How to make a meadow using plug plants

By Andy McIndoe

Creating a wildflower meadow on any scale is not just a matter of letting the grass grow.

Grass that was a thick area of lawn cannot be transformed into a colourful carpet of wildflowers just by sprinkling on a few seeds. The flowering plants will not compete with the thick, lush grass, even if the seed hits the soil and germinates.T he more fertile and heavy the ground, the less the chance of success. Wildflower meadows are always easier to establish on poor, well-drained soils where the grass is thin and fine.

If you're looking for a course on creating a meadow look at Perennial Meadow Planting taught by grasses expert Michael King (who co-wrote Gardening with Grasses with master garden designer Piet Oudolf).

Comon spotted orchids in an established meadow
Comon spotted orchids in an established meadow

The secret of success

The most important thing to remember is that management is the key to success. When you do mow you need to remove all cuttings. Mulch mowing does not work. Grass cuttings, leaf litter and all other plant waste breaks down into the soil and feeds the grass. This means thick lush grass and fewer flowers. You will need to cut the meadow area in late summer, remove all of the cuttings, then mow regularly during winter and early spring every year.

Creating a wildflower meadow

If you are looking to transform a grass area into a meadow, firstly cut the grass very short. Then scarify thoroughly to remove thatch and scratch the soil surface. A good scarifier will also take out some of the horizontal stems of creeping grasses leaving the tufted finer grasses which are more compatible with the wildflowers.On a small area you may be able to achieve this with a spring-tine wire lawn rake and some hard work. On a larger area use either an electric or petrol driven scarifier; the latter achieves the best results.

Before planting stand out wildflower plugs and water thoroughly
Before planting stand out wildflower plugs and water thoroughly

Wildflower seeds are best sown in the autumn, but even then perennial wildflower species will produce little flower until the following year. Results are also more uncertain.A more successful method is to introduce plug plants. These are individual cell-grown plants which can be distributed through the new meadow area. They will establish quickly and give you complete control over the balance of species. Most flower reasonably well in year one and can then be left to sow seed naturally, ensuring even better results in future seasons.

Plug plants are tiny and can be tricky to plant on harder ground. The best solution is to use a small soil auger. Auger drill bits are readily available and can be used in conjunction with a good rechargeable drill. Just drill the holes, ideally between the grass plants and pop in the plug plants. Top up the hole with good quality multi-purpose compost if necessary.

A soil auger drill bit is ideal for planting
A soil auger drill bit is ideal for planting
Planting plugs using a soil auger to make holes
Planting plugs using a soil auger to make holes

Wildflower plug plants are available from specialist wildflower and grass suppliers.They usually arrive by carrier and must be unpacked immediately.You can wait a few days before planting, but do keep them outside in a sheltered, open position and check watering daily. It’s a good ideal to give them a weak liquid feed with seaweed growth stimulant to keep them in top condition.

Choose the right species

It is very important to choose wildflower species that have the greatest success on your soil. Specialist suppliers make excellent recommendations, so follow their advice.

Some colourful wildflowers are what are known as cornfield flowers. These are mostly annuals that need disturbed ground for seed to germinate and bloom. So if you plant these as plugs you will only get one year’s flowers and they are unlikely to reappear. Good examples are poppies, cornflowers and corn marigolds.

Yellow rattle, Rhinanthus minor is well known for its ability to semi-parasitize on grass plants, weakening them and so allowing the flowers to thrive.Some have great success with it, especially on more fertile soils.Although it is an annual it is a good subject to introduce as a plug plant because it normally seeds freely and will be more widespread in the second season.

The common foxglove, Digitalis purpurea is a biennial. Planted as a plug plant it will form a chunky rosette of foliage in the first year, blooming in the second. After this it will seed itself. It is best in semi-shade on meadow margins.

The common foxglove, digitalis purpurea
The common foxglove, digitalis purpurea

The delightful ox-eye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare is one of the most versatile perennial wildflowers that has an excellent chance of success on most soils, even fertile clay.It works extremely well from plug plants.

Ox eye daisies and buttercups
Ox eye daisies and buttercups

Recommended course

Perennial Meadow Gardening taught by Michael King

Learn how to create perennial meadow planting schemes by taking the Perennial Meadow Gardening course on Learning with Experts.

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