Across the UK we have lost 95% of our wildflower-rich grasslands since the 1930’s, this decline is due to increased use of herbicide and our ‘improved’ agricultural practices becoming ever more efficient and keeping the ‘weeds’ out. Wildflower meadows can be brought back from the brink, with patience, local rich seed banks and careful management restoration or creation can increase the diversity of a field back to our countryside’s former glory.
This is not a quick process but the benefits are undeniable, our historic remaining flower rich meadows are decades of traditional management. Though this may be a long process within a few years the diversity will increase and the meadow will start to show rewarding sighs of its future beauty. Flower rich grassland meadows provide essential natural habitat for our native wildlife, hunting and feeding grounds for many insects, mammals and birds.
Creating a Flower Meadow
If you are planning to create a flower rich grassland, some careful consideration is needed to begin with. You will need to take into account the physical characteristics of the site, the soil pH, structure, hydrology and fertility. Highly fertile soils can be used to grow cornfield annuals, however our native perennial wildflowers require low-nutrient soil.
Vigorous grasses (perennial ryegrass) and pernicious weeds (thistles, nettles and docks) indicate high soil fertility. In most cases this is easily accomplished by removing the top soil to reduce the soils fertility. This will also help assist removing unwanted grasses and plants.
In some cases several years of careful management will be needed to bring weeds or fast-growing grasses under control to provide good conditions for meadow flowers to establish. If there is already low nutrient soil, remove any previous vegetation by hand. Simply scratch at the soils surface with a rake, try not to rotavate it or plough deeply as it can bring unwanted seeds to the surface.
To sow a wildflower meadow you will need a seed mix of wildflowers and grasses, 5g to 2m is best with a ratio of 1 part wildflower: 4 parts grasses. Mix your seeds with sand or sawdust and scatter across your prepared soil. Simply then roll or walk over the area to firmly place the seeds into the soil.
Patience will come into play here as the perennials will not flower for at least the first year. You will need to cut the grasses regularly during the first year, around every 6-8 weeks and kept to a height of 50mm, remove all the cuttings to not increase the soil fertility.
Wildflower meadows fall into two broad camps: Those that flower in spring, February - May and those that flower in summer, June - August. Unfortunately, you cannot have both in the same area because they require different mowing regimes.
Restoration of a Flower Meadow
An area of grassland, perhaps where a field has been receiving regular fertiliser treatment and the soil fertility is high can be restored into a species rich grassland over time. While the fertility is high it will only support fast growing species which take advantage of the nutrients rather than the slower growing wildflower species. This can be reduced through stopping all fertiliser treatments and taking one or more cuts over the year and removing the hay. Where vegetation may have grown especially coarse you can use appropriate small scale machinery to break up overgrown grasses such as harrowing or a flail.
Once the favourable conditions are met you will be amazed to find which species begin to grow, such as common knapweed (Centaurea nigra) and meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris). The plants in the soil’s seed bank, grassy forgotten corners will have been given the opportunity to germinate and set their own seed in the meadow. There could be a wealth of wildflower species already established which may flourish under the new management regime, so it’s best to wait and see before introducing anything new.
Although this may take a few years, you will eventually find out what flowers and other plants you have in your area already. It is amazing what will come through given the right conditions. Should you then wish to increase the biodiversity (the variety of life) of your meadow, plant plugs or appropriate plants’ seeds can be added to the meadow to bring in more local species of wildflower.
Scattering seeds over grassy areas will be unlikely to succeed, you will have to create ‘gaps’, the best method is to remove areas over turf and top soil approximately 30x30cm and seed one or two species. Only seed or plug plant in the autumn, allowing the roots to establish before the competition from other species increases in the spring.
Spring Flowering Meadows
For a spring flowering meadow, the first cut of the year would need to be taken in early February, with further cuts in late May and either once at the end of August or at regular intervals until the end of the growing season. Again, use a monitoring scheme to ensure that the first cuts of the year are not removing early flowering plants such as primroses and bluebells, should they appear in your grassland sward.
Some species which can grow in a spring meadow:
Wild daffodil, Lesser celandine, Primrose, Cowslip. Bluebell, Meadow Buttercup, Cow parsley, Ribwort plantain, Selfheal, Cuckooflower, Germander speedwell, Common Dog-violet, Ground-ivy, Red fescue, Sweet vernal grass, Meadow grass
Summer Flowering Meadows
For a summer flowering meadow, cut and remove the grass as frequently as possible between early March and late April, then leave to flower until late autumn. Mowing may be resumed once most of the seed is ripe, around the end of August. Leaving the hay on the ground for a few days helps shed the seed back into the meadow, after this the hay should be removed, to help lower soil fertility. We would suggest that ever three years, the late summer cut is taken later in September, allowing any later flowering annuals the opportunity to seed for the following year. As all sites are different, even from year to year, only you will be able to tell the best time to cut to ensure that desirable plant species have set seed. You could choose a late flowering meadow plant, like Common Knapweed or on wetter sites Devil’s-bit Scabious to act as an indicator of when it is time to cut and collect.
Some species which can grow in a summer meadow:
Common Knapweed, Meadowsweet, Teasel, Betony, Field Scabious, Bugle, Tufted Vetch, Oxeye Daisy, White Campion, Wild Carrot, Yarrow, Yellow Rattle, Devil's-but Scabious, Cat's-ear, Common Valerian,Common Vetch, Ragged Robin, Autumn Hawkbit, Bird's-foot Trefoil, Red Clover, Kidney Vetch, Selfheal, Orchids, Crested Dog's-tail, Red Fescue, Meadow Grass, Common Bent
Annuals grow and flower all within the same year and they require nutrient rich soils. They produce a brilliant display of colours the first summer. It is difficult to manage these species for self-seeding as the 2nd year they are quickly out competed by the mature grasses.
For a short period a colourful sowing of cornfield annuals have a successful result, but support less wildlife in the long term than the traditional method using native perennial species.
Some species which can grow in a Cornfield annual meadow:
Field poppy, Cornflower, Corn marigold, Corncockle and Corn chamomile
All these methods take careful management of cutting to ensure that bramble, thistles and scrub don’t take over. Grazing or cutting in a traditional method you can help conserve the rarer species of plants and wildlife. Cut hay in dry weather, leaving it lying on the ground for up to a week for the seeds to shed back into the meadow, before removing it and stopping the soil fertility from increasing. By regurlarly cutting and removing the hay you will also prevent thistles docks, brambles from taking over.
Depending on the type of season flowering meadow you are aiming for, you will cut once to remove the vigorous grasses which will have taken over in the winter, after they flower and set seed to reduce the soil fertility rising.
Cutting the whole meadow in one go can remove all the essential habitat and feed for insects, so always leave areas uncut. The best method to do this is by cutting the perimeter on rotation, one 4m section on the side of your field you leave uncut each year, alternating the the side each year. For example if you have a four sided field, each edge will be mowed in a four year rotation.
If you do have access to grazers like cows, goats or sheep, you may like to consider using them to conservation graze your meadow. Using similar timings to cutting you can achieve the same successful outcome. Although there are positives to using grazing, it is more profitable, works well on uneven ground and less manual work, there are are also other effects of using livestock which should be carefully considered. They can easily cause soil erosion, especially the larger animals, you will require fencing and the animal dung can alter which species will grow within your meadow.
Your meadow will evolve year by year, with some species being more dominant than others one year and then changing the next. You should see bees, butterflies and grasshoppers return, the bats and birds may fly over to feed on these newcomers. Soon you'll be traditionally managing one of diverse rare habitats, bustling with colour and life.