We have lost 97% of our lowland wildflower meadows since the end of the second world war. This in turn has lead to loss of habitat for pollinators and insects resulting in many of our previously well-loved birds and small mammals falling in numbers dramatically. Many of us would like to help rectify the loss in our own gardens and with this in mind I spent an interesting day at Wisley Gardens in Surrey yesterday on a course organised by the Royal Horticultural Society. Aimed at Garden Designers, Head-Gardeners and local authority horticulturalists, it was called ‘Learning to Design the Wild: wildflowers and naturalistic planting in horticulture’.
I didn’t really grasp the the relevance of the word ‘learning’ in the title until well into the day, when I began to realise that even those working at the top of the horticultural world are still learning the best methods of establishing and maintaining wild-flowers in a garden setting. What I learnt was that there are various methods being experimented with and what is key is to choose the one that best suits your soil, situation, budget and maintenance abilities. It is worth saying that wild-flower meadows are definitely NOT a low maintenance option, as some have suggested, but there are ways of short-cutting the complications of establishment and of creating impact on a budget.
Once you understand that Wildflower meadows are dynamic communities, changing throughout the year and from one year to the next then you start to see that planting wild-flowers can be a long-term management challenge. A lot of fun, but a challenge all the same! We talked about everything from a tiny wild-flower lawn in an urban situation to the huge Big Sky Meadows project at RHS Hyde Hall. Here, an initial 7 acres was seeded in January with many more acres to be put down to wildflower meadows over time.
I’m sorting through all the useful information we were given to pick out what will be most useful to me as a garden designer.
Meadow on a budget
- Utilise your existing lawn, or a part of it. Stop mowing regularly, let the grass grow and see what appears. Weed out coarse unwanted weeds by hand. In the late summer/autumn of the first year mow and scarify the grass. Supplement wild-flowers that appear naturally with plug plants of ones that you would like to see plus some small spring bulbs to naturalise if budget allows. Sprinkle parasitic Yellow-rattle seed to suppress vigorous lawn grasses at the same time.
- In a low fertility soil, and where you are prepared to put in some work establishing the meadow, then broadcasting seed on prepared soil is a good budget option. in the spring, mow the area to mark it out. Spray off with glyphosate-based herbicide or lift turf. Level the soil and scatter the seed mix. Rake in and roll soil or trample in with boots. Water. An annual mix can be left to go to seed then cleared at the end of the following winter. Hopefully seeds will germinate and you will get a show the following year. After 2 years you will probably need to start again with fresh seed to prevent the mix becoming dominated by one or two species. A perennial mix takes a little more horticultural input but will come back each year.
- Wildflower turf is a product developed to shortcut the hard work of establishing a meadow from seed. It is a wildflower meadow in a roll! Delivered and laid like ordinary lawn turf, the wild-flowers are already established on a growing medium. There will not be the same competition from weeds though you will still need to manage the meadow by weeding out undesirables that appear and cutting at least a couple of times a year. Useful for difficult areas such as sloping pond sides or sloping gardens where seed might be washed away by rain. Suitable on heavier, more fertile soils. Not the cheapest method but is one of the easiest ways to ensure successful establishment if managed correctly. Turf can be bought suitable for specific situations such as underneath trees or on a green roof.
- Time your mowing regime to prolong flowering. A cut in the summer before seeding will often encourage another flush of flowers later in the year.
- Mowing, weeding by hand or spot weeding with glyphosate are techniques which can be used to deal with over-competitive species of grass and flowers and unwanted invadors such as dock and thistle.
- Mow regularly around the edges of the meadow to show the long grass is deliberate. In larger areas mow paths through the meadow, and maybe even a circle for a small table and chairs, so you can really benefit from the environment.
If you design a meadow close to vegetable crops or in an orchard then you will find that the insects attracted in will also pollinate your crops and provide a natural method of keeping pests down! So consider a place in your garden for wild-flowers this year and have a go! It will be lots of fun and you will be helping our pollinators thrive again.
Royal Horticultural Society http://www.rhs.org.uk
Pictorial Meadows mixes of native with non-native seed http://www.pictorialmeadows.co.uk
Wildflower turf http://www.wildflowerturf.co.uk
Native wildflower seed http://www.johnchamberswildflowers.co.uk
Get Bristol Buzzing project http://www.getbristolbuzzing.org
Wild gardens and meadows to visit for inspiration Wild garden weekends byTania Pascoe