How to make a mini meadow

Creating a wildflower patch in a lawn is hugely rewarding for wildlife. RSPB expert Adrian Thomas reveals the easiest way to achieve a mini meadow at home

A meadow rich in perennial wild flowers

by Adrian Thomas |

It is a sad and shocking fact that some 97% of the lowland wildflower hay meadows in England and Wales have been lost in the past hundred years. They have been ploughed up, built on or turned into monocultures of grass by the addition of lots of chemical fertilisers. Grasses lap up the nutrients and grow so tall and lush that they outcompete the wildflowers.

As the meadows have gone, so too have their orchids, butterflies, grasshoppers and a whole host of other wildlife – it is no wonder we are in a nature crisis. In fact, there are so few hay meadows left in the UK that you may not have seen one for real!

If so, you would be forgiven for thinking that what we are talking about are those colour-filled expanses of ‘wildflowers’ full of paintbox reds, yellows, whites and blues. But those are beds of annual flowers, not meadows. No, meadows are areas of wild grasses with perennial wildflowers woven through them, most of them delightfully understated in appearance. Indeed, the term ‘meadow’ comes from an old word meaning ‘to mow’, which is why in the nursery rhyme ‘one man went to mow a meadow’, not to gaze at a sea of poppies!

Ten years or so ago, the idea of creating a bit of meadow in your garden was considered too complicated and doomed to failure. Now, thankfully, gardeners up and down the country are leaving grassy areas to grow long, adding wildflowers and enjoying letting nature have its way.

The countryside may be bereft of meadows, but together, a few square metres at a time, we can put back some of what has been lost.

Pop-up meadow

For an easy meadow option, just stop mowing at some point in spring or summer for a few weeks or a couple of months.

Grasses will soon grow as nature intended, as will any wildflowers hiding among them. Look for dandelions and daisies (both beautiful in their own right), cat’s-ear, hawkbits (looking like small dandelions), red and white clovers, yellow creeping buttercup and blue germander speedwell. It’s exciting to see what appears.

Sowing over an existing lawn You can boost your lawn’s floral diversity with wildflower seed but it takes a bit of courage to do! In spring or autumn you need to cut your chosen area of lawn really short – effectively you scalp it. Then scuff it up even further with a fine-tined rake. This opens up myriad tiny pockets of bare soil where wildflower seed has a chance to germinate. Once you’ve thinly oversown with your chosen meadow seed mix, it will look rough for a while but will begin to come into its own in the following year.

Sowing on bare ground Choose a sunny area and dig it well in spring or autumn. Weed it thoroughly, lightly firm the area and rake level. Then give it a couple of weeks to allow any weed seeds to germinate and hoe them off.

Sow your meadow seed at the rate shown on the instructions, usually about 4g per sq m. Don’t be tempted to sow more – the seedlings will only compete with each other. For even coverage, sow half the seed walking in one direction and half walking back.

You can lightly rake the seed into the soil so that it’s hidden from pigeons and other birds, but this might bring more weed seeds to the surface. The best thing is to shuffle over the surface to tread the seed in so that it has firm contact with the soil to germinate well.

Which seed mix?

There is a bewildering range of wildflower meadow seed mixes to buy. However, a basic mix works well in most locations, as long as you don’t buy an annual flower mix by mistake. You need something that contains native wild grasses for it to work as a meadow.

There are special mixes to suit particular soil types, such as sandy or heavy clay, but be aware that not all species in the mix are likely to survive – that’s just how it is. Paying a bit more for a mix with many different species in it does boost the chances of a diverse meadow.

Meadow-making yellow rattle Make sure your seed mix includes yellow rattle. Known as the ‘meadow maker’, this little yellow flower grows to about 20cm (8in) tall in early summer and is loved by smaller bumblebees. However, its biggest benefit is that its roots tap into the nearby grasses, stifling their vigour, allowing other meadow flowers to have their day.

It is an annual flower, so don’t cut the meadow area until it has flowered and the seed pods have turned brown and papery. Sow fresh seed in autumn because it needs a cold spell in order to germinate in the following spring.

Using plug plants

Adding wildflower plants as plugs is a good idea because they already have a good root system, giving them a better chance of competing with the established grasses and other plants. You can grow your own from seed in plug trays, sowing in spring ready to plant out in autumn, or buy plugs cheaply by mail-order.

Nurse crop When sowing a wildflower meadow from seed, you can include a ‘nurse crop’ of colourful annual poppies, cornflowers, corncockle and corn marigold to create a first-year spectacle while the perennial flowers and grasses establish themselves beneath. Just be aware that these annuals will subside with each passing year.

Wildflower turf

The most expensive but by far the quickest way to make a meadow is by laying lawn turf already dotted with wildflowers. An extra benefit is that the turf effectively smothers any weeds beneath, although you should dig the ground and remove perennial weeds first. Lay within 24 hours of receiving and water thoroughly.

However, beware turf grown on a plastic mesh – you don’t want that degrading in your soil over the decades to come!

Management

If you’re just abandoning the mower for a month during the season, mow as you normally would before and after. However, a true hay meadow will need an initial cut in March or early April (unless you have cowslips or other spring flowers). Then it isn’t cut again until late summer, but you could mow paths through it or around the outside or even give it crisp straight edges so it looks like a green flower border.

By the end of the season, the grass and flowers might be too tall for your mower, which is no bad thing because the whirring blades are likely to chop any small creatures into a thousand pieces. Much better is to hand mow with a sickle or shears – taking your time and enjoying all the aromas as you cut it.

Meadows with the greatest diversity of wildflowers tend to be on soils with low nutrient levels. Garden lawns have often been fertilised at some point, so if your meadow grows too thick and lush in the first few years, cut it several times in a season to ‘wear it out’. Remove the clippings when you mow, so their nutrients aren’t returned to the meadow.

What will you see?

Once your meadow is established, look out for field vole and hedgehog tracks through it. You’re also likely to see meadow brown and common blue butterflies flitting across it in summer, bats hunting in the air above by night and goldfinches feeding on seedheads in winter

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