogen in its roots and enriches the soil.  The only other meadow flower that copes with these conditions admirably is the buttercup: a pretty plant when it produces its golden yellow flowers in spring.

Fullscreen capture 09102012 232506

So we cut the wildflower meadow in September and raked off all the cuttings.  These were burnt or composted. I then mowed the meadow during the autumn, winter and spring up until Easter. 

I then let it grow, and just mowed paths through it which established the design of the area.  The result: some finer grasses and a few vetches and some mallow, and one or two common spotted orchids. 

We’ve repeated the process each year and the scene has changed considerably.  We now have finer, stronger grasses and far more wildflowers: more clovers, vetches, buttercups, cowslips, sentry, ox-eye daisies, mallow, two different species of orchid which appear in substantial drifts and now a few scabious.

At the top of the site, under the trees, the meadow is carpeted with wild daffodils, bluebells, stickwort, primroses, violets; these have multiplied prolifically since we started to manage the site. In summer butterflies and moths are plentiful.

Why has it worked?

We have well-drained soil that is low in nutrients; therefore the fertility drops quickly when you remove the mowing.  Low fertility means finer grasses and more wildflowers.

Apologies to those of you with deep rich, well-drained fertile soil that never dries out – maybe a wildflower meadow isn’t for you!

Doesn’t yellow rattle work in the same way?

Yellow rattle is an unprepossessing plant which is semi-parasitic sapping the strength of the robust grasses allowing other meadow flowers to grow.  There are mixed opinions as to the value of yellow rattle: it also parasitic on some meadow flowers so may defeat the object of the exercise. 

I tried it on a small area here and it simply didn’t grow, so maybe my soil is too poor even for yellow rattle. Have you used it? Would love to know how you got on.

Papaver rhoeas

Why don’t we get poppies, cornflowers and corn marigolds?

These are cornfield flowers that grow on cultivated or disturbed soil.  If you want them you need to re-sow or disturb the soil.  For years I advised on a walled garden with a “meadow” studded with tree ferns (how trendy but impractical!).

The soil was clay and fertile.  The only way we achieved the clients vision of a meadow was to cut the whole thing right down to the ground in autumn, kill it all off with non-residual herbicide, give it a good rake over, and resow every year. 

If that’s the look you want that’s the only way to do it – or have your pocket handkerchief meadow in a patio container.

Wild meadow 2

Is a meadow hard work?

When you “cut and clear once a year” it is.  When I was doing it recently I really wished I could have one of those city gardener journalists that have claimed that a meadow makes gardening easy along for the day. Clearing it and re-mowing is the ultimate workout! If you don’t believe me come along next year and I’ll be your personal trainer.

You also need to manage the content of the meadow. We get ragwort, thistle and dock which all need to be grubbed before they seed.

So is a meadow for anyone?

It’s possible, but you need to consider the site, the soil and if starting from scratch what seed you sow; we were lucky, we haven’t sown anything (anything that’s grown that is! My advice is as follows:

  • Choose an open sunny site
  • Get rid of any undesirable perennial weed such as bindweed before you start
  • Cultivate the ground as best you can; the better the drainage the better the results: do not feed or add manure.
  • Go to a specialist seed merchant and buy a grass/wildflower mix that is suitable for your soil conditions.
  • Do not oversow.
  • Don’t get too bewitched by the picture on the packet – it’s probably a pictorial meadow created for a moment in time and it will never look like that again!
  • Don’t get too misled by meadows that you see in gardens you visit: fields of corn marigolds shining in the sun, field filled with poppies and cornflowers and banks of ox-eye daises.  Maybe their input each year is greater you can put in?

So let’s hear of your meadow tales and tips. Anyone who can tell me how to avoid a few days hard labour late next summer will be particularly welcome!

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