Establishing a wildflower meadow
Updated: Jan 29
A few decades ago, pristine lawns devoid of weeds was the fashionable garden baize to show off manicured beds and borders. Nowadays, thankfully, most people are becoming increasingly aware of the environmental costs of these neatly trimmed lawns and are happy to welcome garden visitors to more diverse turf.
Even the smallest garden can have a wildflower patch, and it is amazing how animals (and plants) will travel to reach this haven. My front garden is a case in point. It is starting to become much more diverse with wildflowers and their associated animal species. It did not start that way, however, on moving to our house over a decade ago I hastily dug and manured the 100m plot thinking it would become a productive patch. Then had a change of heart and decided a wildflower garden was what we wanted most.
Wildflowers thrive on nutrient-poor soils, so I was off to a terrible start! It has taken a decade of mowing and removing the clippings to gradually reduce the nutrients I rashly applied.
The primary factor of establishing a meadow is to know your soil type. Wildflowers differ across the country and this often relates to the soil where they grow. Selecting wildflower seeds that would not naturally grow on your soil type presents you with an uphill struggle you are unlikely to win. This is because:
plants are often adapted to specific soils, so by placing a species into a different soil type is likely to alter its competitive interactions with other species. Consequently, some species could become excessively dominant or conversely perform very poorly;
soils differ in their capacity to offer plants nutrients. This is largely governed by the soil's pH that locks nutrients into the soil so that plants can not obtain them. This can cause nutrient deficiencies and prevent some species from establishing;
your starting soil maybe high in nutrients. In this instance the area is likely to become dominated by strong-growing grasses. Knowing the nutrient status of the intended area in advance will allow you to make informed decisions about how to reduce its nutrient status before sowing a meadow mix.
Soil Values offers a Wildflower Soil Service that provides all the information needed to select the correct seed mix and advice on how a soil can be improved (or unimproved) for native flowers. This information is presented in a bespoke report written in a style that does not require you to be a soil scientist to fully understand.
Spring and autumn are the best seasons to sow areas with wildflower seed, so you still have time to check out your soil type and order seeds. Habitat Aid is a Somerset based company promoting and selling British native wildflower seeds from a range of small specialist British suppliers and conservation charities. Their website is packed full of great advice. Importantly, their seed have local provenance (sourced locally from the wild). This means plants are:
better suited to local soil conditions;
adapted to your climate. Some plants cover a large geographical range with varied climatic conditions. Sourcing locally means the plants will be more suited to your microclimate;
sourcing seeds with unknown provenance means that the seed may have been collected abroad. This may lead to unwittingly introducing non-native species that may become invasive.
Once you know your soil type and selected the corresponding seed mix you will need to prepare the ground, although this can be done months in advance. The targeted new native flower area should be free from weeds, so that your emerging seedings do not need to compete with established plants to survive. Native seeds are often small, orchid seeds are literally dust-sized, so it is a good idea to thoroughly mix your seed mix in a quantity of sand or stone-free soil. The seed mix should come with a sowing rate, so simply measure out a designated known area, weigh the seeds for that space, mix them with sand or soil, and sow. Lightly roll or tread the area and await germination.
Depending on plant type, and the weather conditions, the first seedlings should appear in a few weeks. But be patient, unlike commercially bred cultivars wild plants are not selected to germinate all at once. During the first year give your meadow a light mow to around 10cm and remove all clippings. This reduces the fertility of the soil, which in turn increases the diversity of the sward.
My own plot is cut once a year with all clippings composted. In return I have seen a noticeable increase in flower diversity. In addition, waxcap fungi have started to colonised and weirdly amazing black earthtongue fungi poke out in autumn, while insects numbers have increased and call my garden home. This is great news and reminds us that plants do not live in isolation but are part of a cherished ecosystem.