Create a wildflower meadow
Grow a wildflower meadow, and create a lively feeding and nesting ground for insects, birds and small animals. The majestic flowers and grasses, bursting with colour, will be an attractive feature in your garden. Our countryside was once full of meadows bursting with a gorgeous variety of flowering plants, supporting butterflies, insects, farmland birds and other wildlife. But since the 1930s, we have lost over 99% of what are called 'unimproved grasslands', and those that are left are fragmented. However, you can create something of the same feel in your own garden.
Preparing the ground and removing the weeds may take several weeks, and you can do this at any time of year. But autumn is the best month for sowing your seeds.
This is one of our most important activities, but it is also quite challenging and usually requires stripping your lawn and topsoil.
We'd love you to give it a go, but if you want to start with something rather simpler, try giving your mower a rest.
Starting a wildflower meadow
What is a wildflower meadow? It’s an area of permanent grass where wildflowers grow – not a bed of cornfield annuals like poppies nor the gold-themed flowers which were planted around the Olympic park.
The reason it’s important to make the distinction is that a bed of poppies grows on fertile soil. Wildflower meadows grow better on unproductive soil, where vigorous grasses don’t out-compete the flowers. The best time to create and sow your meadow is in autumn.
Choose a suitable area. You might want to turn some of your lawn into a new wildflower meadow.
It needs to be somewhere open and sunny for most of the day, but can be flat or sloping. A relatively large area is best, where you have space for growing a range of wildflowers.
Reducing the fertility. Your soil is likely to be too rich for a meadow if it’s had plenty of fertiliser added over the years. The best way to reduce the fertility is to remove the top three to six inches of topsoil, using a turf cutter, or a spade and muscle-power!
If you don’t want to strip the soil, you can reduce some of the fertility by sowing a crop of mustard plants in the first year. Part of the brassica family, they’re notoriously hungry plants and will remove some of the nutrients from the soil as they grow.
Dig the soil and get rid of any weeds. You want to create a fine tilth (soil which looks like breadcrumbs) for seed sowing, as you would with a lawn.
Once you have bare soil, lay black plastic or weed control fabric over to weaken weeds. If there is lots of nettle or dock, this may take up to a year to be effective.
Choose your wildflower seed mix. Good mixes include:
- birds-foot trefoil (important for common blue butterfly caterpillars)
- common sorrel (important for small copper butterfly caterpillars)
- field scabious hoary
- greater and common knapweed
- lady's bedstraw
- meadow buttercup
- ox-eye daisy
- red clover
- ribwort plantain
- wild carrot
- plus a range of wild grasses, such as bents, fescues and crested dogstail (not lawn grasses).
And the magic ingredient is yellow rattle, an annual flower that has a special ability to reduce the vigour of the grasses.
At last, sowing! This is the fun bit and is best done in autumn. You need about five grams of seed per square metre of meadow. Because the sowing is so thin it's best to mix the seed with dry silver sand (the type used for block paving). Do not use builders' sand as it is not fine enough and is usually too damp. Pale-coloured sand helps you see areas that you've already sown and whether you've missed anywhere. The correct ratio is usually three-five parts sand to one of seed.
Just scatter the seed as you walk across the ground. To try and get an even coverage, split your seeds into batches and sow one batch walking in one direction and another batch walking at 90 degrees.
There's no need to rake the seed in or cover it with soil, but gently walk across it so that the seeds are in contact with the soil. You may need to net it from birds.
Keep it well watered until it has established.
Aftercare. In the first growing season, cut the growth in midsummer during a hot period and allow cuttings to dry on the ground for 2 days. This allows seeds to fall into the soil. Remove the dried material (known as the arisings).
In subsequent seasons, the main method for managing a meadow is to not mow from early April to late July, August or even early September. It's best to vary the time you cut each year or some plants may begin to dominate others. If you're cutting early (eg July), leave an uncut refuge for grasshoppers as their nymphs are most vulnerable then.
Cut the hay in dry weather – it will probably be too high for a mower, so use grass shears or a scythe. Leave it lying on the ground for up to a week for the seeds to drop, and then clear it all away for compost.
Give the meadow a couple more mows during the autumn and once in early spring if it needs it. You may need to do some 'spot' weeding, to remove things like nettles, dock and thistles.
If you give it a go, we'd love to see your results and hear your stories.
Your meadow will evolve year by year, and get more species rich. You should see bees and butterflies start to use your meadow, and grasshoppers if you’re lucky. Birds should feed there and bats may fly over the top.