wildflower meadowBack in June I was lucky enough to attend a workshop about wildflower meadows, given by Charles Flower at Wardington Manor.

Charles Flower has many years experience with wild flower meadows and knows all the pit falls and problems. He is a consultant to the National Trust and runs his own farm in Wiltshire.

Wild flower meadows have become very fashionable in gardens this year, partly as a response to the Olympic Parks and partly over concern for the survival of our native wild flowers and wildlife. But anybody who’s had experience of starting a wildflower meadow knows that they are not easy to sow or maintain. Far from ‘letting nature do its own thing’, wildflower meadows are highly managed, traditionally along the lines of a hay meadow.

The traditional hay meadow regime allows flowers to flower and set seed before cutting at the end of July or early August. They allowed the hay to dry in the field, which allowed seeds to drop out, before removing the hay and grazing the regrowth. The cows or sheep would then tread the wildflower seeds into the soil, which is particularly important for yellow rattle as the shape of its seed doesn’t lend itself to dropping to the ground easily in amongst grass, so it needs to be trodden in. Yellow rattle is an annual and vital for wildflower meadows on fertile soil, as it is semi-parasitic on grass and can reduce the strength of course grasses so allowing wildflowers to compete.

An alternative to the traditional hay meadow method, and using yellow rattle to keep the grasses in check is to cut or graze the wildflower meadow through spring until the end of May or up until mid June, then allow wildflowers to flower and set seed and then cut and remove growth at the end of September and cut or graze the regrowth. Constantly mowing or grazing the grass reduces its vigour and the fertility of the soil. You won’t get the early species such as cowslip if you use this method, but it is sometimes easier to manage if you don’t have animals to graze (i.e. in the garden situation).

It is important to remove the season’s growth each year, otherwise the diversity of flowers in the meadow will diminish. If you don’t cut, gradually the more vigorous species will take over, particularly the grasses, and you will loose wildflowers. If you cut and leave the cuttings in the meadow, it will form a mulch and suppress the growth of wildflowers. This is what happens on roadside verges when cuttings are not removed – only a few species such as cowparsley and nettles survive.

A big problem in wildflower meadows is weeds. The soil needs to be prepared thoroughly before sowing to remove all perennial weeds. The problem is in most soils there is a bank of weed seeds that come to the surface when you cultivate the ground, so it is important to prepare the ground well in advance of sowing, using the ‘stale seed bed method’ to allow weeds to germinate and then hoe off the growth, doing this several times before sowing your meadow. In the first year of the meadow, cut several times to prevent annual weeds from growing and setting seed. If you’re using yellow rattle, mow above 8 inches to allow the yellow rattle to set seed. Annual weeds grow much faster than our perennial wildflowers and will swamp them in the first year if you don’t do this. Sometimes you have to be tough to control annual weeds as in amongst them are pretty flowers such as poppies, but poppies are cornfield annuals and require cultivation every year to thrive, so can’t be combined with a wildflower meadow. You may also have to cut oxeye daisies in the first year, but it is necessary to control the weeds. Likewise, you have to be strong to cut your meadow in subsequent years at the end of July as there may still be some flowers such as knapweed in flower, but if you leave it the knapweed will take over and you will loose the diversity of flowers.

It is better to sow your meadow in autumn rather than spring as the falling temperatures mean the wildflower seed doesn’t need to be covered, so more of it will germinate, and some seeds will need the cold period over winter before germination in the spring. Not all the wildflower seeds will germinate in the first year – this is a built in survival strategy, as, if there is a disaster such as a drought one year, there will still be seed in the ground ready to germinate in subsequent years.

There is much more to learn about wild flowers. Charles Flower helped us identify different grasses and took us through the best methods of sowing wildflowers in seed trays or plugs as well as looking at different wildflowers for different conditions such as swamps and chalk. He has also written an excellent and informative book called “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” published by Papadakis and sells wildflower seeds and plants from his farm Flower Farms Ltd.

An alternative option to sowing your wildflower meadow, is to use wildflower turf, which I specified in a garden I designed recently. This is only practical in a small area as it is expensive, but can produce a reliable and instant effect with a lot of the pitfalls and problems already ironed out for you. However, you still need to prepare your soil well, keep the turf watered until established and maintain it by cutting it from the end of July. If you want your garden redesigned to include wildflowers please contact me at Jane Hamel Garden Design and I would be happy to help.

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