I gave some cornfield annual seed to a really nice bunch of folk at a Primary School in Essex last year. They were a HUGE success sown in a flowerbed, but unfortunately they didn’t let them set seed. My heart sank when I saw this recent entry and photo on their Facebook page:
“Today the children started to prepare the wildflower meadow.
They dug and raked the soil and found lots of interesting insects such as ladybirds ants and worms in the process!
I cant believe just how hard they worked as a team and we soon had the whole area cleared, well done to year 6. To their parents, sorry about their shoes, bit muddy ooppps.
We have two boxes of wildflower seeds so sow, which was another great find in the pound shop, and another packet of seeds are being delivered next week. These should be sown in the next couple of weeks as the weather warms up.
As you know we cannot post the photos of the children on facebook, so you will have to make do with pictures of the boxes of seeds!”
People like me obviously aren’t getting the message across. Sowing these seeds will no more give you a “wildflower meadow” than planting petunias will, I’m afraid. They’re not British species, they’re not meadow species, they won’t be British seeds and they probably won’t germinate anyway. I don’t know what the butterflies are on the packets, but they’re not British either, which is a bit of a clue. This kind of thing is a widespread issue; I went to Wisley last summer and popped into the shop there, only to find the RHS was selling lovely French wildflower seed.
Does it matter that any old wildflower mixes are being sold to consumers who think they are buying the right kit to establish a “wildflower meadow”? I think it does. I’m not qualified to make the ecological arguments about appropriateness, but I think it’s important that people get what they expect. There’s also the argument for supporting British suppliers. Quite apart from questions of provenance, I think most shoppers would be appalled to know where many of the seeds in packets sold in garden centres came from. We come across the same issues in other areas too; if I bought a mix of “native hedge plants” I think I might reasonably expect the plants to be British. The chances are, of course, that they’re not. It’s one of the things we make a song and dance about, and as a reseller we only sell British seed (and plants!) from British suppliers. There aren’t many about, but we try to provide geographic choice of origin within the UK as much as we can. We’re always on the hunt for new sources to add to our network of harvesters and growers, so if you know anyone local to you who produces seed please let us know.
Despite the alluring packaging, wildflower seed has had a bad press in recent times, which is one of the reasons why wildflower turf and plug plants are such attractive alternatives. I’ve often asked myself what the problems are that people have with seed, and I think they fall into three categories; preparation and management, appropriateness, and seed quality. How we can shorten the odds on making seed work for people and getting them to buy the “right” mixes?
Getting preparation and management right is just a question of persuading folk to do some research and have some patience. Carrying basic information on the website is one thing, but if I were tackling a reasonable sized project from scratch I would at least buy a couple of books, and probably get an expert in to give me a management plan. The cost of that sort of investment is tiny relative to the whole project. We’ve started to offer just that kind of service, particularly aimed at designers and landscape architects.
Making sure the seed mix is right is as much about making different options available as it is asking consumers the right questions about their site and what they want from it. A generic mix bought off the shelf may be completely inappropriate for your soil type, which means it will disappoint; it could also fail because the seed is old or has been badly stored. The good quality end of the market hasn’t done enough to let consumers know that their seed has demonstrably better germination rates than cheaper mixes, which consequently represent a false economy. We’ve started randomly testing our mixes through an external laboratory to give extra peace of mind, and offer a testing service as an option for larger orders too. It’s relatively inexpensive and I can’t imagine why more suppliers don’t do it.
There is a kind of trade body for wildflower seed – Flora Locale – who do a great job, but it’s specifically not an organization able to issue some kind of a kitemark. Perhaps Kew, who have started to get involved, might be interested in setting up some kind of a scheme and raising broader awareness of these issues. In the meantime we’ll carry on doing our best to try to, and perhaps most importantly raise appreciation of the aesthetic of what an ecologist would call “unimproved grassland”. At the very least it would be good to see more (British!) native plants in gardens in some form or other.
I spent a knackering three days at Ecobuild last week. Ecobuild is a mega trade fair, now at the ExCel centre in London. It took me three hours just to walk round it last year as a punter, and this year as an exhibitor I was so busy I couldn’t even leave my stand to get a coffee. We were part of the Biodiversity Pavilion, where I was mentored by the lovely Blanche Cameron and neighbours with nice folk like Wildflower Turf, one of our suppliers. British Wildflower Plants, another supplier, grew the gorgeous native wildflowers for us. Thanks chaps.
There was a lot of chat about whether the show was still true to its core values, which arguably it isn’t, but the thing that struck me was that it still had room for enthusiasts and they weren’t marginalised. Sure, these events are all about shifting product, but this was a much more honest and catholic church than the major horticultural shows. You can’t have an arbiter of appropriate trade stands; it’s the paying punter who dictates what’s on display and, by and large, in the wake of the solar bubble it made for interesting viewing. It felt contemporary and buzzy too, which the horticultural shows certainly don’t; I met interesting people and saw some interesting things, and even got to give a couple of talks. I’ll be back next year please Blanche.
Chelsea is very much in my thoughts at the moment. I’ll be on the Hilliers stand for the first half of the week, where they are featuring our Meadow Anywhere seed mix. We have been growing planters for the exhibit – I say “we”, but I’ve been helped out by Steve Morton, the seed supplier, which has calmed my nerves considerably. Hilliers are handing cheques for £4,000 to Butterfly Conservation and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust at the show, which is the donation to them from sales. Now that’s how this should work!
Chelsea is also important to me as it gives me the opportunity to talk to landscapers and designers. If Habitat Aid is to succeed we have to persuade these folk to use native and local plants and to source them from us. We have a growing and enthusiastic group of retail customers who have been brilliant in spreading the word, but unfortunately you only plant an orchard or sow a meadow once!
In addition to the new products in the pond section we are now also offering wildflower turf – popular among designers as it gives you low hassle instant impact meadow.
Oh yes, and we have confirmed the Perry Pear varieties we are selling, for delivery bare root from autumn. How can you resist a tree called Beetroot Wick Court Alex?
I’m also revamping the “perennials” section on the website, which will end up as more “woody perennials” by the end of the month.
Our recent “making wildife ponds” course with Hugh Roberts was a great success, despite the dry weather. It reminded me what a great thing ponds are. We’ve recently expanded our product range in this area to include coir rolls and mats, pre-planted with either well established mixed plants or phragmites (reed). This is a really clever trick. If you use a butyl or plastic liner it can be difficult to create planting spots without using baskets (yuk!). Coir provides a growing medium which will keep the plants in place – plants which are already well developed, so will give you instant impact. The rolls sit nicely along the banks and you can lay the mats on gently sloping sides. Prices very according to delivery, so are available on request.
We are chatting with a some high profile potential charity partners, with a view to designing and supplying new products for us to sell through our website, or through retail intermediaries. Watch this space!
Social Media etc.
I’m getting better at social media. We now have over 800 more or less genuine Twitter followers (I tweet as Habitat_Aid), in addition to our Facebook page, and the blog seems to be going well – I’m trying to get into Wikio’s Top 20 Environmental blogs.
According to Alexa the main website is now ranked the 393,031st busiest in the world, by the way. That looks like it might put us somewhere approaching the top 10,000 for UK traffic, whereas a year ago we were more like 20,000th. Like our progress overall I don’t know whether the result is good or bad, but the rate of change looks great!
There is a mystique about wildflower meadow creation that suggests it is difficult and time consuming. Not necessarily so. And a wildflower meadow – even a small area – is a buzzing, fluttering living thing of great beauty and wonder.
Make one because you want to and not because you think it’s the right thing to do, however. If you do, it will bring you great pleasure. You’ll also find it easier to manage than you might think. Less wearisome and polluting mowing, for example…
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 if you prefer:
What is a Wildflower Meadow?
Let’s start by saying what’s it’s not. It’s not this, lovely though it looks. These are “cornfield annuals”, with the odd grass intruder. You can buy mixes of native British annual wildflowers, which produce a gorgeous display in mid-summer and provide welcome nectar and pollen to pollinators. That’s all though folks.
They are quick to flower – around 2 months after seeding – but have a limited flowering window. You can extend it with multiple sowings. These cornfield annuals demand a completely different regime to a perennial wildflower meadow; I grow them in borders and follow the tips in this video from one of our suppliers, Emorsgate Seeds: Managing Cornfield Annuals .
They have a limited ecological value too, truth be told. Butterflies, for example, love the nectar from annual wildflowers but need perennials and grasses as foodplants for their larvae. Pollinators generally need a longer flowering period. Other invertebrates need the protection of perennial plants to overwinter.
There are also some more or less good “pictorial meadow” mixes available. These can look gorgeous and provide a long flowering window. Carefully selected, they can also be excellent for at least some pollinators. It’s a quite different look to a traditional wildflower meadow and most likely delivers less in terms of biodiversity (sweeping generalisation, I know). There are no grasses, and these mixes generally include a majority of non-native – typically American – species. They usually need reseeding every year – i.e. consist of annuals. This also means extra expense. They’re widely used in urban environments, where they look great.
“Traditional” meadows come in different types too, but are grasslands which are mown for hay. They are typically grazed or cut through the winter. In other words, artificial, not natural features – always worth remembering. They also have (relatively retiring) native grasses, not aggressive agricultural cultivars, which means they can also have perennial wildflowers. This is what makes them so attractive and good for wildlife.
They can look strikingly different looking according to local conditions and the time of year, which to my mind makes them even more fascinating…
Is My Site Suitable For A Wildflower Meadow?
How much sun does your planned meadow get? As much as possible; it is of course possible to grow wildflowers in shade, but a wildflower meadow you won’t get, as the species in it need full sun.
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 lower 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 My Meadow?
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 summarises the differences between wildflower turf, seed mixes and plugs. Of course, all 3 are not mutually exclusive; they can be used in combination.
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. Generally wildflower turf doesn’t include grasses.
My other concern is the mesh which it’s grown in, which is plastic and doesn’t biodegrade… hmm. Perhaps something the producers can crack.
I think it’s a good 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.
Wildflower Meadow Seed
Seed mixes are much cheaper and can be tweaked as to soil type, situation and customer requirement. Wildflower turf might be over £12/square metre including VAT (plus carriage), but wildflower meadow seed usually works out between 15p – 25p.
Ecologists (and me!) like “direct harvest” mixes, sustainably harvested from donor sites, sometimes hundreds of years old. They can be super exciting! You can find very diverse mixes with high floristic content and at least relatively local provenance. You can get pretty much instant colour by adding a “nurse” of cornfield annuals – this is a site we seeded recently using this approach. It’s going to be AMAZING!
These direct harvest seed mixes are outstanding value for money, as they include a wide range of species – sometimes rare – and up to 70% wildflowers to 30% wild grasses.
You can also buy generic mixes, which are less exciting – but you do know what you’re getting. They are typically 80% or even 90% grasses and only 10% – 20% wildflowers. The grasses are certified – i.e. not harvested from wild populations. Have a look at our blog on which wildflower seed to buy for more information.
If you don’t buy your seed through us or our sister website please please make sure you are buying from another specialist supplier.
Wildflower plugs are usually sold as little egg cup sized plants. They’re typically only a year old, or even less. They’re relatively cheap (around 50p/plant including VAT), and you can buy trays of varied species to suit different soils and situations. Although they can be handy when starting from scratch, in combination with seed, we generally see people using them to add to an existing lawn. They will need to be planted at 5 / square metre.
It’s relatively tricky to establish a seed mix in an existing sward, which puts a lot of people off. A garden lawn usually has a lot of perennial rye grass, which is there for a reason – it’s a thug. One way or the other you really need to start with a clean sheet. Either put a plastic sheet or similar down to kill the existing grass and weeds, cultivate repeatedly (the “stale seed bed” approach), or stripping the topsoil off completely*.
Prepping the ground for wildflower turf is less problematic, as the mesh the flowers’ root systems are based in acts like a mulch.
(can be) High
Use in grass
Many people want to start their meadow 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. Better to 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.
DON’T add topsoil or compost, by the way!
Before you seed, just create a bit of a tilth and clear away larger stones etc. by raking.
Unless you have specialist kit, you’ll end up hand broadcasting your seed. Why? Wildflower seed comes in many different sizes and shapes, and has very low seeding rates – typically 4g/square metre. Drills and spreaders can’t generally cope with it. Because the seeding rate is so low, divide the area to be seeded into squares, using canes or similar. The size of the squares doesn’t matter – whatever you feel comfortable with and is appropriate for the site. Weigh out enough seed for a square. Add an inert carrier like sand or sawdust to ensure more even coverage, and show you where you’ve gone. It doesn’t matter how much.
Try to do two passes in each area – one in each direction. This will also mean the coverage is more even. Walk steadily. Once seeded, do not cover!
What Do I Do To Convert Existing Pasture/Grass into a Wildflower Meadow?
Folk often seem to think that native plants are imbued with supernatural powers of establishment. Would you scatter lupin seeds on your lawn and expect them to successfully germinate and establish themselves? Please bear this mind when contemplating conversion. This will take longer than you think, and be more problematic.
You can try by either using plug plants or Yellow Rattle, or both. For plug plants make sure the grass is cut tight and removed around each plug so that it won’t be out-competed by it. Reckon on 5 per square metre, and 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.