When and How to Cut Your Wildflower Meadow

Many of the failures we see – when a wildflower meadow reverts to grass – are due to poor cutting regimes. People tend to be rather nervous about mowing. It can be difficult to cut a meadow when you see all sorts of wildlife still enjoying it. Remember, though, that wildflowers are resilient and low growing. They’ll enjoy cutting, as it keeps the sward open and surrounding grasses under control. Cutting will also control encroaching scrub. You won’t take out over-wintering insect eggs and grubs. It’s too late to impact on ground nesting birds. The right cutting regime will increase the flower species in your wildflower meadow, extending its flowering period. Appropriate approaches will of course vary from site to site – it can get complicated! – but here is our general guide.

Darter and Oxeye Daisy seedhead
Must You Cut My Meadow Now?
When to Cut?
The ideal timetable for cutting a meadow for wildlife and cutting one for hay is different. Generally, managing for biodiversity means you will cut later, producing stalky hay.

In the FIRST year of establishment you do cut earlier and then cut often over the rest of the summer/autumn, to ensure maximum plant diversity. If there are no annuals in the seed mix this can be from June, otherwise from mid July, after they have set seed. An early cut will also whack the flush of annual weeds which may appear.

Over time, though, this would remove attractive and useful later flowering species – here we have knapweed, wild carrot and Devil’s-bit scabious. On the other hand, if you leave cutting too late the grass will have gone over and will be very difficult to cut effectively at all. You will lose wildflower species if you do this too, as the grass will take over and form an impenetrable thatch. Sometimes the weather has a say as well – it can rain all August!

We’d generally say cut an established wildflower meadow in sections from the end of July, leaving several days between each to encourage diversity. Definitely finish before the end of August. This will encourage more diversity but stop the grasses dominating.

Unfortunately we can’t follow this advice ourselves as I have to hire the mowing kit! Depending on the weather, we cut in one go in the first half of August. Many of the later flowering plants have set seed (to the birds’ delight!), and the grass is usually still workable. Steel yourself; whenever you cut your wildflower meadow there will be something in flower.

Cut your meadow
Cut Me Now!
What to Cut?
As above, don’t cut everything at once. Or, in fact, don’t cut everything; leave some tussocky messy grass margins, only cutting them every two years or so. Some animals – like crickets – will be enjoying the long grass into September. Bumblebees need tussocky grass for their nests. Voles need this kind of habitat to rootle about in, so owls like it. You’re allowed to make some other minor exceptions too. We have a particularly good small area of knapweed; I scythe it around the end of August.

How to Cut?
I do love my scythe, but I’m not Poldark and if I scythed our two acres of wildflower meadow it would take me days of work and I would end up in A&E. Scything is great if you can manage it, though. You won’t accidentally kill anything and you don’t have to fire up anything mechanical. You can manage your cutting over time. If you do have to use a machine, the best solution is to find something which does “cut and collect”. Failing that, you can get small bailers which will work off tractors and collect and bail the arisings from your hay cut. We hire a mower with a simple cutting deck, and collect all the hay by hand. If it’s wet we have to turn it to help dry it out. It’s a pain.

Whatever you go for, it’s very important that you collect the hay you cut and remove it (ideally let it rot down somewhere). This reduces soil fertility, and opens up the sward for your wildflowers. Make sure when you mow, incidentally, that you don’t go round and round, squashing panicked animals into a smaller and smaller area.

Fleabane pollinator plant
Fleabane and Common Blue
After the Cut?
Continuing to pretend you’re a Medieval peasant, imitate sheep (if you don’t actually have them). Mow (or lightly graze) the “aftermath”. Continue to keep the sward short over the winter until March. The amount of mowing you will have to do depends on soil fertility, the weather, and your own preference. Ideally remove any cuttings when you mow. Simples.

Make sure you have other plants in flower through the rest of August and September, in other areas. The wildflowers we have en masse for this are in our swales – fleabane and purple loosestrife, both brilliant forage plants for a wide range of pollinators.

Wildflower Seed Packets on Amazon and eBay

Wildflower seed packets sold on Amazon and Ebay are very symptomatic of some of the things going wrong in my world at the moment. There ARE some very good packets there – but – Jeez – there are some shockers.

"wildflower" seed packet contents
Shoot me now – species in “wildflower meadow” seed packet on Amazon

Some have wildly inappropriate species, including things like foxgloves in “meadow” mixes or aggressive agricultural grasses. Others consist of cornfield annuals and grasses. Many have incomprehensible or no species lists. My favourite horror mixes include things like lavender and a raft of either non-native plants or exotic cultivars. Goodness knows where the seed is from. Mars? Some punters comment their “wildflower seed” comes with Chinese packaging.

These mixes can’t possibly work beyond a year, even if the seeds are viable. It’s not physically possible. Quite apart from all the other obvious issues, when they fail the customers will never try “wildflowers” again. They will write them off as difficult or unattractive

As you can imagine – to declare my interest! – as an impecunious supplier of  pukka wildflower seed packets this completely does my head in. I’ve tried to contact some of the people selling the funny stuff, with varying degrees of success. Those I have managed to talk to express surprise or disinterest and… carry on selling the same mixes.

Weirdly, some of these folk are large seed companies and many enjoy really good seller ratings* on Ebay or Amazon. Or perhaps not weirdly. The packets apparently arrive super promptly and, presumably, well presented. Some of these seeds will germinate pretty quickly if all is well. This is what the buyers want and what the rating system is designed to measure.

You can’t blame people for not understanding that lavender isn’t from around here and can’t possibly exist in a meadow by definition – in the unlikely event it germinated it would get mown out pretty much instantly. Most folk just don’t know – they don’t know what wildflowers are and they certainly don’t know what a wildflower meadow is. It’s another symptom of nature deficit disorder.

These products succeed because they work really well in their unregulated  retail environment. They deliver what the punter is told they want – swift delivery, pretty pictures, instant effect.

This is the reality of how the commercial world works. We should wake up to this kind of thing, and not just turn a blind eye. So far as I can make out, these notional wildflower seed packets sell in pretty good volumes. It has a terribly corrosive effect. We all want to reconnect people with their natural environment, rather than see them drifting further away from understanding it.

*I would encourage you to leave some one star reviews!

Which Wildflower Seed Do I Buy?

Where Should I Buy Wildflower Seed?

It turns out there are relatively few suppliers of wildflower seed in the UK. There are a lot of more or less good resellers, and a lot of people claiming their mixes are UK wildflowers when they’re not. Be careful – it’s a very poorly regulated area.

Wildflower seedWhat is a wildflower? I know this sounds like a daft question, but lots of seed packets are mislabelled. To my mind it’s a flower which occurs naturally in the UK and is grown from British seed, harvested in the UK. These are the first things to find out about your seed mix. You often find plants like Cosmos and Californian poppies in “wildflower” mixes sold on Amazon or Ebay.* They’re lovely and long living flowers, helpful to pollinators – but UK wildflowers they ain’t. One of the most attractive and nectar rich mixes we sell is made up of a really good mix of native and non-native species, but that’s what it says on the tin.

Most of the wildflower seed sold in the UK clearly isn’t harvested here. Does that matter? We think so, but even if you don’t, you have the right to know – it should say on the packet!

There are some very good suppliers here. Some are tiny and do it largely for love, producing only 100kg of seed a year, so difficult to find online. If they were paid properly they would produce a lot more.

What Kind of Wildflower Seed Mix Should I Buy?

Essentially, you will find three different types of mixes available from reputable suppliers:

Cornfield Annuals: These are the wildflowers that used to be a common site in arable fields – cornflowers, poppies etc.. As they are annuals they need a different management technique and work to make sure they keep setting seed and producing flowers year after year. They have a relatively short flowering window and the assemblage of the standard mixes isn’t the sort of thing you’d see naturally, but they are incredibly easy and reliable and produce an amazing display of vibrant colour. They’re good for pollinators, but not for anything needing to over-winter. They have no relation to wildflower meadows.

Direct Harvest Mixes: These are seeds harvested from existing donor meadows. They’re a combination of grasses and perennial wildflowers. Experienced harvesters will take more than one sweep across a meadow during a season, usually using a brush harvester. Meadows aren’t harvested every year, and the process is fully sustainable. The mixes are cleaned up before sale. They are often only available in limited quantities or sometimes only to order. These are my favourite mixes; they usually have a high ratio of wildflowers to grasses at a sensible price, offer a massive diversity of species, and have precise provenance. If you can find a mix harvested in your area which will also do well on your site, bingo. There’s a case for buying a mix like this even if it is harvested a way away from you. Be wary of certain species, however! You don’t really want a significant rye grass element, for example, or high levels of aggressive grasses like cocksfoot and timothy. Some donor sites will have organic certification. All of them will have had either no pesticides at all used on them or very limited, targeted application of herbicide.

Generic Seed Mixes: These are mixes which have been artificially combined – put together species by species. You know exactly what you’re getting, and they can be constructed to give you the right species for your soil type or site. You will find a range of  these too on our website, which for larger projects can be produced to design. They’re really intended as a starting point; they have a relatively limited number of wildflower species included which occur naturally across the UK (at least from reputable suppliers!). This means you miss out on anything slightly unusual or particularly local. Generic mixes can be made up of wildflowers only or a meadow mix, which includes grasses. The grass element should usually consist of certified meadow grasses, although sometimes you might find a supplier who can use grass seed sourced from the wild. Usually the meadow mixes are supplied at a ratio of 80% grasses to 20% wildflowers.

Don’t be tempted by cheaper mixes produced for agri-environmental schemes which only have 10% wildflowers; 10% is too low for most people. You might also find that the “wildflowers” in these mixes are in fact cultivars. Does this matter? You bet. “Wild red clover” is going to give pollinators better forage than “red clover”. Birdsfoot trefoil lasts much longer than its much bigger cultivars.Suppliers may use herbicide in the preparation of seedbeds to produce this seed.

Where Is This Seed From?

If you are buying meadow seed do please check it has been produced in the UK from UK stock. Knowing about where it’s from is a good way of guaranteeing how it has been produced – you might want to know about pesticide use or year of harvest, for example. There are other good ecological reasons for wanting UK seeds too, ideally the more local the better. Seed mixes harvested from the wild in the UK bought in bulk should have pink labels attached; otherwise they will be green. This isn’t very helpful; a mix of UK origin and provenance wildflower seed and certified grasses would have a green label, for example. The kind of small packets you might buy in a garden centre tell you nothing about the seeds’ provenance. 

Do I Need Wildflower Seed At All?

To seed a wildflower area you need to clear the grasses and weeds from the area of your lawn / paddock / field before you start. Just a thought – do you really want to do this? If your lawn is anything like ours you’ve potentially got a mini-meadow in your garden already. I let areas of it get a bit higher in the summer to allow the daisies, self-heal, clovers, dandelions, black medick and ground ivy (etc!) to flower.

If you have a field or paddock the chances are it has aggressive modern grasses in it. If you’re very lucky and it doesn’t, you might be able just to add Yellow Rattle in the autumn. Sit back and see what comes up when it takes effect the following year, when the grasses get knocked back. You might not need any more seed at all.

*Some of this seed also has very low viability. Wildflower seed can have very limited shelf life if stored incorrectly.

Plantlife

Readers of this blog will probably be familiar with Plantlife, the plant conservation charity. They do significant work around the country managing land and raising awareness of the importance of wildflowers and the crisis they are in. I’m grateful for their work. The senior people I’ve heard and met from Plantlife know their potatoes and are good communicators, charismatic and impressive.

In terms of the UK conservation world they’re a relatively large, well funded charity. Their turnover is around £3.5 million and their income is largely from government agencies and organisations like the Heritage Lottery Fund. They have over 50 people in their head office and many other volunteers and outreach officers. Their PR is fabulous; as a charity with Prince Charles as patron they are regularly on Radio 4, for example, as they were this morning talking about their Wildflower Hunt (an interesting project). They have over 28 thousand Twitter followers and specialists running their social media feeds. Their website SEO is professional and the site ranks well in searches. This is all great for wildflowers.

But…*

Plantlife don’t seem to like the wildflower seed business. Last year this became apparent in the McMeadows fiasco. They attacked the industry in a pretty ill-informed and unhelpful way. People – including me – were very upset. Essentially they don’t like “off the shelf” wildflower seed mixes of any sort, regardless of quality, origin or provenance. All suppliers, good, bad and ugly were lumped in together.

Wildflower seed harvesting
Encourage Wildflower Seed Producers!

At the time I made the point that we should encourage the development of an economically viable and responsible wildflower seed business, not undermine it. There are very few folk scratching a living out of wildflower seed at the moment, battling people selling imported seed, non-native species and agricultural cultivars as “UK wildflowers”.

NGOs don’t have the resources or incentives to do what the commercial sector can potentially contribute. On a practical basis, if 97% if your wildflower meadows have disappeared then it’s difficult to source local plant material in the way that Plantlife would like us to, in anything like the volume required. They should engage with the good guys and we can all work together.

We pay farmers to let us harvest seed from their meadows, for example, and then sell it. Guess what? They then seed more meadows as they can see a return from them. We have set up a website to enable small specialists to sell their locally harvested meadow seed mixes. It’s to our advantage to encourage people to buy them. These are simple instances of aligning commercial and ecological interests.

I understood Plantlife’s views might have changed since, as they learnt more about the business. I’d heard some encouraging things from them. Out of curiosity I checked their website this morning to see if that was reflected there. In fairness, there was no recent McMeadows stuff. I did find this in their policy document, though:

Planting wildflower seed mixes doesn’t conserve wild flowers or restore fragmented habitats. Worse, it could threaten the distinctiveness and natural genetic variation of our local flora. Our challenge is to conserve wild flowers whilst maintaining their essential wildness. Rather than reaching for a packet of wildflower seed, the Plantlife to-do list looks like this…

Well – yes, sort of. The plant material is often not available to do what they would like us to – that’s the point. You can, however, buy packets of some direct harvest local wildflower seed mixes. The more people we encourage to buy them the more there would be available. Local provenance is something we very much promote, although even the arguments about that are complicated – far, far over my head!

Anyway, although you can disagree with the message at least it’s consistent. But then – just as I was about to close my browser – I noticed that Plantlife now have a shop. I couldn’t believe what they were selling.

Wildflower seed mixes in packets.+

You can understand why I was so gobsmacked. These are the very wildflower seed mixes they disapprove of when sold by other people. This isn’t just unfair, it’s utter humbug.

Plantlife have a huge and obvious competitive advantage over someone trying to make a living out of selling wildflower seed. In some ways this is a good thing, of course – much better to buy Plantlife seed from John Chambers than some cr@p off Amazon or Ebay. In other ways it’s clearly not.

The RHS commercial arm ran into similar accusations of unfair advantage, which they at least partly resolved by promoting good quality UK nurseries and growers, through their Plant Finder scheme and magazine, for example. It would be really, really helpful if Plantlife did something similar.

 

*You knew there would be a but.

+AND sourced from one of our competitors – doh!

 

 

 

 

 

Weed or Wildflower? Which is Which?

I always tell punters one man’s weed is another one’s wildflower. I’m not sure that’s strictly true in most cases. Problematic plants? I know dandelions and plantains can be a struggle for some in the garden, for example, despite their – to my mind – obvious allure.

Wildflower meadow
I see no weeds

Bittercress, dock and nettle – weed, I think, while acknowledging that “weed” isn’t all bad. I have a designated nettle patch that caterpillars much through. And – really – what’s the difference between Rumex obtusifolius (bad), Rumex acetosa (good) and – my favourite dock – Rumex hydrolapathum (fantastic).

I guess it’s a question of degree. We have a little video about making wildflower meadows, in which I made the mistake of saying weed out any thistles. Well, I say a mistake – it’s not; thistles are very efficient colonisers and a real pain in a new wildflower meadow. That’s not to say they aren’t good plants for pollinators and can be very pretty – as was pointed out to me in no uncertain terms (!) – but they can take over. Diversity is what you’re aiming for, and a field full of thistles isn’t that.

Anyway, Birdsfoot trefoil and Self-heal would not even hit my top 50 of “difficult” plants. We must have sold hundreds of kilos of BFT and Self-heal seed over the years, and thousands of plug plants. They are pretty, small wildflowers. Self-heal is in our flowering lawn mix and Birdsfoot trefoil looks like a native snapdragon. Good plants for a variety of pollinators, BFT particularly good for some bumbles.

I digress.

The point is, according to Farmer’s Weekly, that these two plants are on the naughty step. They are, apparently, “unwanted weeds”, albeit good weeds insofar as they improve fat levels in the lambs that eat them. Hurrah!

This is really irking, but an interesting insight into the psyche of Farmer’s Weekly readers. Many farmers still treat anything not the right sort of grass as a weed.

This has got to stop. I can understand farmers antipathy towards species like black grass and dock. But Birdsfoot trefoil and Self-heal? For starters, plants like this are good for livestock. You can buy grazing grass mixes which include them. They also have really important ecological value and their numbers are declining.

Perhaps Farmer’s Weekly should start to call them herbs, if they can’t bear “wildflowers”.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wildflower Meadows: What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

We sell a fair amount of seed for wildflower meadows. You might say wildflower meadows are a bit of an obsession, in fact. We do everything we can to make sure they’re going to work for our clients. We know where the seed has come from, we do random germination tests, we know how old it is and how it has been stored. We post guides and videos about how to make wildflower meadows. Things still seem to go wrong though… here are the three biggest bloopers folk commit.

1. What Is Your Seed and What Will It Do?

Do you know what you want to create and will the seed mix you buy give you that? Do you know what a “traditional” hay meadow will look like? Is that what you want? IF yes then remember… good things come to those who wait. Wait until you’ve done your prep. Wait until the right window to sow. Most importantly, wait for your meadow flowers to develop. They are    s      l      o      w growing perennials, which won’t flower in year one. Many might not in year two. Take pleasure in watching it develop. This hints at the next question…

2. Would You Sow Carrot Seed Onto Your Lawn?
No no and thrice no! And wildflower seed is often equally small and much more slow growing. Don’t chuck it on an existing pasture or lawn. If soil fertility is anything but LOW and there are any aggressive grasses about (which there almost certainly will be), your wildflower seed will end up being a waste of £££. There are exceptions to this*, but this is true of well over 90% of the sites we deal with. Clear a little space to seed wildflowers and the grasses will take it over. Create a little strip to seed wildflowers and the grasses will take it over. Scarify some of the grass off to seed wildflowers and the grasses will take over. You get the picture.

3. Be Brutal
There are some plants you don’t want in your meadow. Thistles have great biodiversity value but get everywhere. Dock looks like Sorrel, but is much less retiring. Nettles are great food plants for caterpillars but a curse in wildflower meadows. No thanks; all these need to go, and BEFORE they have any chance of setting seed. Don’t leave those thistles flowering because they’re a great food source for bees. Have them out, unless you want a thistle plantation.
Cut the grass before September. Please, please don’t wait until the last Knapweed has finished flowering. The grass will collapse before then and be virtually uncuttable. If you don’t cut it promptly and over the winter I guarantee you will soon be looking at a field full of grass, not a wildflower in sight. And that would be a great shame.

If all this is too worrying and you are to horticulture what I am to blacksmithing, just get us to do the whole thing for you.

Wildflower meadow
What’s all the fuss about?

*I can hear you thinking you might be one. If you think you might, get in touch. I’d be interested to hear from you and we can cook up a strategy for your site.

 

Farmland – Does It Really Matter and What Should We Do With It?

Much interest in Michael Gove’s prognostications on farmland subsidies today. This is a really important issue for environmentalists – perhaps more important than you might think.

Oddly, most people in the UK think that the country is largely concreted over. How much of the UK’s land area do you think is densely* built on? According to a recent Ipsos Mori poll, the average estimate is 47%. The actual number is… 0.1%. The younger people are, the more land they think is concrete. 47% is a vast over-estimation of the proportion of land built on at all, which is below 6%

UK farmlandAs the BBC’s Mark Easton pointed out in his excellent blog, this misconception has disastrous implications for debate about land use.

Oddly, folk living in rural locations had the same level of misconception as those in towns and cities. In other words, this is received rather than observed wisdom.

There’s a powerful historical narrative at work here which we need to unravel, and which has a direct bearing on what we do with our farmland. Although it takes up much more of our land than people think, farmland is far from the rural utopia that the same narrative suggests. It’s not the green and pleasant land threatened by the looming giants of the industrial revolution and – today – housing sprawl. Most farmers have to work their land very hard to make ends meet.

Farmland is very important for the natural environment. We must concentrate on getting the policies shaping it right. What happens on farmland is much, much more important for biodiversity than what happens in urban areas. It’s well over 50% of our land mass, massively more than natural land, and much of it is now very degraded.

The Common Agricultural Policy has done little to halt this degradation. It has probably made it worse. Mr Gove doesn’t like the CAP, and has perhaps been surprised to find allies in the environmental lobby. It’s expensive, inefficient and politically sensitive. Paying subsidies on the basis of land ownership – with no cap – is inevitably going to produce poor outcomes and promote grotesque income inequalities.

What Mr Gove proposes is a kind of expansion of countryside stewardship and agri-environmental schemes. We will pay farmers for the “public goods” they create rather than the acreage they farm. Mr. Gove mentioned planting woodland, creating new habitats for wildlife, helping improve water quality and recreating wildflower meadows. Potentially good news for Habitat Aid, incidentally, although I wonder where all the seed and plants for this will come from! I hope they will have the right provenance…

This dramatic and potentially really exciting switch in policy begs more questions than it answers. Presumably cost cutting is a rationale for doing it – how big would any new pot be? In order to be meaningful they will have to be landscape wide and administered by an expensive and well informed bureaucracy.

What would be the impact on food prices and how would the electorate react to that? We still produce 60% of the food we eat – what happens as that falls when intensive farming becomes less attractive? What would happen to activities like hill farming, which are fundamentally uneconomic?

I don’t see how we can end up with cheap food produced to today’s standards or better, an improved environment, and a saving to the public purse. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

  • i.e. over 80%+ covered by artificial surfaces like buildings and roads.

 

Tell Me About My Wildflower Seed

I spent a fascinating day at Kew yesterday listening to lectures on wildflower seed. It was hosted by NASSTEC, a hopelessly complicated acronym for the even more complicated Native Seed Science Technology and Conservation Initial Training Network. This is an EU funded project to find out about who is doing what in the world of native plant seeds, and to share that information. Very worthwhile it has been too.

One of the interesting topics that came up yesterday was an old bugbear of mine – certification and seed quality. If you buy a wildflower seed mix you want to know:
1. That the seed in it is what it says on the packet
2. Where it’s from
3. That it can germinate
I don’t think this is unreasonable!

Weirdly, however, I don’t have to tell you any of that on the packet. The seed might be from Vladivostock, it could be 10 years old and might just be grass seed. I have my supplier’s assurance about its origin and quality, but that’s all. We randomly test some seed mixes ourselves, but it’s an expensive business and so we can only test a tiny number of batches.

Not declaring anything about seed origin and quality suits the less scrupulous. Producers can use non-viable seed bought in from outside the UK, or different species than are in the specification. Resellers can store seed in inadequate conditions for years until selling it to you. As incredibly, there’s no standard protocol that wildflower seed producers are obliged to follow. There are no guidelines about storage, for example – different producers use different regimes as to humidity and temperature.

Whatever the reasons, there’s clearly a problem with the germination rates and content of some seed mixes supplied by some folk. Sadly I think this situation might suit them; it was notable that in a room full of academics, ecologists and specialist seed producers that I was the only seed reseller.

I would guess that the overwhelming proportion of wildflower seed mixes sold to retail buyers are poor quality and of dodgy origin. They’re too cheap to suggest otherwise. They often look peculiar. They sometimes include agricultural cultivars and odd surprises. Specialist wildflower seed producers and harvesters only seem sell around 5% of their seed to individuals*, but it feels that the total amount of wildflower seed being produced by these guys is very small compared to the total volume sold. There are only around 10 specialist producers in the UK, and most of these are tiny.

The market is so opaque that some resellers don’t even tell customers that they’re not actually producing the seed they sell themselves.

Vive La Difference!
It won’t surprise you that this state of affairs is unusual. They have well organised independent certification schemes in the U.S. and in Germany, and identify and audit seed origin and propagation in France.

There’s no point existing producers getting together here and producing some kind of quality assurance mark. It wouldn’t be seen as independent. If it were auditable it would be expensive. Consumers wouldn’t know to look for it and won’t know if it’s missing. It only suits a tiny number of producers who are trying to do the right thing. The government must legislate. It’s only with this that struggling small scale producers can be rewarded for doing the right thing, and that we can consistently create really high quality wildflower projects.

There wouldn’t be the money to create a testing framework but a move to the French system – so that you can see the origin of the seed and producers have some kind of protocol to follow in production techniques – would be a good start. I do hope organizations like Kew, Plantlife and perhaps even the RHS might understand this and lobby for it.

*This is one of the reasons we set up the British Wildflower Seeds website

Hand Collected Meadow Seed Mixes

Meadow seed mixes come in several forms, but it had never struck me that hand collected mixes might be one of them. There are generally four types of meadow seed mixes; let’s call them generic, bespoke, direct harvest and green hay.
Generic meadow seed mixes are usually 80% grasses 20% wildflowers. They consist of seed harvested from plants usually grown in controlled environments, so that you can guarantee their exact composition. They consist of a limited number of common species but can provide a really good starting point to establish a meadow. This has obvious advantages; you know exactly what you’re getting and the seed mix should be pretty much bombproof. This approach can also be used to create bespoke mixes, which produce different visual or ecological results. You can create blue mixes or mixes for particular butterflies, for example.
We’re big fans of direct harvest mixes. These are seed mixes which you collect and clean from existing wildflower meadows. If produced carefully they provide a wide range of species with high floristic content – usually something like 50% wildflowers to 50% meadow grasses. They also have a specific geographic origin. This is important for many reasons; viability, local ecosystem, persistence, local distinctiveness. We’ve even set up a website promoting them.
I’ve also come across green hay, which sounds alluring but actually… isn’t. The idea is straightforward; take a hay cut from an existing meadow, collect the hay, strew the hay over the target site, remove. What could possibly go wrong? Well, actually, a lot. The logistics of this sort of operation are horrendous, as you can imagine. And hay from the donor site is only going to contain a small % of the species there, most of which won’t have set seed at the right moment. It’s also very difficult to find the right donor site.
Hand collected seed mixes were something new for me. Their advantages are obvious. Good and specific species representation, as they’re collected across a wide time window and combined after cleaning. Specific provenance. High floristic content. What’s not to like? Well, potentially, the cost! As you can imagine, per kg these mixes are much, much more expensive than their competition. Here’s an odd thing, though.
I’m writing from deepest Norfolk, where I’ve just been learning about what the folk at Abbey Farm in Flitcham have been up to. A dedicated team of harvesters has been hard at work collecting and processing seed for a large local project. It’s taking a while, as you can imagine, but the important thing is that it’s doable. Fantastic. There are simply fabulous wildflower meadows at the farm which supply most of their needs, and painstaking research gives them an appropriate species list.
I do have a reservation, though. This is an unbeatable approach if you have a wonderful source of seeds (which Abbey Farm is) and either deep pockets or very poor fertility soil. Let me explain. It’s obviously very labour intensive to hand pick individual seeds, clean them manually and combine them into a mix. Consequently, it’s expensive – very expensive. Having said that, the recommended seeding rate is the lowest I have ever seen – by factors. You seed “normal” meadow seed mixes at 3 to 4g per square metre, which seems ludicrously little to most people. These hand picked mixes are recommended to be sown at 0.5g. 0.5g! Even allowing for the very high proportion of wildflowers, this is very low. This rate means on a per square metre basis the different types of mixes are similar prices.
On any medium to high fertility soil this will be asking for trouble, however, as it will be rapidly overwhelmed by docks, thistles, and nettle – among other nasties.
So if you have a top donor site nearby and very low fertility soil or deep pockets, this is a great option…

Seeding Wildflower Meadows in Spring

Thank goodness we have done no wildflower seeding here this spring. It has been so dry the patch of unruly wasteland we have in Somerset looks more like the Gobi Desert. I have been watering our green roof and running around the veg patch with a watering can.

I fear this is going to be a pattern; a dry spring followed by a cool wet summer. This is hopeless for seeding wildflower seed mixes. Wildflowers and native grasses are particularly vulnerable because – unlike commercial cultivars – they take a while to get going. They’re also surface sown rather than drilled, which leaves them exposed.

If there’s enough moisture around for seed to germinate the seedlings will conk out before you’ve even noticed them. If there isn’t there’ll just sit there being eaten by birds and blowing about until a downpour washes them away.

Traditional wisdom is that you sow wildflowers in spring or early autumn. Most of the species in wildflower meadow mixes set seed in summer, so you would think early autumn would be a better bet for seeding – and you’d be right.

Fingers Crossed

The idea with seeding in September is that the soil is warm and moist enough and the days long enough that there will be some germination before it turns cold. The caveat to this is to be wary of heavy wet soils, where there is a risk seed will just sit in waterlogged conditions and rot. There’s also a risk of a really wet and cold period on any soil, which would do for a lot of seedlings. Generally, though, it looks to be better time to seed than spring as rainfall is more reliable in September/October than it is in April/May.

Some species too, most notably Yellow Rattle, need to stratify to germinate, so want the cold of winter.

The text books say the last time to seed in spring is end May. This is particularly true of annuals, which won’t have the time to flower before the days start drawing in. If you’re sowing a mix of perennials and grasses – a wildflower meadow mix – I’m increasingly thinking you should think about doing it at any time of year between March and November when conditions are right.

We need to adapt to changing weather patterns and local conditions. If I were seeding a Welsh hillside I would be reasonably happy doing it in June, for example. Rainfall is pretty reliable throughout the summer here. On the other hand I’m increasingly cautious about sowing wildflower mixes in places like East Anglia and Kent in spring without the ability to water.

It looks like we’ll have to take more care whenever we seed. We should also resign ourselves to more failures because of hostile weather conditions. If you have to seed in spring water the seed bed then the seedlings.