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Grow your own meadow

Common spotted orchid in a wildflower meadow. © Plantlife

Common spotted orchid in a wildflower meadow. © Plantlife

Wildflower meadows have become increasingly rare in our countryside, with 97% of them lost since the 1940s.

So its perhaps no surprise that gardeners enjoy recreating these beautiful habitats. Encouraging a slice of the wild in your garden can be a satisfying way of attracting a wide diversity of birds, bees, butterflies and other wildlife, and whilst it is no substitute for taking better care of these habitats in the wild, it helps to remind us how important it is to take care of what is left.

Here are some practical tips and advice to get you started on your own meadow area:

How to make your meadow grow

The best way to grow your meadow depends on the site you've chosen:

  • The average lawn, possessing a few weeds: The easiest way is to simply leave your lawn unmown. However, this only works if its not superbly tended and completely weed-free! If it’s old and weedy you’ll be amazed at what can come up. If you want to add more types of flowers, plant plug-plants in the autumn (make sure they’ll grow in your soil type!) or grow your own plants from seed.
  • Well tended, weed-free lawns: If you have a new or beautifully tended weed-free lawn you might be better to start from scratch. You could try mowing it regularly and removing the clippings for a few years to reduce the fertility, but it might be some years before you start seeing wildflowers. You could speed things up by planting plug-plants or by sowing seed in small bare patches.
  • Patch of soil or a dull lawn: It’s best to start from scratch. Firstly, remove the top few inches of very fertile topsoil in late summer, perhaps making some raised beds for vegetables from it. This can be hard work but is essential, as wildflowers must have poor soil to thrive. Rake over the area and sow a mix of flowers that are suitable for your soil. Buy your seed from suppliers that use source native British plants (for examples see the Flora Locale website). Alternatively, contact your local Wildlife Trust as some now collect seed from their reserves. Please avoid using cheap wild-flower seed-mixes from garden centres, as these usually contain cornfield flowers like poppies, cornflowers and corn marigolds. These will look fantastic in the first year but will just vanish in future years.

Mowing your meadow

- Once you have a meadow with some grass and flowers, the absolute key to maintaining it is by mowing.

- The basic yearly pattern is to cut the grass hard in summer, any time from July to September (the earlier the better to control competitive species).

- Remove all the cuttings and then keep the grass mown down hard, removing the clippings each time, until around Christmas. Then leave the meadow alone and enjoy a riot of flowers until the following summer.

- This simple cycle mimics the traditional pattern of hay-cutting followed by grazing to which many meadow flowers are adapted.

One flower deserves a special mention: Yellow rattle is a lovely annual with a slightly sinister character.

Its roots tap into those of grasses, stealing their nutrients and suppressing their growth. This keeps them in check and many other meadow flowers benefit from the reduced grass growth. Introduce Yellow Rattle into your meadow by sowing seed in autumn.

Location, location, location

Before you get to work on your wildflower meadow consider the availability of light and your soil type:

Light

All meadow plants prefer an open, sunny place. Avoid sites under trees as these will be too dark and too dry. Scattered small native trees and shrubs (such as hawthorn, blackthorn and gorse) or fruit trees are beneficial for other wildlife, but can make mowing more difficult.

Soil

Your soil type will determine which flowers will grow. Drier sites with poorer soils are easier to manage, damp soils will be fine but avoid extremely wet sites. The list below gives an idea of the types of flowers you can try on different soils:

Limey soil

Neutral soil

Acid soil

Show us your meadows!

We know many gardeners have wonderful wildflower meadow areas in their gardens and we’d love to see them.

Please send in pictures of your meadow to photos@plantlife.org.uk with ‘Meadows’ in the subject line and we’ll feature them on the website and in future issues of the magazine. We also want to hear what worked, what didn’t, and how did you solve any problems?