Growing wildflowers on a community site
Our village/town has a village green/village pond/roadside verge/flower meadow/school wildlife area, but we cannot get nice things to grow, only weeds. What can we do?
First, weeds are wild plants, and some of them are very pretty, or even need conserving!
Second, do not try to aim for lovely plants that do not grow in your area, as they are probably unsuited to the soil/local climate/other habitat factors. And do not aim for annuals (like poppies) unless you intend to plough or rake clean the area every year. If you are not sure what will do well in your area, try walking around to see!
Third, if the area is already rather overgrown, you will need extensive clearance work, and perhaps nutrient-stripping before you can plant anything else. Nutrient-stripping is needed if the ground is very fertile; you can tell if the main weeds are nettle, bramble, broad-leaved dock and cow parsley, or similar big plants. For a pond, green blanket weed (an algae) and nettles at the edge are what have to be tackled. Let them grow big in spring, then cut the whole lot down in about June and remove the soft cuttings, the plants will re-grow, and you cut them all down again in September and remove again, repeat for four to seven years! You can tell when you are winning when they do not re-grow so quickly! A small pond might even need a full dredging, so you can start getting it the way you want.
Remember – never, ever, apply any kind of fertiliser (chemical or manure!) or herbicide!
Fourth, try to get seeds of perennial plants that grow in similar areas nearby, and collect seeds from them. Clearly, this can be done throughout the summer and early autumn, when the plants you want have ripe seeds, and they need to be sown within about a week of collection. You may have to cut down rough stuff and/or make some bare ground using a rake or hoe to sow the seeds, to get them started. They may not flower the next year, but be patient. An easier way for an urban site, or in your own garden, could be to get plant plugs of wild flowers from a nursery or garden centre (preferably one that grows their own) and plant those for a quick fix result. But we cannot recommend that in the country areas as these are not usually of local provenance and they might not stand the competition, or, worse, may turn out to be tougher than the natives and crowd them out.
Fifth, you will need to work every year to maintain the habitat. This could be mowing once a year and removing the hay, or putting grazing animals on for the winter months. If you choose mowing, try to vary the time of year you do it, say May one year, July the next, September the next, or whatever; we find more flowers do better this way, over all, when the tough grasses are controlled by spring or summer cuts. You may need hand-weeding of common ragwort or creeping thistle, or nettle, or whatever your particular local curse is. A pond will need similar ongoing maintenance.
Remember that the truly natural landscape (before cave men started changing it all) was thick woodland over almost all of Britain, except the coast and high mountains in Wales and Scotland. Clearings appeared after gales brought down trees, but there were no grazed pastures or open meadows! Many of the annual plants we associate with ploughed fields, and a good number of other plants, and grazing animals like rabbits arrived in Britain later, and are not truly native. This just reminds us that any habitat type other than woodland needs constant maintenance to keep it that way!
Sixth, ask your County Wildlife Trust for expert help when you have tried all the above and still failed! They know your local area and what could succeed.