How to Make a Wildflower Meadow: The Ultimate Guide
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 either carry on reading this modestly titled "Ultimate Guide" or peruse 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, but sometimes wrongly described as "wildflower meadows". They're not.
"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.
Nitrate deposition is one of the problems facing meadows generally at the moment, and if you have high nitrogen or phosphorus levels please reconsider the whole exercise! If you're in doubt you can get your soil tested.
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? First, Do No Harm
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 to have a look.
It might sound like a blunderbuss shot to the foot, coming from a purveyor of wildflower seed, but this is absolutely the optimal option if it's possible. You will encourage local populations of wildflowers which are completely appropriate for your site. If your area used to be old pasture, for example, you might be in luck. If a recently seeded lawn, almost definitely not; this will be dominated by aggressive grass cultivars
It you want to try this route, scarify or chain harrow the existing grass and cut it short, to allow any wildflowers the chance to make themselves known over the following growing season. With luck you will be pleasantly surprised, and can improve its diversity more by conitnuing to manage it sympathertically and adding some Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus minor. See below for details.
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 you'll be able to get turf on a bespoke basis). 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, which can be good and bad. That's a complicated area, but just something to be aware of!
My other concern is that it's often based on a plastic mesh, which doesn't biodegrade... hmm. This can be a bit of a nightmare. It's something which producers are beginning to crack, so please ask before you buy.
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.
You'll need to know what soil type you have to chose the right seed mix. If you don't know what it is look at the wildflowers around you, which will give you a good indication.
If you don't buy your seed through us or our sister website , which sells smaller quantities, 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.
|Local||(can be) High||Low||Low|
|Use in grass||Possibly||Yes||No|
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. So one back to front and the other side to side. This will also mean the coverage is more even. Walk steadily. Once seeded, do not cover! Keep watered as necessary.
How Do I Convert Existing Pasture/Grass into a Wildflower Meadow?
You might not have to do very much. Do you have any wildflowers in the grass at the moment? No? Are you sure? If you see species like Birsdsfoot trefoil please don't trash what you have, but change management to open up the sward. Scarify or chain harrow and knock back existing grasses by cutting and/or grazing. You may be be amazed by what appears, and you'll probably be very happy with it.
If you're convinced it needs more help, be patient. 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.
*please don't use weedkillers if you can possibly avoid them.