How to : Make a mini wildflower meadow
N.B. You may also be interested in David’s numerous other articles on gardening for wildlife.
As ever with gardening, advance planning is essential. So think ahead and especially decide on the type of meadow you wish to create. Do you want your meadow to peak in spring (May or June), or summer (July and August) or to try to maintain interest throughout the main growing months? You might consider if the area is needed for other uses as well, for example at Forest Edge our Spring Meadow becomes our shady dining location in high summer.
Can you adjust an existing part of the garden to become a meadow? We have never sown a full meadow at Forest Edge, but have added to existing grassy areas to enhance their biodiversity. Such an approach saves time, money and lots of effort!
Happily every meadow will be different (influenced by soil, drainage, climate, location and many other factors) so never assume that any one method of making a meadow is perfect for you. Suggestions are just that, and you will need to adjust my comments to suit your own conditions and requirements.
1. Adapting an established grassy area.
a) We have employed this technique for it allows existing, and possibly unique floral combinations, to remain relatively intact.
b) Do not dig the area and never add fertilizer. Nitrate fertilizers stimulate grass growth and your aim could well be to minimise grass growth so that the more dramatic insect-pollinated flowers are more visible.
c) Observe local grasslands to determine which species flourish there, hence can reasonably be expected to grow in your own meadow. Such plants will have grown from seed under natural conditions, so you should use seed as well. Seed is much cheaper than adding plant plugs, and we have found that it works well on our alkaline clay soil. Generic seed mixtures, and individual species, can be bought from suppliers.
d) For some plants, and to speed up biodiversity in your meadow, you could add small plants (plugs). We have used this method for adding the rare meadow saxifrage to our Spring Meadow and meadow buttercup to the Summer Meadow.
e) You would probably not want all your flower borders to look identical, so why do the same to your meadow? Ensure that you sow / plant different species in some parts of the meadow, then you’ll have areas of wildflower ‘garden rooms’ that generate much interest.
f) For a summer meadow, where the grasses potentially grow taller and could crash (resulting in a grotty mess!), employ yellow rattle (the grass parasite) to inhibit height. Rattle* is sown, as an annual, in autumn or spring and will then soon spread over the whole meadow.
g) At some stage you will need to cut the meadow, hence remove growth and nutrients, and time will vary with the meadow and growth rates. Our spring meadow is cut to lawn in mid-June, after the bulbous buttercups have shed their seeds. The summer meadow is first cut, depending on the wetness of the year and growth rates, from September through to November. Some wildflower gardeners advocate cutting a meadow from August onwards, but we cut later to enjoy the late year colour and leave the meadow long for the small mammals whose population is greatest in the autumn.
Consider cutting a metre swathe on either side of any pathways through the area to reduce the height and slow the flowering times of some species. This cutting ensures grasses do not flop over the path and additionally supplies a lovely sculptured feel to the meadow.
h) It is also possible to add wild bubs. Wild daffodils, bluebells, fritillaries, autumn crocuses, and many other species, are available from suppliers.
2. Sowing a meadow.
a) If no existing grassland is available then you have to do things the hard way!
b) Clear existing vegetation, if necessary employ a herbicide. Avoid digging if possible, but you will require a ‘seed bed’.
c) Sow in spring or early autumn, when other plants are showing clear signs of growth. Remember to use different species mixes in zones or you will end up with a less than satisfying uniformity. If you intend to grow yellow rattle wait a year before you add this to the meadow.
Be aware that some species will not germinate, or be easily visible, in the first year and you may find that ox-eye daises initially predominate. This will change as the meadow evolves and matures.
d) Initially keep the grasses under control by cutting if the height exceeds 75mm. But do not cut it shorter than 50mm as this could kill many young species.
If you feel ‘up to the challenge’ of a wildflower meadow you should now read the many books or Internet articles available on the subject. Each will supply divergent, and additional thoughts, that will enable you to achieve the correct ‘answer’ for your own conditions. Alternatively visit us at Forest Edge and check out the success of our techniques.
David is an ex-lecturer in Environmental / Biological Sciences.
He has written for most of the UK gardening magazines, including the RHS.
Forest Edge’s garden has been widely covered in magazines and has been featured in a BBC’s Gardeners’ World special.
He also maintains a blog at https://nwhwildlife.org/