Wildflowers In Your Garden

Malva moschata

Do you want a patch of wildflowers in your garden? The right answer! I think they can look lovely; some are long flowering too, like this mallow in the gravel by our back door, and of course they’re all good for wildlife.

I’m talking here about wildflowers on their own, not mixed with grasses, which will give you a wildflower meadow. This will require a different management regime. I’m also talking about British wildflowers.

Whether you’re growing a meadow or just wildflowers, you will need a nice clean seedbed before you start. Only sow onto bare earth, clear of weeds and grasses. I can’t stress how important this is! A little time preparing will save you hours of labour later. The wildflowers will spread out over time and suppress any weeds that try to get established.

Leucanthemum vulgare and lavender on a windy day!

They will do better in a low fertility growing medium. I know this sticks in the throat of some experienced gardeners, who have spent many hours improving their soil with manure and compost. It’s not that wildflowers don’t like high fertility soil; it’s just that everything else – dock, nettle, thistle etc etc – likes it more. Wildflowers are – by definition – very hardy, so don’t need a great deal of tender care. This all means that they will sit uneasily in your beautifully improved flowerbeds, and most likely need a spot of their own. Having said that, we use them in blocks in their own beds (Red campion is an easy favourite), and the wildflowers in your garden will provide a lovely contrast with the more “exotic”.

In practical terms, if your wildflower patch is small you can reduce the fertility of the soil by adding something like horticultural or sharp sand to it. If you’re sowing them onto a planter or raised bed, use sand and topsoil mixed together at a ratio of something around 1:3 (that’s not a scientific calculation, by the way!). I would also put some cardboard underneath a raised bed sitting on soil, which will rot away over time but prevent any really hardy weeds making a nuisance of themselves.

We talk elsewhere about the relative merits of seed, plugs and turf , but I’m concentrating here on the cheapest and most diverse approach – seed.

When you come to buy your seed we would of course prefer you to buy it from us (!). If you don’t, please make sure the species in the mix are sensible, are UK wildflower species (you laugh, but many seed mixes aren’t!), and that the seed comes from plants in the UK. If it’s not stated that it does, the chances are it hasn’t. This can be a problem in terms of biosecurity and hybridisation, among other things.

Echium vulgare: biennial king of bee plants

The wildflower only seed mixes we sell are generally perennials, but they do have some biennials and annuals in them too. The annuals will flower very quickly – around 60 days after seeding, if sown in spring – to give you a sense of achievement!

The optimum time for sowing is September – October. The books all say you can sow in spring too. Having said that, with the weather the way it is, the rule book is being reinvented – we have successfully seeded wildflower meadows from March until November. You just need warm moist soil. Conditions vary so much across the UK now it’s hard to generalise. I wouldn’t sow in spring in East Anglia, for example, whereas in Wales I might sow all the way through the summer, pretty much.

Anyway – where was I? – oh yes – seeding. Once you have your seed, pause. Your patch will only need seeding at a very low rate. It’s more like carrot seed than grass seed. We recommend our mixes are sown at 1g to 2g per square metre, which really is not a lot. Don’t chuck down loads of seed – the quicker growing species will just crowd out the others. Mix the seed with some of your sand if you’re nervous, which will bulk it out and make it easier to see where you’ve sown.

Don’t cover the seed once sown. Just lightly roll or tread in, and maybe water if it’s dry.

You will notice the annuals in the mix, like poppies and cornflowers, which germinate very quickly – that’s their strategy. The perennials will be much, much slower. If you sow wildflowers in your garden in September, some won’t even germinate until the following summer! They won’t generally flower in their first season.

Make sure you keep an eye on the seedlings as they do develop. Weed out anything you recognise that shouldn’t be there – take no prisoners! You may find thistles appearing, which are bad – not in themselves, but they can quickly take over. If you really can’t bear to hoick them out, then deadhead them before they set seed.

The timing of tidying up your wildflower area is less mission critical than it would be if you had a meadow. If it’s small you could deadhead individual plants, or leave seedheads on. Alternatively you could take a pair of shears to it in late summer/early autumn. Remember that all these plants will die back and would be perfectly happy if grazed all winter. You could do the equivalent if you wanted, but don’t once you notice new growth starting in March.

I think that’s about it. I hope you enjoy your new wildflowers in your garden – they’ll look good as well as do good!

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.

Meadows Are Go! Newsletter No.11

Apart from the small matter of moving, one of the reasons I’ve been so remiss at blogging this month has been the work I’ve spent on the British wildflower and grass seed mixes we are developing with the lovely folk at Hillier Nurseries. We’re launching our first “Meadow Anywhere” packet at the Garden Media day next week. This one aims to demystify meadows and native wildflowers for the urban gardener without dumbing down the content of the mix, and will raise money for Butterfly Conservation and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust. I won’t bore you with the sales spiel (!), but do have a look at the microsite I have built to go with the product range. Hillier, bless them, are featuring the mix at their Chelsea garden, and I have high hopes for it. Among the folk involved in the project has been Hannah McVicar, an exciting young illustrator in Bristol. I don’t think I’ll be able to afford her work (like this) for long!