Dr Dines' Meadow Making Adventure pt.8

It’s been a long winter. Or rather, it’s been a long non-winter. Since the last update to my meadow making adventures back in November, we’ve not really had a winter at all. Despite a backdrop of snow-capped mountains, down in our valley on the banks of the River Conwy we’ve had just a handful of frosts – literally only 4 or 5 mornings when the grass was rimed with ice - and no snow at all. We’ve had plenty of rain though - a record-breaking 1 metre or 3’ 3” in December - and gales that brought down an old ash tree in the corner of the meadow, but we’re heading into spring with a distinct feeling of having been cheated out of an entire season.

In order to pass the time, I’ve put together a little video of our adventures so far. It’s nothing fancy, just some footage and photos I’ve taken on my phone, but it’s a nice reminder of all the work we’ve undertaken so far and might be helpful if anyone is planning to create a wildflower meadow.

Not that it’s been quiet in the meadow of course. With such an exceptionally mild winter, things have just carried on growing. The biggest shock came in early March. I was wandering aimlessly around the meadow one afternoon when a tiny pinkish-white flower in the corner of my eye caught my attention. Eyebrights should flower in the very height of summer, from June to August, but here was a single, tiny plant braving the elements in mid-winter. I can only guess that it germinated soon after we seeded the meadow and conditions have remained mild enough since then for it to survive.

As the days lengthen and temperatures rise, a second wave of germination is now taking place across the meadow. Many of the seeds sown last summer need a certain period of cold over winter – say several weeks below 5oC – in order to trigger germination the following spring (a process known as stratification). Thankfully, we’ve probably seen temperatures low enough for this, so we’re now seeing seedlings of species like knapweed (Centaurea nigra) starting to appear.

But all this growth presents us with a problem. If we’re not careful, the grasses will grow away rampantly, smothering the small seedlings and closing off the bare ground they need to germinate. In the future, the grass will be kept in check by yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor), whose roots will tap into those of the surrounding grasses and steal their nutrients, reducing their growth by up to 60%.

But for this year, until the yellow rattle has taken a hold, we really need to keep on top of the grass. Although I desperately want to allow everything to grow and revel in the excitement of seeing what comes up, we’re keeping our two highland cows on the meadow to graze it hard. Normally, I’d have removed them long ago – in December or January – so the flowers could romp away with unchecked abandon, but this spring I’m holding my nerve for as long as possible.

The girls are doing a great job – the sward is short and still full of gaps – but the tension is killing me!

I’m playing a waiting game now. The big question is when do I remove them? I’ve decided to let the meadow tell me when the time is right. The cows will stay until the yellow rattle germinates. Very excitingly, I’ve just spotted the first yellow rattle seedling in the meadow: