Growing Wildflowers in your Garden

If you have ever visited a good wildlife garden, two things probably caught your attention.  Firstly, it was probably whirring and fluttering with life!  There were bumblebees, hoverflies and butterflies, moving from flower to flower, gathering nectar or pollen.  Secondly, you might have noticed plenty of native wildflowers – under the hedge, tucked into borders alongside cottage garden plants, or knee deep around the pond edge.  Native plants and invertebrates have a special, long standing relationship and wherever you find one, the other is somewhere close by.  Once this connection has been established in your garden everything else, from chiff chaffs to hedgehogs, will follow.  

There are plenty of ways of including wildflowers in your garden, and if you can build a habitat around them you will be providing more than just nectar and pollen for visiting insects.  Red campion and greater stitchwort at the bottom of a hedge will soon start to provide shelter for small mammals amongst the leaves and stems.  Here bank voles and wood mice will hunt for seeds, common shrews may find a slug or two and wrens will search for spiders.  An undisturbed shady hedge bottom will soon attract all manner of wildlife if it includes native flowers. But perhaps the best way to grow a mass of wildflowers whilst creating a fabulous wildlife habitat is to make a small wildflower meadow.  This is not as difficult as many people imagine, but it does require hard work and commitment!

The easiest way to do this is to start with weed free, bare soil.  Choose an area where the soil fertility is as low as possible, otherwise the meadow grasses will grow more vigorously than the wildflowers and soon your flowers will be swamped.  If your garden soil has been cosseted and composted, you may need to remove the top six inches and replace it with subsoil from another area. Obtain local seed if you can.  The species within it will be used to your conditions, and your local invertebrates will be better adapted to these plants.  Sow the seed at a rate of about 4 grams per square meter onto raked soil, and walk over it, gently pushing the seed into the soil.  Don’t cover the seed – some species need light to germinate.  Shoo the birds away, water gently if the weather is dry, and wait.  Actually, not much will happen for some time – a meadow is a slowly evolving habitat, in need of maintenance and attention.  But as the flowers and grasses establish, you will begin to see a tapestry of species emerging.

A meadow must be cut once every year in late summer or early autumn.  Cut with a scythe and leave your hay for a few days to dry.  Rake it off with as must vigour as you can, allowing the seeds to drop and make contact with the soil beneath.  Here they will germinate and replenish those that are inevitably lost each year.  If all this sounds like hard work (and it is!) you may like to opt for a cornfield mixture – annual wildflowers including poppies, cornflowers and corn marigold.  These only require pulling out after flowering to ensure that fallen seed will germinate to produce the colourful display again next year.

If a wildflower meadow is not for you there are plenty of other ways of incorporating native plants.  Our native wild flowers have always been grown in gardens, and most of us grow a few without even thinking about it.  The majority of gardeners have a primrose tucked into a shady corner somewhere, or grow a Jacob’s ladder, wood cranesbill or foxglove, without relegating these wildlings to the end of the garden.  Back in Victorian times, many gardeners were passionate about ‘wild gardening’ and in larger gardens an area was often cultivated as a romantic wilderness, full of wild flowers and dreamy vistas.  Sometimes at great expense, rocky outcrops were installed, and old wooden gates leading into fields beyond were a special feature of these wild areas.  Wildlife gardening as such was not a feature of those times but most gardeners now appreciate that growing native plants is a crucial part of what wildlife gardening is all about.  Wild flowers are the backbone of any wildlife garden – these are the plants that ultimately all our native wildlife depends upon.

Those of us that grow native plants in our gardens now do so for entirely different reasons to those Victorian gardeners of long ago.  Our main objective is create habitats to provide food for butterflies, bees or birds, and to bring wildlife to our back doors.  Encouraging wildlife is something any organic gardener knows will be valuable for many different reasons.  Beneficial insects such as hoverflies and ladybirds can be encouraged by an informed choice of the right native plants.  Solitary bees and bumblebees, so important for the pollination of vegetable crops and fruit trees, can be enticed to just the right spot by growing the plants they naturally feed on in the wild. However, the choice of wildflowers in Garden Centres is still not as wide as it could be and many gardeners are put off growing their own native species from seed.  Many wild flower seeds require periods of frost, or perhaps scarification, before they will germinate, facts that often deter gardeners from trying them a second time.  The cowslip is the most common culprit in this respect.  How many of us have tried to germinate the seeds of this lovely wild flower only to give up when nothing appeared in the seed tray?  The answer of course is to sow in the winter and leave the pot outside where the cold and frost will work their magic, and trigger germination as early as February. 

Fortunately for us, many of the most useful wild flowers are not only amongst the most beautiful, but are also some of the most adaptable to grow.  There are quite a few that perhaps should be left in the countryside, because even in the largest garden coltsfoot or butterbur can take over too quickly, but at this time of year there are many wonderful easy-to-grow natives in flower in the countryside.  Take a look at some of these now and make plans to add a few to your garden in the autumn.

Good plants for those new to wild flower gardening would be the four common species of campion – the red, white, sea and bladder campions.  These are familiar plants to most of us and are especially easy to start from seed as they require no special treatment.  Seeds sown in September or March in small pots of peat free compost will spring into life quickly and easily, and grow rapidly into sturdy plants that will flower in their first year.

Any garden full of insects and other invertebrates soon becomes home to all the other animals that depend upon them.  For every creature you see there are probably a hundred that you don’t see, hiding beneath the foliage of low plants, deep amongst the leaves of shrubs, under stones or logs, in fact in every small space where there is shelter.   Plant wildflowers in your garden and watch the wildlife arrive.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017