A wildflower meadow is a beautiful way to bring a breath of countryside into your garden. They are ideal for areas of the garden that are difficult to cultivate, or, because they are fairly simple to install and manage they are good for gardeners who would like to reduce maintenance of their gardens.
Over the years, the introduction of monoculture type farming practices coupled with the harsh maintenance of road verges has led to a reduction in the natural habitats of many seed eating birds, small mammals and insects. Therefore, by creating an area of wildflower meadow at home, the gardener can play an important role in the conservation both flower and animal species that are threatened by this destruction of their natural habitats.
There are generally three types of wildflower meadow that the homeowner can create.
Although the basic concept is the same for all, each has a slightly different planting mix and maintenance regime.
There are many ready created seed mixes on the market but it is relatively easy to create a mix of your own by buying seed individually. There are also a wide range of plugs and young plants to be found in specialist nurseries which will give an instant effect when purchased at flowering point.
Avoid strong growing grasses that will outcompete wildflowers such as:-
Cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata), tall fescue (Festuca arundinacea), and perennial ryegrass (Lolium perenne).
Good grasses to include are:-
Meadow grasses (Poa annua and Poa pratensis), red fescue (Festuca rubra), sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), common bent (Agrostis tenuis), quaking grass (Briza media) and Timothy grass (Phleum pratense).
There are many perennial wildflowers that can be grown in the spring meadow, for example:-
Daisy (Bellis perennis), cowslip (Primula veris), burnet (Sanguisorba minor), vetch (Vicia sativa), clovers (Trifolium repens & pratense) and hawkweeds (Hieracium sp.).
There are many perennial wildflowers that can be grown in the summer meadow, for example:-
Knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor), buttercup (Ranunculus acris), Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) and yarrow (Achillea millefolium).
To grow a successful, traditional wildflower meadow the fertility of the soil really needs to be reduced. This is because some grasses thrive in fertile soils and they will, within a few years outcompete the wildflowers.
The way to do this depends on whether you are creating your meadow from scratch or converting an existing lawn area. Starting from scratch is faster and more effective, but very labour intensive. Converting an existing lawn is less effective and will take much longer for fertility to be reduced, but the labour required for this method is considerable less. Whichever method you choose, aim to be ready for seed sowing by spring or autumn.
The most effective way to reduce soil fertility is to remove all the existing turf or plants, and the top 50-100mm of soil. If the soil beneath the turf is already poor, sandy or limey then it is not necessary to remove any topsoil, it will be good as is.
Leave the ground fallow to allow any perennial weeds to grow. Dominating plants such as dock, nettle and creeping thistle will take over if left in your new meadow area.
You should then dig these weeds out, ensuring all traces of root are removed.
Deep digging of the soil will make it easier to remove all perennial weed roots but will also bring annual weed seeds to the surface to germinate. These should be left to grow for a few weeks before hoeing them off.
To remove weeds without disturbing the soil structure spread a black plastic sheet over the area for a few months. This will block out light and prevent photosynthesis, slowly killing the plant. Or, if your conscious will allow, you can spray with roundup or other perennial non-persistent weed killer.
Once the soil has been cleared of all weeds, rake the surface to a fine tilth and water well.
Roll the soil to firm it if you removed weeds by digging.
Seed mixes can be sown in spring or autumn. Ideally a spring meadow mix would be sown in Autumn and a summer mix would be sown in spring.
Broadcast the seed mix at a rate of around 3-4 grams per square meter. Broadcast the mixture from left to right then go back over the patch broadcasting from up to down. This will ensure an even coverage. A good tip is to add sand to the seed mix as this will help you to see where you are sowing.
Rake the seed in lightly and water well.
Water regularly over the first few weeks to keep the seed damp, just as you would when establishing a normal, ornamental lawn.
Once the seed has germinated, cut your meadow every 6-8 weeks with the mower blades set high. The sward should be kept at around 5-10cms for the first year to promote root growth.
In the second spring after sowing, adopt the mowing regime suitable for spring flowering or summer flowering meadows (see below).
Spring flowering meadow – Mow from mid-summer to late-autumn.
Summer flowering meadow – Mow from autumn to early summer.
After hay-making it is always a good idea to trample over the meadow to force the seed into the soil, just as cattle would do in natural meadow conditions.
For several seasons, mow the existing lawn closely, with the blade set low. When grown longer the grass has a larger surface area to photosynthesise from; keeping it short will, over time, reduce photosynthesis and therefore vigour.
Use a grass box or rake off all clippings after every mowing as the decomposition of any clippings that are left behind will feed the lawn.
To introduce flowers to your lawn there are two options – Overseeding or planting pot grown flowers not the turf.
For the first year, cut the grass every 6-8 weeks with the mower blades set to high. Aim to leave a sward of around 7-10cm so that the growing wildflowers are not damaged, root growth is encouraged and the grass is prevented from dominating. Always remove all clippings.
After the first year adopt the mowing regime for a traditional spring or summer flowering meadow (see ‘Mowing Regimes’ above).
The Cornfield/Annual Wildflower Meadow
A traditional cornfield/annual wildflower meadow, as the name suggests, is generally made up of annual flowers. It is not strictly a meadow but a wildflower patch consisting of bright coloured annuals which flower in Summer. These flowers are usually considered agricultural weeds and were common in wheat and barley fields. Nowadays, they are usually eradicated by herbicides.
A cornfield/annual wildflower patch does not need to be low in fertility but the soil must be disturbed every autumn or spring to raise the seeds to the surface and trigger germination. In the cornfield this would have occurred during ploughing.
Special cornfield mixes are available and should be sown in autumn for June flowering or spring for later summer flowering. Popular flowers for the cornfield/annual wildflower meadow are:-
Poppy (Papaver rhoeas), corn cockle (Agrostemma githago), corn buttercup (Ranunculus arvensis), cornflower (Centaurea cyanus) and Mayweeds (Matricaria perforata & recutita).
The Flowering Lawn
A flowering lawn is a domestic scheme that is usually made up of bulbs and/or lawn ‘weeds’. It can be grown to flower at almost any time of the year, depending on plant selection.
If you have an already weedy lawn, stop mowing from spring onwards to let the weeds grow and flower. Once they have set seed you can resume normal mowing.
Common lawn weeds such as speedwell (Veronica chamaedrys), clover (Trifolium repens), daisy (Bellis perennis), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) and plantain (Plantago lanceolata) are great flowers for bees and other pollinating insects. They can survive for years without needing to flower so you can let it grow until it looks too scruffy then just mow it back to a usable lawn, alternating between the two as and when you wish.
A really beautiful look can be achieved by planting bulbs into the lawn and allowing them to naturalise.
Plant bulbs into the existing lawn, usually at a depth of 3-4 times their height, with a specialist bulb planting tool. Or you can dig out a plug of grass, replacing it over the bulb, grass top included. Throwing the bulbs into the air and planting them where they land usually brings about a more natural look.
Leave the bulb planted area unmown from late autumn (November) until around June. You can resume cutting when the bulbs have set seed and the foliage has died back naturally.
Spring flowering bulbs such as the wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus), snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) are most commonly used and should be planted in Autumn. There are a wide variety of bulbs available and careful selection means that you could have bulbs flowering in the lawn from early Autumn all the way through to late spring.
Like our handy how-to guide to help you create your own wildflower meadow! Or take some advice from our years of experience and team of experts to help you garden for wildlife yourself. Unless you just want to learn more about why we encourage the populating of wildflowers at our reserves and why honey bees are so important or discover the secrets of the Scottish Thistle and all of its glory!