Wildflower meadows for everyone
Though the memory of halcyon days surrounded by wildflower meadows has faded a little since my childhood, as an adult I can’t ignore the fact that 98% of all our wildflower meadows have disappeared over the past 80 years. That’s an enormous loss of habitat to vital pollinators but worse still it presents a huge challenge to biodiversity and to the natural ecosystem that we are all part of and upon which we rely.
So how can we do our bit to protect restore the balance? The great advantage offered by native wildflowers is that they have adapted to British weather and different soils over thousands of years so they are all fully hardy, never need staking or deadheading, and provide many months of stunning colour rich in nectar. It doesn’t whether you’re on clay, sand or chalk, or even growing in containers, thanks to specialist growers you can now buy wildflower seed and meadow mixes for all soil types and locations.
Perhaps the easiest starting point is where you already have a patch of lawn that looks a bit scruffy or is partially bald. Grasses, including the mix in lawn turf, are more aggressive growers than wildflowers and tend to smother everything else so signs that the lawn turf is struggling (unless as a result of poor drainage) could be an indicator that soil fertility is low. Low nutrient soil slows down the growth of grass but means less vigorous wildflowers have a chance to thrive. To start with you need to give the lawn a severe mow and a good scarify. Using a strong rake scratch the lawn to remove the dead thatch and any loose grass. This will expose more bare soil. Then in spring simply sow your mix (pure wildflower seed in this instance), choosing the right mix for your type of soil, into the gaps. Don’t cover the seed with soil but walk over or roller where it is been sown to make sure the seed is in contact with soil. If it doesn’t rain after a few days give it a good water, and as long as you deter any greedy birds within a few weeks you’ll see the seedlings start to emerge. In following years mow until late March then leave until August or September before mowing again to ensure the flowers have dropped their seed - and always remember to take away the trimmings.
If you don’t have a lawn or even a garden, then you can grow wildflowers in containers. Simply drill a few holes in the bottom, add broken pot or large gravel to aid drainage and fill with topsoil. If you have no access to topsoil use seed compost which is free draining and low in nutrients. Then sow your wildflower seed on top, push down lightly to ensure contact with the soil and water in.
Where you’ve got space and want to create something on a large scale then a key ingredient is poor soil - and lots of patience. If you have rich soil its worth removing the top 6 inches and replacing it with low nutrient subsoil, obtainable from some recycling firms. If your soil is free-draining then dig out or kill off any perennial weeds over a sustained period to ensure a clean seed bed. Remembering your soil type sow at the recommended rate (often around 5 grams per square metre for meadow mix) using a regulated dispenser or by hand, marking out 1m squares with chalk to ensure even distribution. Add seed of the yellow rattle plant as this reduces grass vigour. Then roller the area to ensure soil contact. Keep removing weeds and leave the first mow until autumn, removing all cuttings to keep soil nutrient levels low. Have some patience though as the best meadows can take a few years in coming – but they’re worth the wait!