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. Leave cutting until too late and the grass will form an impenetrable thatch. 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.
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 cornfield annuals or Yellow Rattle 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.
It is good practice though – particularly if you can’t cut your meadow in sections – to cut it at slightly different time very year if you can. This will maximise floral diversity.
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, to be honest, but at least the raking action opens up the grass for more wildflowers.
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, which is the long term key to encouraging more wildflowers. Make sure when you mow, incidentally, that you don’t go round and round, squashing panicked animals into a smaller and smaller area.
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.