In The Meadow

We have a two acre plot in Somerset, much of it wildflower meadow. Our garden is driven by a simple principle; it has to look good and do good. Our little meadows are the embodiment of that; they keep giving.

Native Wildflower Meadows…

Common sorrel. Nothing to see here.

To a botanist they’re nothing special. We’ve created them over the last 4 years, so they’re still only half formed. Not surprisingly I haven’t seen anything wildly exotic, but that’s rather the point. I take huge pleasure in the beauty of the commonplace and the minutiae of the flora we have. We made a number of different areas with different soil treatments and drainage, which has resulted in a range of different vigour, colours and species. One strip is full of knapweed; the next, wetter but sown with the same seed mixture, has a patch dominated by meadow buttercup. Ragged robin has unexpectedly appeared in a remote damp corner. We have three different vetches all awash with bees, each with its own appointed place.

The grasses vary wildly, depending on the soil and earlier use. There’s knee high Timothy and Foxtail where once there was pasture, and the delicate Crested dogstail we sowed onto subsoil. Then there’s our meadow roof, with Kidney vetch, oregano, stonecrop, mallow and St John’s wort. A different thing again.

I’ve no idea how many plant species we have here, but the subtle effects they combine to make are enchanting (I’m not a good enough photographer to really get this across!). And they’re all native wildflowers. Not for me a sea of something Californian, I’m afraid.

Mostly Oxeye daisy and Common vetch

I love watching the meadow evolve through the season. From cowslip to knapweed it has its own rythmn. Over time it evolves too. Plant species disappear. Species arrive. Populations wax and wane. Different plants do well in different years – this year the vetches are going bonkers, and lend a wild look to things.

But are meadows messy? Absolutely not. Wildflower meadows are managed; they seem to me to be a perfect fusion of man and nature. We have a simple weeding (no longer really necessary) and cutting regime to make something very lovely.

… Great For Native Fauna

Common vetch and friend (male Early bumblebee, Bombus pratorum)

And not just that. If you have a varied collection of native plants you will get… a varied collection of native animals. They continue to roll in, after 4 years. When we moved here the invertebrate population was pretty limited. We’ve done a fair amount meadows apart – ponds, a wildlife friendly formal garden as well – and in combination results are obvious and exciting.

Who put that butterfly there? (Small Copper, Lycaena phlaeas)

We have a lot more buzzing, flying, crawling friends. I’m quite good at my bumblebee ID, and I can find all 7 of the most common species here now (originally just one).* More butterflies and moths, more hoverflies. Further up the foodchain, we now have bats and more – and rarer – birds.

Who are you and what on earth are you up to? (No idea – any ideas welcome!)

Many of the animals I find in the meadow are a mystery to me. Little solitary bees, beetles, micromoths, crickets. What are they? What are they doing? Which plants do they need? Why are they here? Up close it’s a wildly exotic jungle, inhabited by a matching cast of characters. Some are territorial and here to stay; others are passing through.

There are various morals to this story, I guess. Well informed but modest habitat creation can make a big difference. And good habitat can look gorgeous, which can help us relearn our connection with nature.

*Interestingly, incidentally, on a hot summer day the meadows are buzzing, but honeybees tend to hang out in the formal garden with its ornamental cultivars. It’s a good example of why variety is so important.

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.