How to Make a Wildflower Meadow: Part One

Introduction
There is a mystique about wildflower meadow creation that suggests it is difficult and time consuming. Not necessarily so. A wildflower meadow – even a small area – not only puts a large tick in aesthetic and ecological boxes, it will also REDUCE some of your most wearisome and polluting labour. Make one because you want to and not because you think it’s the right thing to do. This translates into its management too; one gardener’s weed is another’s favourite wildflower.

Gentle reader, if you are a gardener or landowner looking to turn a relatively small area of land into a wildflower meadow you can cut straight to the chase with this introductory video:

What is a Wildflower Meadow?
What is a wildflower meadow? It’s not this, lovely though it looks. These are grasses and “cornfield annuals”. You can buy mixes of native annual wildflowers, which produce a gorgeous display in mid-summer and provide welcome nectar and pollen to pollinators. That’s all though folks. If you use non-natives, or do multiple sowings, you can extend the flowering period, but it’s not only quite a different look to a meadow – no grasses, for a start – but also fails to deliver a fully rewarding ecosystem (sweeping overstatement, I know). Furthermore, annuals demand a completely different regime; I grow them in borders and follow the tips in this video from one of our suppliers, Emorsgate Seeds: Managing Cornfield Annuals

Traditional meadows come in different types, but all have (relatively retiring) native grasses and perennial (sun loving) wildflowers. This is what makes them ecological hotspots. Butterflies, for example, love the nectar from annual wildflowers but need perennials and grasses as foodplants for their larvae.

Is My Site Suitable For A Wildflower Meadow?
How much sun does your putative meadow get? As much as possible; it is of course possible to grow wildflowers in shade, but a wildflower meadow you won’t get. Is the area you’re thinking of used for anything else? Many folk (mea culpa) establish a nice looking meadow area in a new orchard, only for it to be shaded out in 10 years time. In any case, fruit trees like rich soil, meadows don’t.

This last point is much debated and the single biggest issue people have. Sometimes soil is just too rich in nutrients for a wildflower meadow to establish. You’ll end up with a jungle of nettle, dock, aggressive grasses and your favourite other local weeds. You’ll read a lot about meadows’ need for low fertility soils. Wildflowers need less fertility than grass and things like nettles. Feed scabious fertiliser and you won’t get much reaction. Feed nettles and grass and they will go bonkers. If you have lots of nettle in particular, that’s a good sign your site is destined not to work.

In any event, you should definitely work to reduce soil fertility over time by at least removing cuttings. Some more determined enthusiasts go further; you can invert the soil, for example, so that you’re seeding onto subsoil and the topsoil is buried.

How Do I Start?

Before you start to think about preparing your wildflower meadow area, what sounds like a stupid question. Do you know what’s already there? It might be that the existing flora is pretty good, and with a few tweaks to management you might not have to do very much to end up with a really nice meadow. If you’re not sure, ask someone in to have a look. If there’s not much there…

You have a choice of 3 routes, and will need to take different first steps according to which you choose. The table below attempts to summarise the differences between wildflower turf, seed mixes and plugs. Of course, all 3 are not mutually exclusive. We often recommend starting with say half the area you are thinking of working on.

We’ve only recently figured out how to make successful wildflower turf, but it’s a problem which seems to have been cracked by a few people now. Its great virtue is that it is instant, and can create an almost immediate effect. Although you can include annual wildflowers in a seed mix, we often have customers complain that there is nothing happening in their meadow for ages while the perennial flowers establish themselves. Wildflower turf can be pretty diverse, but not as diverse or interesting as the better seed mixes, and of course it’s one size fits all; unless you have over 400 square metres to cover, in which case we can produce turf on a bespoke basis, there is one – albeit rather good – mix for everyone. You not only lose local diversity, but you couldn’t easily tweak the mix for a particular purpose either. You might want to encourage a particular species of butterfly by introducing its food plant, for example. I think it’s a cracking solution for some, however. Don’t be too put off by the cost; if necessary you can use a chess board planting system, alternating between existing sward or seeded squares and wildflower turf. This video is well worth a look: Wildflower Turf. Fab.

Seed mixes are much cheaper and can be tweaked as to soil type, situation and customer requirement. Ecologists like “direct harvest” mixes, taken from donor sites, as you can find very diverse mixes with high floristic content and at least relatively local provenance. The mix in the picture is from the Blackdown Hills, for example. You can get pretty much instant colour by adding a “nurse” of cornfield annuals – which is what you can see in the first photo. If you don’t buy your seed through us please please make sure you are buying from another specialist supplier.

It’s relatively tricky to establish a seed mix in an existing sward, which puts a lot of people off. One way or the other you really need to start with a clean sheet, which means either mechanical to kill existing weeds or, better, stripping the topsoil off completely*. You can try to cheat, by using the useful grassland flower Yellow Rattle (see below) – we’ve done it successfully, but it takes at least two seasons and can be a bit tricky.  Much easier to use plug plants, which can be inserted so long as you keep the grass away from them while they establish.

Seed Plugs Turf
Cost Low Medium High
Diversity High Low Medium
Speed Medium Medium Instant
Local (can be) High Low Low
Use in grass Slow Yes No
Customization High Medium No
Preparation High Medium Medium

What Next?
Many people sow/plant/unroll in spring. If you do, be prepared to water – particularly as our springs have been so dry recently – and make sure the soil has been properly prepared. At that time of year it’s difficult to know how many weeds might be lurking on your site. There’s also an issue with “vernalization”; many species, most renownedly Yellow Rattle, need a prolonged period of cold before they germinate. If you sow them in spring you won’t see anything until the following year. Spend the summer preparing the site and planning and DON’T shoot from the hip. Work towards D Day in October, when you want to be looking at bare soil.

If you want to convert existing grass into meadow without going through this stage it will take longer than you think. You can either use plug plants or Yellow Rattle, or both. For plug plants make sure the grass is cut tight and killed or removed around each plug so that it won’t be outcompeted by it. Reckon on 5 per square metre, and if the grass is particularly lush use Rattle as well. Yellow Rattle is an attractive annual wildflower which parasitises grass, reducing its vigour and thus giving other wildflowers more of a chance. It needs to be sown in Autumn, and you need to cut any existing grass very short as well as scarify it to see around 50% earth before raking the seed in. The idea is that after a year you can cut tight and scarify again, but this time sow your other wildflowers.

Continued here…

*please don’t use weedkillers if you can possibly avoid them.