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. 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.

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 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.

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, 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.

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.

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.

Purple Loosestrife: Perfect for British Gardens

Purple loosestrife, Lythrum salicaria, is native to Europe. I’d call it “vigorous” in the UK, although outside Europe it can be an invasive menace. Google it and you’ll see what I mean. It’s the North American equivalent of Himalayan Balsam in Britain. Its consequently malevolent appearance on the internet is a shame.

Purple loosestrifeIn the UK, Purple loosestrife is a beauty. Like the Buddleias growing in railway sidings it’s so common people don’t notice it. Purple loosestrife flowers around the same time, and it seems to me to be just as a good a plant for pollinators. Our Purple loosetrife is covered in honey bees, bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies. I was cross I didn’t manage to get a photo of one of the lovely Clouded Yellows we’ve had this summer, but I’ve got the next best thing – A Yellow Brimstone. I hope they’ll discover my Alder Buckthorn too.

It’s one of those flashy flowers like Toadflax which people don’t believe really can be British wildflowers (and no, Buddleias aren’t native, which explains why they can be problemmatic in the UK). We’ve messed about with Purple loosestrife to produce a number of “garden” cultivars but honestly, why bother?

Purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria
Purple loosestrife and squid!
Its lush flowering spikes are 30cm long and seem to last for ages*. I reckon that makes Purple loosestrife a prime crossover candidate – ideal for use in more formal circumstances than wet wasteland. At Hookgate we’ve planted Purple Loosestrife along a swale, which has worked – well, see for yourself. It’s as tough as old boots; these plants are growing in solid clay, at one moment concrete, the next gloop. They’re usually associated with wet areas, though. We sell them in our “marginal aquatic plants” selection.

Apparently Darwin was interested in the flowers as the size of their pollen, stamens and styles varies between Purple Loosestrife plants. I don’t understand how that works – will need to ask a botanist. Oh, and Purple loosestrife is unrelated to Yellow loosestrife, Lysimachia vulgaris, in one of those pleasing confusions that keep the botanists happy.They’re not a confusion at all in Latin.

*Producing an estimated 2 million seeds per plant. Blimey.