How to create a mini wild flower meadow
If you've been inspired by the Olympic Park Wildflower Meadows from London 2012, learn how to recreate this look in your own garden...
Creating a mini Wild flower meadow
Almost all of our wild flowers are becoming rarer, but none more so than our meadow grassland plants, with previously quite common things like the glamorous Green Winged Orchid, now gone from half its historical range. As we’re probably bored of hearing, we have destroyed more of our wild flower thick hay meadows than any other habitat in the last hundred years.
Almost all our meadows have now been sprayed and re-sown with more productive grasses to create more hay, with others turned over to arable. It’s been estimated that by 1984, 97% of lowland semi-natural grassland had disappeared during the previous 50 years, with the surviving meadows now very fragmented and often degraded.
That is a terrible destruction for us - for the beauty and richness of our countryside - but it’s a catastrophe for our native pollinators. They rely on these very plants for their life cycle, habitats and food, so it’s not surprising that with this transformation of the British countryside, we’ve seen our pollinator numbers go into across-the-board declines.
As Dr Jeff Ollerton (expert pollination ecologist for Northampton University) told me while filming Bees, Butterflies and Blooms, we’ve already lost 23 bee species in England since 1800 – including 3 bumblebees and in Britain 67% of our moth species have declined over the last 50 years, as well as 25% of our hoverflies, and these trends are continuing downwards. If this carries on, as well as being a biodiversity disaster, our diet is going to look drastically different, with most of our fruit and vegetables – which are insect pollinated – gone from the supermarket shelves.
So as well as introducing ever-increasing numbers of nectar-rich garden plants into our own private patches, it’s important for as many of us as possible to find room for a few native wild flowers. One way of doing so is by recreating mini hay meadows, with all the flowers that go with them. I have done this at Perch Hill in a narrow strip of ground on the edge of my cutting garden.
I am lucky enough to live on a farm with plenty of room, but a patch a fraction of this space is still worth doing and I’ve seen wonderful wild flower combinations growing in a decent sized pot. Choose the right selection of species – such as Cowslips, Ladies Bedstraw, Wild Marjoram, Field Scabious and Betony and you’ll have wild flowers in bloom in a neat succession from April until October, on whatever scale.
Also, do you really love your lawn?
Or does it need to be the size – mown short – that it is? We have decided to leave half our lawn in our own back garden to grow long and encourage wild flowers such as White and Red Clover to flower like billy-o. We like having a bit of the lawn short to lie on and play badminton, but the left un-mown bit looks much more various and interesting.
There are pretty, delicate grasses like Crested Dog’s Tail, and Red Fescue as well as an ever-increasing range of wild flowers, which I’m adding to with plug plants this autumn. These grasses don’t form a solid monotonous colony, but mix up well with wild flowers. As soon as the sun comes out the place is alive with hoverflies and bees.
Remember too that wild flowers do not always have to be accompanied by grasses, as James Hitchmough – Professor of Horticultural Ecology at Sheffield University – is showing us in his large scale planting over the Olympic site for 2013. He has created a meadow with a modern perennial prairie look and feel, but using not echinaceas, Rudbekias and low-maintenance, ‘Meadow Perennials’, but Spiny Restharrow, Betony, Field Scabious, Common Toadflax, Agrimony and many of our best wild flowers. In the Olympic meadows, these are planted cheek-by-jowel without a single grass mixed in.
Whatever system you use, make sure you choose the most garden worthy wild flowers – species which flower for many weeks or months at a stretch and are rich in forage for that whole time.
There are so many high and long performing British wild flowers but for the top ten, nectar-rich and beautiful wild flowers, I’d recommend the ones below.
The main lesson I’ve learnt while researching and filming Bees, Butterflies and Blooms is you don’t have to have rolling acres to grow a few wild flowers. Even a hay meadow looks good on a few square foot sort of scale.
Practical tips for creating a wild flower meadow
Make sure the seed mix you choose has the right ones relevant to your soil type.
If you’re combining flowers with grasses, or flowering up an area of exiting grass, you need to reduce the strength of the grasses. It’s key to introduce Yellow Rattle. This is a hemiparasite, which fixes its roots onto the root system of an adjacent grass and extracts the water and minerals it needs. This weakens the grass and hence the competition, allowing more delicate and often more colourful and interesting wild flowers to thrive.
Clear the ground.
If on a small scale, dig out the coarse-leaved grasses such as Cock’s-foot, Couch Grass and Perennial Rye Grass. If on a large scale, consider spraying these off before you start. They out compete the more delicate-growing wild flowers. Also make sure the area is as free of coarse-leaved grasses and robust-quick growing weeds such as thistles and docks before you sow.
Rotavate and then rake over to ensure a fine-ish tilth and water (if necessary).
Sow the seed
Direct sow your seed (at a seed density recommended by the seed supplier.)
Most of these plants are perennials so will not flower well for a couple of years. I was impatient for flowers in my own mini meadow, so grew some wild flowers in trays in the autumn, pricking them out during the winter, to plant out as plugs when the soil had warmed up enough in April this year.
Planting Wild Flower Seedlings
Cut or strim the grass in August, or leave it till September if you want species such as Agrimony and Betony to get a hold.
Leave the hay where it falls for a week, turning it over a couple of times as it dries to help the wild flower seeds drop back down into the soil.
Rake all the hay away so as not to increase fertility and compost.
Adding more varieties
Gather seed of the wild flowers you see and like in your local areas of grassland as well as lots of Yellow Rattle. You’ll need permission from the land-owner. Gather the heads, or just knock the seeds into a brown envelope or paper bag. Leave them somewhere cool but airy, to dry a little more before sowing.
Scarify a few patches through the area and scatter the seed. Yellow Rattle needs to be sown in the autumn.
Do it now
You can still sow your wild flower seed now in late autumn. Some perennials need the winter cold to spark them to germinate. If you sow them now, those species will join the other perennials as well as spring-germinating annuals and biennials, so everything should come up well.
Sow extra favourites – that you want lots of – into seed trays now for pricking out and planting out as soon as the soil warms up a little next spring.
Find out more about the plants used and flowers grown at the 2012 Olympic Games via The Guardian.