- From Lawn to Meadow
- Wildlife Habitat
- Reduced Oil Dependence and Associated Pollution
- Visual Appeal
- Creation and Maintenance
- Areas to Convert
- Concerns and Barriers
- Additional Resources
- Top Tips for Planting Wildflowers
- Free Online Gardening Class
- Planting wildflowers 101
- Wildflower garden ideas to consider
- Wildflower Seed
- Select the right wildflower seed for your area.
- Consider perennial versus annual wildflowers.
- Placement is the key to a beautiful wildflower garden.
- Nearby wild – how I turned my lawn into a mini-meadow
- Convert your lawn into a meadow!
- Recreating habitat
- Ground preparation
- Choosing grasses and wildflowers
- Keep it native
- The good bit – actually create a wildflower meadow!
- Managing your meadow – the cutting regime
From Lawn to Meadow
Meadows improve water quality by intercepting pollutants that are not absorbed by turf. A buffer of native vegetation along a stream can keep more pollutants and sediment out of the water than turf in the same area. When treated with fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, turf lawns can themselves be a source of these pollutants.
To stay green in warm, dry climates, turf lawns consume massive amounts of water. The EPA estimates that landscape irrigation accounts for a third of all residential water use nationwide, totaling nearly 9 billion gallons per day. As much as 50% of this water is wasted due to evaporation or runoff from inefficient watering methods. Commercial areas and municipal spaces also require billions of gallons to meet their irrigation needs.
The native species that comprise meadows, on the other hand, are adapted to the climate and can thrive without irrigation. When meadows replace lawns, especially in drought-prone areas, communities can save clean water for essential uses like drinking.
Wildlife species benefit when an area is converted from mowed grass to meadow. It’s really quite simple: when grasses are mowed less often, vegetation diversity increases. As the number and types of plant species increase, the meadow attracts different insects and other invertebrates, which in turn draw insectivores—and so on up the food chain.
Very few bird species, save the American robin, are attracted to lawns. Meadows, however, attract a diversity of avian species such as the redwing blackbird, American goldfinch, and eastern bluebird. They can attract several species of grassland birds like the eastern meadowlark and grasshopper sparrow whose numbers have declined over the last century due to changes in agricultural technology and loss of land to development; while small meadows (less than 25 acres) do not provide sufficient breeding habitat for these threatened species, they do provide important resting and feeding areas along their migratory pathways.
Allowing grasses to grow to maturity along waterways has the added benefit of discouraging Canada geese, whose droppings can make areas unpleasant and contribute to high bacteria levels in the water. Geese prefer flat, open, mowed grass areas and tend to avoid dense, high grasses. More buffers and meadow areas can help municipalities reduce the number of geese in public parks and recreation areas, improving the experience of visitors.
Another benefit of allowing turf to succeed to meadow is the increase in pollinator species to the area.
Pollination is critical to fruit and seed production, and is often provided by insects on the hunt for nectar, pollen, or other floral rewards. Currently, habitat loss and pesticide use threaten these bees, butterflies, and other beneficial pollinators. This is especially troubling given that pollinators are essential to the production of 75% of the staple crop plants that feed humans and for 90% of all flowering plants in the world.
Beneficial pollinators have very basic habitat requirements: flowers to forage, host plants on which to lay their eggs, and an environment free of pesticides. Wildflower meadows, grasslands, and other areas rich in native plants offer these essentials. Not only do lawns lack these essentials—the fertilizers and pesticides commonly used to maintain them can harm pollinators and other wildlife.
Reduced Oil Dependence and Associated Pollution
Americans use 800 million gallons of gasoline each year to power lawnmowers and other lawn care equipment, and, according to the EPA, spill 17 million gallons in the process—more oil than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez. These machines are responsible for as much as 5% of the air pollution in the United States; a single gas-powered lawnmower emits nearly 100 pounds of carbon dioxide each year, along with hydrocarbons and particulate matter. This pollution takes a toll on the health of communities (especially for children and other vulnerable populations), and contributes to global warming.
Unlike turf, which must be mowed regularly, meadows only require mowing once or twice a year. Fewer turf lawns means less oil is extracted from the ground, less gasoline ends up in waterways, and less pollutants contaminate the air.
While turf is necessary for some public areas and event spaces, it is worth considering the cost of turf management to municipalities and taxpayers. Besides the large up-front price tag of lawnmowers and other machines, turf requires continual mowing and maintenance; over time, the costs of labor and gasoline add up. However, meadows require very little maintenance. Converting a portion of a park’s turf areas to meadow can offer substantial cost savings to a municipality.
This holds true for individuals as well. Lawn care is a $30 billion-a-year industry in the United States, and the average American spends 70 hours a year working on their lawn. By converting some or all of their lawn into meadow, a person can save time and money.
In addition to the immediate, tangible financial benefits, meadows offer a host of ecosystem services.Though harder to accurately quantify, these services—such as absorbing stormwater, and contributing less pollution to the air—have an economic impact. Floods can result in thousands of dollars-worth of property damage; dirty air can keep people home from work and school. And when ecosystem services do not occur naturally, humans must develop alternative, engineered systems that are often costlier and less efficient than nature.
While close-cropped turf has a certain visual appeal, meadows offer much more sensory experience. On a breezy July day, a meadow is a beautiful scene, abuzz with activity. There is so much to observe: birds searching for meals, bees flying from flower to flower, the iridescence of butterflies, the steady chatter of crickets. Many meadow wildflowers persist into fall and attract songbirds who feast on drying seed heads. Even in winter, the dried stalks of meadow grasses and perennial flowers are striking.
Creation and Maintenance
The easiest way to convert a portion of turf to meadow and keep it as meadow is to mow once or twice a year, allowing the turf grass to mature and other species to grow. This mowing is necessary; otherwise, shrubs and trees, including non-native species, will colonize the area.
If your budget allows, you can augment the process by seeding native warm-season grasses and wildflowers to give the meadow more color, diversity, and visual interest. If not, over time nature will diversify the species on its own.
Areas to Convert
The most practical areas to convert to meadow are often those where simply allowing native species to flourish is easier and/or cheaper than maintaining a conventional lawn. Examples include steep slopes that are difficult to mow and swampy areas not conducive to growing turf.
Conversion is also a good strategy for areas of ecological concern. Along water corridors, meadows reduce the pollution entering waterways and absorb floodwater during storms. In places with rare or threatened wildlife, meadows can provide crucial habitat. (See “Benefits” section for more information.)
When converting areas in parks and other public spaces, municipalities face the challenge of not impeding visitors; therefore, conversion usually occurs in places that are unused or less suited for recreation.
Concerns and Barriers
When vegetation is intentionally allowed to grow beyond the height of a conventional lawn, it might be perceived as untidy or neglected. Some communities specifically prohibit this practice and regulate what residents can and cannot grow in their yards. Homeowners in these areas can seek to change the problematic municipal ordinance or homeowners’ association rules; alternatively, they can explore other landscaping alternatives like low-growing groundcovers. See the “Additional Resources” section for information about pursuing these pathways.
Maintaining a swath of mowed turf around the edge of a meadow or posting an explanatory sign can visually communicate that the area is intentional, well-managed, and desirable.
For those managing larger meadow areas, development of trails alongside or through the meadows can demonstrate that the area is well-maintained. Trails have the added benefit of encouraging people to see a meadow’s beauty up close and potentially learn about its other benefits.
Ticks often carry Lyme disease and other diseases. Unfortunately, the very conditions that make meadows great habitat for wildlife also attract these tiny pests. Those considering converting lawn to meadow should consider how to minimize the potential for human contact with them.
Ticks like moist, shady habitat; they don’t like dry, sunny areas. Maintaining wide, well-mowed edges between meadows (and wooded areas, which also provide good tick habitat) and where people walk and play can minimize the potential for contact. So too can edging meadows with wood chips, which ticks don’t like to cross. These and other strategies are explored at various websites such as http://www.rodalesorganiclife.com/wellbeing/natural-tick-repellants-protect-your-yard.
The Pennsylvania Landscape and Nursery Association article “Alternatives to Lawns” contains information for individuals interested in converting their yards.
Penn State Extension offers the guide Meadows and Prairies: Wildlife-Friendly Alternatives to Lawn, which provides more in-depth information about the conversion process that can be useful for individuals or institutions.
The Pennsylvania Environmental Council offers the factsheet “How to Create a Meadow in Southeastern Pennsylvania,” which gives tips specific to that region.
The Missouri Prairie Foundation offers a model municipal ordinance encouraging the use of native plants as an alternative in urban landscape design.
Soil is compacted by the heavy equipment used in construction. In public spaces, foot traffic and other forms of human use also contribute to compaction.
Ecosystem goods and services are the benefits that productive natural ecosystems provide for human society. Goods are the material resources like timber, food, and oil; services are the actual life-support functions like absorbing stormwater, sequestering carbon, and pollinating plants.
Examples: perennial grasses, flowers, and sedges that spread and thicken to cover an area without growing tall. They require little maintenance and can crowd out weeds. Some species are tough enough to handle repeated foot traffic.
My garden sings its own song. It starts after the dawn chorus with the honeybees, followed by the heavier buzz of the bumbles, punctuated by the hoverflies’ higher pitch. You can even sometimes hear the rustle and creak of beetles as evening comes. To lie among it, eyes closed, is to hear something exquisite.
My garden sings this song because it is allowed to. I have long been a proponent of neglecting lawns to nurture nature, as Margaret Renkl recently made the case for in the New York Times – and there isn’t a manicured strip of green that doesn’t ache to do the same.
Most lawns have been silenced by the regime of a lawnmower, leaving just a few species of grass. They are biodiversity deserts, barren of beetle and bee, contributing to a vanishing insect population – and worse still, we pursue this. There are aisles in garden centres promising ever-greener sward, with no moss and weeds. Let there be no misunderstanding: these are chemicals that silence the soil.
There is another way. Your lawn is already a wildflower meadow – every inch of soil is waiting for its moment to burst forth. Those weeds are some of the best insect food, growing despite the weather, endlessly repeat blooming, rich in nectar and pollen. A seed bank is already there – it might even contain orchids. Oh, and perhaps plenty of moss, essential stuff for nests and nature of all sorts.
The simplest route to this is not to abandon your lawn and mower but to learn how to move the mower’s blades up, so the cut is higher than 10cm. Hold out for your first cut until the end of June, then leave a month between each cut until autumn. If you need a route to the washing line or shed, mow just a path. The wildflowers will adapt and bloom under your blades, the bees will dance and the birds will sing in praise of it all.
Top Tips for Planting Wildflowers
For a simple but big statement, consider planting wildflowers. A meadow looks easy and effortless, like it just bloomed, instead of being overly designed. It’s a great way to get lots of color in your garden this summer and the fresh flower bouquets will be endless!
Follow these wildflower garden ideas and tips to achieve the ultimate impact.
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Planting wildflowers 101
- First, find a bright, sunny spot to plant your seeds, making sure the area you choose is weed-free.
- Mix sand with your seeds to ensure good drainage and barely cover the seeds with soil. Keep the area moist but not soggy for germination.
- It’s important to weed your wildflower patch in the beginning so that the small seedlings don’t get strangled by strong weeds. You can use burlap or black garden cover or much to keep weeds at bay but the best way is just to keep an eye out and weed a few times a week.
- Early spring is the best time to plant your wildflower meadow for summer color.
Wildflower garden ideas to consider
The beautiful meadow above was designed by English garden designer, Lara Smith , of Manor Farm Cottage Flowers in Wells, England. The combination includes cosmos in purple and white, Queen Anne’s lace, nigella and a number of grasses. The meadow was planted at the entrance to the client’s farm for maximum impact and maximum sunshine for healthy blooms.
Lara says it’s important to keep an eye on weeds, water and choose a sunny spot for your blooms. Consider your local climate to choose flowers that are native and easy to grow.
In France and Italy, you’ll often see fields of gorgeous red poppies in the late spring and early summer. For late spring color and a bit of French inspiration, plant red poppies for a riot of red. The Shirley poppy is a popular and reliable variety to grow. They look gorgeous paired with Queen Anne’s lace or cornflowers.
Remember when you plant your meadow to consider different sizes of flowers. Your meadow should include blooms of different scale, texture, and color.
This blue and yellow wildflower patch is gorgeous for late spring. It includes honey daisy and hepatica. Consider tiny flowers in contrasting color combinations for a sweet but stunning combination.
Consider creating a path through your meadow so you can enjoy it fully. This beautiful combination includes borage flowers, which are edible and look lovely in salads and on open-faced sandwiches.
The bouquets from your wildflower garden will be endless. Cut in the morning or evening when the flowers are most hydrated, to ensure the bouquets last as long as possible.
Consider growing flowers that are native to your area for the easiest, lowest maintenance wildflower meadow. It’s eco-friendly and a great way to celebrate the heritage and tradition of your home.
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Select the right wildflower seed for your area.
The first thing to determine when selecting wildflowers is climate conditions and water needs. Some are perfectly adapted to hot, dry areas and work well in water-wise and low-maintenance landscapes. Others thrive in cooler climates and require supplemental irrigation to reach their full potential.
Consider perennial versus annual wildflowers.
Consider whether annual or perennial wildflowers are desired. Annuals will complete their lifespan during one growing season, while perennials will come back year after year. There are advantages and disadvantages to both types. While annuals will die at the end of the season, some will actually self-seed and come back year after year anyway. Annuals also give the gardener the option of redesigning their gardens each year, something many people enjoy doing. Perennials are great for people looking for a more permanent garden as these perennial-type wildflowers will grow back new each season, saving time and money. However, perennials tend to take longer to mature and may limit the flexibility of garden design.
Placement is the key to a beautiful wildflower garden.
Also be aware of placement when sowing wildflower seed. While most prefer full-sun, there are many that can handle part-sun/shade or even full-shade. Height can also be a factor in wildflower placement, so consider the mature size of the plant when planting seed.
Nearby wild – how I turned my lawn into a mini-meadow
It’s early spring and my mini wildflower meadow looks much like the other lawns in this suburban neighbourhood: short grass!
But look closer and you can see the leaves of Cowslips, some with flower heads, Common Vetch, Betony, Self Heal, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Field Scabious, Oxeye Daisies, Common and Greater Knapweed and tiny Yellow Rattle seedlings.
There are a good number of Sweet Violet in flower amongst them, but they are also on some of the neighbouring lawns, so their presence will not indicate anything unusual to an onlooker.
The idea of starting a wildflower meadow in place of my unused front lawn began in 1999 when I read an article in a broadsheet newspaper about wildflower meadows having declined by 97%. I was shocked and immediately thought of the butterflies and wild bees that depended upon them.
They were woven into the fabric of my childhood because my grandmother had a wildflower rich hay meadow complete with a cowshed and stalls for two cows in 1958.
How it all began
I especially loved the Cowslips, Tom’s Thumb (it has many local names, but is primarily known as Birdsfoot Trefoil), Moon Daisies (a local name that inspired childhood wonder, compared to Oxeye Daisies), Field Scabious and Meadow Cranesbill flowering there and my young eyes delighted in the sight of butterflies flitting amongst them. Beauty amongst beauty, enriching my childhood.
It was here that a lifelong love of wildflowers began. When I grew up I enjoyed wandering in local wildflower rich hay meadows looking for butterflies. Thanks to the Brooke Bond butterfly collector cards that I eagerly searched for and acquired from packets of tea before my mother put it in the cannister, I was able to identify those that I saw.
So, on hearing that wildlife rich wildflower meadows had disappeared to such a massive extent across the UK, my alarm bells rang wildly.
Four years passed and nothing much seemed to be happening to restore wildflower meadows across the UK, apart from a local nature reserve project that I was involved in. So in 2004 I decided that all I could do was to start a mini wildflower meadow in place of my lawn, to try and encourage my neighbours to do likewise.
Just by their seeing its beauty and wildlife, I hoped that it would start a trend and a river of wildflowers would begin to spread throughout our housing estate which was once agricultural farmland with high soil fertility. Wildflowers need low soil fertility in order to set seed.
I knew that my lawn had now achieved low soil fertility because when the lawn had been cut over the 22 years I had lived there, the cuttings had been removed and the lawn had never been fertilised. Had the ground still been very fertile, it would have been necessary to remove the top 5-6 cms of soil before sowing the seeds.
The neighbours thought I was crazy
Initially, I stopped mowing the grass, so that it was only cut once in early March and then in July. But to my dismay, by 2008, there were only a couple of Field Scabious that had germinated from dormant seed from the ground’s past history as farmland.
It did not look remotely like a wildflower meadow and when a neighbour started mowing the meadow without checking that I wanted it mowed, I decided to go ‘back to the drawing board’ because my neighbours must think I am crazy.
So, in March 2009, I began again. I cut the grass very short with the mower, so that it scuffed the earth and left bare patches for the wildflowers and Yellow Rattle to germinate. Yellow Rattle is especially good for establishing wildflower meadows as it is semi parasitic and so reduces the vigour of coarser grasses which allows wildflowers to set seed.
I sowed what seemed to me a suprisingly small packet of wildflower seeds for a clay soil obtained from Charles Flower over my meadow which measured a modest 11 x 4.5 metres. The pack consisted of:
- Birdsfoot Trefoil
- Common Vetch
- Field Scabious
- Ladys Bedstraw
- Lesser Knapweed
- Meadow Buttercup
- Meadow Cranesbill
- Meadow Vetchling
- Musk Mallow
- Oxeye Daisy
- Ragged Robin
- Ribwort Plantain
- Self Heal
- Yellow Rattle
Patience is rewarded
It is said that it takes at least three years for wildflowers to establish themselves, so I plug planted half a dozen Field Scabious and two Greater Knapweed that were grown from local wildflower seed and hoped!
It was indeed three years before the mini meadow began to look like a wildflower meadow with its abundant Yellow Rattle, Oxeye Daisies, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Common Knapweed and Field Scabious being the most prolific scene stealers.
Yet the two Greater Knapweed plants with their beautiful, large thistle-like mauve flowers always stole the show when they flowered. The Common and Greater Knapweeds last into September and are the glorious ‘last fireworks of summer’.
Over the past couple of years the Cowslips have suddenly taken off and there is quite a profusion of them in spring.
The only flowers not to have germinated from the pack to date are Meadow Cranesbill, Meadow Vetchling, Ragged Robin and Yarrow. But, Hedge Bedstraw with its beautiful, tiny white flowers suddenly appeared on my mini meadow last year from seemingly nowhere.
Nature is full of surprises – you just never know what you are going to find! It is one of the delights of having a wildflower meadow. Nature is in charge and after the first year, can cope with drought or flood. I am now beginning to wonder if any orchids will appear this year.
A haven for butterflies – no neonics here!
But the biggest surprise of all to date has been the arrival of the Marbled White butterfly to feed on Field Scabious and the Knapweeds. No other British butterfly has such a striking black and white pattern, so it is easily identified. The butterfly probably arrived from a wildflower meadow site about a 10 minute walk from my meadow.
As there are none of these wildflowers between the two sites, it shows that butterflies have amazing senses to be able to find their nectar sources. So if we provide the diversity of wildflowers that butterflies need they will find them, as have the Meadow Brown, Ringlet, Green-veined White and Small Skipper butterflies.
Nothing delights my ears more than to hear the sound of grasshoppers chirring away and the contented buzz of bees collecting pollen and nectar – the sound of a summer meadow.
Another sure way to make certain that we are able to enjoy butterflies is to provide their larval food plants, so that they can complete their lifecycle from egg, to caterpillar, to chrysalis, to butterfly and round again.
Beautiful meadow grasses such as Yorkshire Fog, Cocksfoot, Red Fescue and Sheep’s Fescue are needed by the Marbled White caterpillar and then the Scabious and Knapweed flowers for nectar when it transforms into a butterfly. Meadow grasses tend to be finer and shorter than coarser grasses, so that wildflowers are not dominated by them.
Please refer to the guides on the butterflies that you can attract to your garden or meadow by providing larval plants for their caterpillars and nectar sources.
Mini meadow doubles in size
My wonderful neighbours joined my wildflower meadow project four years ago, because their son had learnt all about the plight of bees at his school and wanted to transform their lawn into a bee haven. I thought it was such a splendid gesture and so insightful of their son who was only aged seven at that time.
So the mini meadow has now doubled in size, although a river of meadow lawns has yet to flow through the housing estate. Having said that, I have found two mini wildflower meadow areas on other parts of the estate which I will photograph this year for you to see.
I look forward to giving you weekly reports about the meadow’s progress, including some on my new orchard meadow, throughout the year and about the wildlife that arrives. I hope that my stories will inspire you to start a project, or to tell me about your own.
You do not need any expertise to attract wildlife to your garden. It is as simple as providing the habitats they need to turn your garden into a nearby wild haven.
Jo Cartmell is a wildlife photographer, amateur ecologist and wildlife conservationist, and a founding member of Friends of Radley Lakes. Her passion for British wildlife began in early childhood. Her special interests are water voles and wildflower meadows. She started @WaterVole on Twitter in 2009 and @NearbyWild in 2015.
This article was originally published on NearbyWild, a new website created to celebrate and enhance the local wildlife where we live.
Convert your lawn into a meadow!
Posted on September 3, 2014 by dcbcomputing
We have another guest blog this week, from Bumblebee Conservation Trust supporter Eric Homer. Read on to find out what he did and see his results…
My wife and I are keen on helping wildlife and enjoy encouraging wildlife into our garden. We get a lot of pleasure seeing the birds, bees, butterflies, frogs, newts and insects in the garden, so last year we decided that we’d like to make the garden more bee friendly by converting the back garden lawn into a wildflower meadow, hopefully attracting more wildlife into the garden and helping the bees and other species. Our suburban garden is not large and the lawn only covered a small area, approximately 20m2. We wondered if a small area like this would have any effect, but we were not disappointed.
I had a look on the internet for guidance and there were different opinions and ways of going about the conversion. Not sure how to approach the project I sought guidance and advice from the BBCT on the best/easiest way to convert the lawn into a wildflower meadow. Anthony McCluskey from BBCT responded to my enquiry with good advice and guidance.
The most important thing to do when planting a wildflower meadow is to remove as much grass as you can from the area. Some people use herbicide or dig it up, or you can cover it with plastic sheeting for as long as possible. This will destroy any grass underneath, and give you a blank canvas to work from. This is important because grasses will compete with wildflowers, and are the main reason why wildflower areas don’t work.
After that, the seeds can be sown. Do this in autumn or spring, after raking the soil so that it’s fine. You should then cover gently (e.g. by raking again) and water well. You’ll need to keep watering them to make sure they germinate, and after the seedlings come up they should be fine. He provided me with this link to Habitataid where I found more information and links to other resources including seed suppliers, sowing rates etc. which was very useful. This site also has a video to explore the different ways it can be done.
We took the plunge in September 2013. We were only converting a small area so we decided to dig up the turf, still a major job and hard work, and then prepared the ground. We then sowed our seedbed. Preparing the ground and sowing in the autumn can help some wildflowers as some of the seeds fair better if they can germinate over the winter. We thought that this would hopefully give us quicker results.
As it was a small area we decided to go for wildflowers only rather than a wildflower/grass mixture. We used seed sent to us by the BBCT when we joined, some we’d collected ourselves on our walks and bought some from one of the suppliers recommended by habitat aid. I don’t think it stopped raining since we sowed so watering wasn’t an issue.
October was relatively mild and wet and we had shoots coming up in November which we hoped were wildflowers and not rogue grasses. Anthony’s advice was that at this stage the most important thing to do is to make sure that there is no disturbance of the seedlings (just in case you have dogs or cats that like to dig!). Over the winter we seemed to have nothing but rain and the newly seeded meadow was flooded on several occasions giving us concern over germination.
In early spring we decided to plant some plant plugs to add some species not contained in the seed packs that we’d sown. We bought some wildflower plants from the garden centre, split them and distributed them over the meadow. We also added some wildflower plants that were in a friend’s garden.
Slowly but surely the meadow started to develop, they say patience is a virtue. It took eight months from sowing to seeing significant results but the wait was worth it. The photographs to the right below show the early progress.
The meadow, although in the infancy of its first season, has attracted greater numbers and varieties of hoverflies, moths and butterflies. The goldfinches and sparrows have also taken a liking to the cornflowers. The numbers of bees in the garden has also increased dramatically. They seem particularly attracted to the cornflowers, scabious and bird’s foot trefoil.
Two hoverflies that we have not seen in the garden before that were easier to identify are the Large pied or Pellucid Hoverfly (Volucella pellucens) and a hornet mimic hoverfly Volucella zonaria. Butterflies new to the garden are the Common Blue, Meadow Brown, Ringlet and Small Skipper, all seen on the meadow. We’ve also had our first 6 spotted Burnet moth in the meadow.
We are very pleased with the results so far, we are enjoying the experience immensely and excited to see what else might spring up next year or be attracted into the garden.
Most of our wildflower meadows have been lost since 1950, mainly due to changes in farming practice. With a little bit of space, time and patience you can create a wildflower meadow in your own garden.
Imagine the peaceful sound of buzzing bumblebees. The pleasure of little butterflies, scurrying from one colourful wildflower to another. The delight of soft grass under your feet. Doesn’t it sound idyllic?
Apart from all the joy a wildflower meadow will bring you, the greatest benefit is to local wildlife. By opening your garden to many insect species like butterflies, bees or grasshoppers, you will be providing valuable habitat and helping your local biodiversity.
In turn, insects and wildflower seeds will attract birds and small mammals such as blue tits, sparrows, swallows, shrews and hedgehogs. Compared to your run-of-the-mill short-mown lawn, this is much more desirable. The two can go side by side. You don’t need to sacrifice space for the kids to kick a ball about.
If you are starting with bare ground or wish to replace an existing lawn or other existing vegetation, the first step is to achieve a weed-free soil. You should try to get rid of any existing grasses or weeds (like docks or nettles). You could spray the area with a weedkiller (at least twice, with a break of 2-3 weeks in between) or you will have to weed it constantly for a certain time until all vegetation is gone. Organic weed control is best.
The ideal soil for a meadow should be quite poor. Coarse grasses will become dominant and crowd your lovely wildflowers out on richer soils. Don’t be tempted to add any fertiliser to the soil!
Before you start to sow your new meadow, the soil should be levelled. To avoid subsequent problems when cutting, a reasonably flat surface is necessary. You can achieve this by digging and raking. Clearing the site of stones and fragments of roots gives your new grass and plants a better chance to grow well. Rake to a fine tilth.
Choosing grasses and wildflowers
By this time you should have reached a weed-free, bare soil. Order a fine grass seed mixture – fescues and bents or luxury lawn mix. Make sure that the mixture does not contain perennial ryegrass, because it will quickly dominate other vegetation and doesn’t provide enough food for many insects to survive, thus offering poor wildlife value.
Try to obtain local, native wildflower seed that has been collected locally. There are a number of suppliers across the UK and Ireland.
Depending on which time of the year you would like to have colour in your meadow, take note of the different flowering times of the different wildflowers. Cuckooflower, Cowslip and Primrose flower in spring and allow the meadow to be used as a lawn during the summer.
To create a summer-flowering meadow, plant Knapweed, Ox-Eye Daisy, Bird’s-foot-trefoil, Yarrow, Lady’s bedstraw, Harebell, Meadow buttercup or Yellow rattle. Long season wildflowers such as Ribwort plantain and Self-Heal flower over a longer period of time.
All of these pretty wildflowers are perennials, which means they will come back for many growing seasons (if conditions allow). Don’t be disappointed if they don’t flower in the first year. In the early days of a meadow, perennial wildflowers establish their root system and foliage.
Annual wildflowers such as cornflowers and poppies are beautiful, but you should be aware of the fact that they won’t establish in your meadow. The management of ‘cornfield annuals’ requires a different regime, because you have to resow them every year.
You can sow some wildflowers in plugs and plant out into any gaps. The stronger the wildflowers are before you place them in your new meadow, the better they will be able to withstand competition for light, moisture and space from more aggressive grasses.
Keep it native
Try to keep your meadow native to support your local wildlife! Native plants are likely to be successful and have a higher wildlife value than so-called ‘exotics’. Some species of native wildflower can support several hundred different insect species along with those animals that feed on the insects: normally more than any non-native species can support.
There are even some insects that require one particular food plant for its larvae, always native, and which will not survive without it. If you buy seeds or plugs from a nursery, make sure that they are nursery grown stock from local seed. Never try and transplant wildflowers from the wild, it doesn’t have a good success rate and may even be against the law.
The good bit – actually create a wildflower meadow!
The best time to sow your seed mix is either early autumn (late August/early September) or spring (April/early May). If you want to sow grass and wildflowers at the same time, mix 1.5g of pure wildflower and 3.5g of grass seed per square metre. Mix with dry sand and broadcast by hand. The sand helps see where you’ve sown the seed already! Continually mix the seed and sand so that small seeds don’t settle to the bottom and you sow them all in one place.
After sowing, firm the ground to ensure good contact with the soil. Keeping the soil moist helps the seeds to germinate. If the period after sowing is dry, we recommend watering lightly. You should be able to see the first results a week or two after sowing; green blades of grass will shoot out of your seedbed. Wildflower seeds may take up to 8 weeks or longer (some may need to overwinter first) to germinate.
When sowing the grass first (3-4g per square metre) and planting wildflowers raised in plugs (about 10 per square metre) or pots (3-5 per square metre) afterwards, you increase the chance of wildflower success. Several plugs of each species should be planted close together to facilitate pollination in the first year or two until the plants get established (and it looks more natural). If you sow the grass in autumn, plant wildflower pots or plugs the following spring. If you start in spring, wait until autumn. Rake the grass and use a spade or trowel to dig little holes for the wildflowers.
Managing your meadow – the cutting regime
Wildflowers need a low nutrient level to thrive with grasses. Your wildflowers could disappear and be replaced by grasses and perennial weeds if the soil is too rich.
Negative indicators like nettles, docks and thistles show that the nutrient level is too high. The easiest way to keep your soil ‘wildflower-friendly’ is to remove the clippings when you cut your grass. The meadow should be cut to about 5cm (do not cut any lower as you may damage the roots or basal leaves of the flowers).
Cut at least three times in the first year to support root development. From then on, once a year should be enough if the grass is not too vigorous. The usual cutting time for a spring-flowering meadow is late-June until October. A summer meadow should be left uncut until mid-July. Don’t leave it too late, even though something may still be in flower. If you continually cut late, you will lose species diversity as the grasses take over!
The cuttings should be left for a few days to allow any remaining seeds to fall, and then removed to keep the fertility of the soil low. Raking helps to break up the surface and creates gaps in which new seedlings can establish themselves.
Once you create a wildflower meadow, you’re committed to a long-term project. It may take a few years to establish, although they will generally look great very quickly. With good preparation and careful management, your patience and effort will be rewarded with an oasis of birds, butterflies and bees (and much more)!