Establishing a Wildflower Meadow
Wild flower meadows are inspiring, a summer stroll spent slowly strolling through a field of wild flowers is truly captivating. We can bring a little bit of that wonder into our own gardens but first it is necessary to understand a little bit about their development in order to ensure we get what we hope for.
Wild flower meadows are largely unnatural! They have been bought about through thousands of years of human intervention. When the first hunter-gatherers settled down and started clearing trees there were no such things as a wild-flower meadow. The closest natural area would be lowland heath, which the UK has a significant amount of, although we’ve lost over 80% in the last 200 years. These natural areas of high biodiversity become increasingly precious as they become a dwindling resource for the mammals, birds, amphibians and invertebrates that require them. Increasing the biodiversity within our own gardens has become a means to reduce, and in some situations, reverse the decline of species in the wild. Understanding what conditions wild flowers thrive in and the management that has bought them into being helps gardeners understand what conditions are necessary for them to grow and the management they require.
Biodiversity thrives in situations where no one species can dominate. Areas where one or two species can thrive to the detriment of other species will be dominated by those species. Generally this is where species have a adapted to particular circumstances e.g. Common Nettles have an ability to utilise nutrients very quickly and can quickly outgrow surrounding vegetation if there is an abundance of nutrients, likewise ephemerals such as Common Groundsel are able to reproduce very quickly and colonise areas rapidly to the detriment of other species. Wildflower areas benefit from balance; this is generally gradually accrued over time.
Wildflower meadows have been brought about by farmers who, over thousands of years, have followed regular seasonal patterns of making hay in July, grazing the aftermath in the early autumn and removing livestock before the ground becomes poached in the winter. This over time has removed nutrients to a point where no one species can dominate and a broad spectrum of species have the ability to survive. Latterly industrial processes have given farmers the ability to artificially fertilise their land this in turn upset the balance and certain species such as Broad-leaved Docks, Creeping Thistle and Common Nettle have taken advantage of this abundance of nutrients and proliferated. Herbicides became necessary although they were not very selective in what they controlled and as a consequence we have seen a massive decline in wildflower meadows in the last 100 years: we have lost over 97% of the UK’s wildflower-rich grasslands. By planting wildflowers you may be helping to reduce this loss.
Contrary to most gardening practices wildflowers need very little nutrition; some have very specific requirements because they are specifically adapted to a particular type of habitat i.e. woodland species, chalk grassland species, alluvial soils etc. Species mixes which replicate the type of species that would naturally occur in this context have been formulated. Certain species require grasses to be present e.g. Yellow Rattle and Eyebrights are semi and hemi-parasitic upon grass species. Most wildflower mixtures are made up of eighty percent grass seed and twenty percent wildflower seed, by weight although a lot of wildflower seeds are much smaller than grass seed which balances the number of seeds out.
The appropriate seed mixture for the area needs to be selected; you may need to speak to an advisor who will help you select an appropriate mixture based upon your soil type, existing management, current nutrient levels etc. Here the gardening epithet holds true “The right plant will thrive in the right place”.
How To Sow Wildflower Seeds
|1) Strip off existing vegetation.||2) Rake area clear of debris such as stones, roots etc.||3) Rake over again to provide a smooth fine seedbed.||4) Compact the soil a little by walking over it to prevent the soil being too airy and to ensure good seed to soil contact.||5) The area can then be sown evenly with the wildflower mixture.
Finally, rake over, then compact the soil again.
The seedbed should be prepared to ensure that the seed comes into contact with the soil to ensure a good level of germination is achieved. Weeds need to be minimised to reduce competition.
Consult a technical advisor for the correct recommendation on weed control products - applications of some weed killer can prevent germination and affect the establishment of wild flowers.
How To Maintain Wildflower Areas
- First cut 5 cm March/April (Spring Seeding 1st cut in May)
- Cut every 2 months or when sward reaches 15 cm
- Final cut September/October
- Remove all cuttings
- First cut 5 cm March/April
- Second cut 5 cm September/October
- Remove all cuttings
The main requirement in the first year is to control weeds and reduce competition from grasses. Cut the sward to a height of 5 cm every two months or when the sward reaches 15 cm. Remove all cut material to avoid smothering the sward. Where persistent weeds are a problem, spot treat with Glyphosate or dig-out.
The sward should be well established after the first 12 months and contain a diverse range of species. Cut to 5-6 cm during March/April and remove cuttings. The second cut should take place at the end of the flowering season during September/October (the flowering period may alter slightly according to climatic conditions). Remove all cuttings. The site may require further cuts in the autumn period to remove untidy growth in an extended growing season.