Wild flower meadows have disappeared from the countryside at an alarming rate, and yet they are wildlife havens for many creatures including insects such as grasshoppers, caterpillars, butterflies, beetles, bumblebees and wild bees, spiders, birds such as finches and sparrows, and small mammals such as shrews. So creating an area of wild flower meadow in your garden is about more than just making it look pretty, though it certainly can be a beautiful, quite magical place, especially for children. One choice I have used in designing gardens, is to have longer grass with wild flowers further away from the house, with regularly clipped lawn close to the house; another is to keep a path regularly mown through an area of wildflower meadow, to allow easy access without disturbing wildlife.
Wild Flowers will only thrive in a meadow where the soil fertility is low. If your soil is very fertile, the grasses will out-compete the wild flowers. The other essential ingredients for a wild flower meadow are good drainage and sun. If you have poor drainage, consider making a wetland area or bog garden instead.
You can decrease the soil fertility of your lawn over a number of years by regular mowing, taking away the clippings and not feeding the lawn. You can also scrape the top layer of soil away, leaving a thinner layer of top soil. Sandy soil is less fertile than clay and it is also more free draining. If your soil is too rich for a wildflower meadow, a cornfield patch makes a good alternative: sow cornfield wild flowers such as Corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas), Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), Corncockle (Agrostemma githago), Corn marigold (Chrysanthemum segetum), Pineapple mayweed (Matricaria matricarioides), Scarlet pimpernel (Anagallis arvensis) and Red deadnettle (Lamium purpureum) amongst grasses and you could even throw in some barley and wheat for effect.
If you have perennial weeds, such as ground elder and nettles, on the plot, that you can’t dig out, mow them regularly for a couple of years until they disappear, before introducing wild flowers. Prepare the ground well – making sure it is weed free and raked to a fine tilth. Prepare it at least three weeks before you want to sow, to allow any weed seeds to come to the surface and germinate – you can then hoe off the weeds or weed them with a flame weeder. Sow the grass in late August or mid April. Choose a grass mix suitable for a wild flower meadow, usually a mixture of bent and fescue grasses – one that doesn’t contain rye grass. You usually need to re-sow your grass rather than trying to introduce wild flowers to an existing lawn, where they will just be swamped by grass. Sow the grass thinly about 5 grams per square metre – you can add sand to the seed to enable even sowing. You can firm the ground with a roller and gently cover the seed using a rake, then water. When I seed lawns or wildflower meadows, I cover the seeded area with fleece to stop the birds eating the seed, but it depends how big an area you are dealing with. If it’s not practical to use fleece then some kind of bird scarer may be necessary. In the first year you can mow once the grasses reach around 10cm, to knock back any weeds such as grounsel and chickweed. Pull out any thistles and docks. Then mow every 6 – 8 weeks, removing the clippings, before introducing the wild flowers.
It is often more successful to sow perennial wild flowers in seed trays and introduce them to the meadow artificially, rather than broadcasting the seeds with the grass. Sow them in late summer into sterilized compost and leave them outside – many species require a period of cold before they will germinate. Cowslips often take two or three winters before they germinate, so don’t throw the seed trays away too soon if they haven’t germinated. Pot them up, leave them in pots over the summer – cut off any flower buds in the first year to encourage root development and plant them in the meadow in October. When planting make sure you firm the soil around them to discourage weed seeds such as dandelions and thistles. Sowing in groups of three to nine of one species often looks better than dotting everything around.
Use local seed and wildflower plants, to reflect what grows naturally in your area, and never use imported seed or plants. What you grow, and the mowing regime you adopt will depend upon whether you want a spring flowering or summer flowering meadow.
A spring flowering meadow is mown from July onwards and wildflowers to plant in it include Cowslip (Primula veris), which prefers slightly limey soil, Lady’s smock (Cardamine pratensis) – food for the orange tip butterfly, Snake’s head fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris), which prefer moist and not acid soils, Lesser stitchwort (Stellaria graminea), Self heal (Prunella vulgaris), Bugle (Ajuga reptans), which prefers moist conditions, Rough hawkbit (Leontodon hispidus), Salad Burnet (Sanguisorbia minor), which again, prefers moist soils and Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor), which is useful as it is semi-parasitic and will help reduce the vigour of the grasses, to the benefit of the wild flowers.
Some possible flowers to sow in a summer flowering meadow include Clover (Trifolium), Knapweed (Centaurea), Trefoil (Lotus), and Vetches (Anthyllis, Coronilla and Hippocrepis) – these provide nectar for long-tongued bumblebees. Others include Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum), Sheep’s Sorrel (Rumex acetosella) – for slightly acid soils, a good food source for finches, and the small copper butterfly lays its eggs on the leaves, Field scabious (Knautia arvensis), Devil’s bit scabious (Succisa pratensis), Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), Hardhead (Centaurea nigra), Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris), Yarrow (Achillea millefolium), Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), Perforate St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum), Goats beard (Tragopogon pratensis), Musk mallow (Malva moschata), which can grow up to 1.5metres tall, Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria), Betony (Stachys officinalis) – not for limey soils, Meadow Cranesbill (Geranium pratense), and Wild carrot (Daucus carota). For a summer flowering meadow, you can mow in spring but don’t mow below 5cm to avoid damaging the emerging leaves of wild flowers, and then leave it until late September.
It is important to look after your wildflower meadow properly, by mowing, or scything at the right time, removing the clippings and weeding when necessary, to avoid bramble, thistles and scrub taking over. When considering establishing a wild flower meadow I would always consult the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust, or your local Wildlife Trust to see what species and habitats are indigenous to your area, and how you can best support and enhance these habitats. I would be very happy to discuss your design requirements and design something specific to your local area, soil conditions and you and your family’s particular needs.