Make a Flowery Lawn

After, hopefully, a productive but relatively leisurely time in the garden through the spring, we could now be in the mood for a new project.  Thoughts of improvements are still in our minds and best acted upon whilst the enthusiasm is with us!  This is a good month to create a flowery lawn - a perfect project as we move into summer.

A wildflower meadow is one of the most enchanting and exciting environments that we can see in our countryside and of course it is also is a magnet for wildlife, but creating and maintaining a garden meadow is a huge task requiring time, resources and energy.  Much easier then, for those of us with smaller gardens or little time, to convert a grassy area into a flowery lawn where smaller wildflowers can thrive and produce their nectar and pollen, and beetles, bugs, butterflies and bees can forage for food and find a potential breeding spot.  Flowery lawns come in all shapes and sizes and their enormous advantage is that they can, in general, be created in existing grass, whatever the species.  The key is to choose your plants well and even a patch of rye grass can bloom!

Starting with an older lawn  If your garden is blessed with a lawn that has never seen a blade of cultivated rye grass, your options are good and your task easier.  Older houses, especially those built before the 1970s, generally had lawns sown from a variety of grass species including the narrow leaved fescues.  These small non-invasive grasses made a soft lawn area that did not necessarily wear well under children’s feet or constant use, but allowed small wildflowers such as veronica, daisy, clover and many species of moss to thrive.  If you suspect your lawn has this type of plant structure, simply leaving small areas unmown for a few weeks this month may yield some surprising results.  Species such as orchids and cowslips have been known to appear in lawns that have been closely mown for years, or more common wildflowers including selfheal, betony, buttercup, clover, birdsfoot trefoil and lady’s bedstraw may be thriving unnoticed in many an old lawn.  If you suspect that some of these wildflowers are present (even a few broad leaves amongst the fine grassy ones should give you a clue) then do nothing now.  Simply leave a small patch unmown for the next few weeks and see what appears. This approach in my own new garden has revealed buttercups, daisies, two species of Veronica, oxeye daisies, clover, selfheal, silverweed, common mouse ear and a pyramidal orchid!  In places there are self-sown Polyanthus in a variety of colours  - a good indication that cowslips and primroses can be added.  Admittedly the ‘no-mow’ policy has revealed large numbers of dandelions, but the goldfinches and even bullfinches have flocked to the garden for those, so I am more than happy.


Choosing your species  The next best scenario is that you have the right grasses but no obvious flowers.  Late spring is a good time add new species by finding a source of native wildflowers as small plug plants – the best means of establishing wildflowers in a grassy area.  It is important with any wildflower establishment to take soil conditions into account.  Use the supplier’s information to choose the best species, such as birdsfoot trefoil or wild carrot which need free drainage if you have a light soil, or select ragged robin, buttercup or lady’s smock for clay.  Some versatile species, especially cowslip, will grow just about anywhere, as will selfheal, clover or yarrow.  You may prefer to stick to shorter species that flower in late spring and early summer – that way you can mow your flowery lawn for the mid summer period after seeds have set and fallen.  If your supplier’s information is scant, use a wildflower book to check the kinds of conditions your preferred flowers enjoy.  Planting species inappropriate for the conditions in your garden dooms them to failure and is a waste of money.

Preparation and Planting  While you are waiting for your plantlets to arrive, prepare the area where they are to go.  The grass should be cut well and all cuttings taken off, preferably for a few weeks before planting. This will help to remove thatch and make space for your plugs.  Any flowery lawn will look better and be more accessible to examination (and appreciation) if it is closely mown around the edges.  Crisp edges help to define it as a special habitat and also emphasise the fact that it is deliberate, and not simply an area you have forgotten about!  When conditions are good (some rain at least ) plant your plugs in groups, using a narrow trowel or a bulb planter.  Water them into the summer months if necessary, or until they show signs of having established.

In the autumn bulbs too can be added.  The most obvious are snakeshead fritillary (damp soil only) and wild daffodil.  Ensure that your bulbs come from a cultivated source and are not removed from the wild.  If your flowery lawn is to be in light shade (another condition to take into consideration when planning) then a few bluebells may also be worth a try.

Rye Grass Lawns   Those of us with weedy, mossy grass in our gardens are indeed lucky where flowery lawns are desired.  If your house was built after the 1960s, or grass seed and turf were sown in more recent times, there is every chance that you have a rye grass lawn – wonderful for games of football or tough, evergreen paths, but to my mind without character and lacking the diversity of species that add to the garden’s ability to attract and sustain wildlife.  But fear not, because nature always has an answer, and indeed there are ways to add colour and charm to the monotonal green rye grass lawn.  Bulbs will thrive in this type of grass as will cowslips.  If you are happy to have a later dash of colour try knapweed, which can out compete the competitive rye or bird's foot trefoil.  Once flowering is over, cut and rake the area well from late summer through to the end of the year, and you will have flowers for several months through late spring and summer.

Maintaining a Flowery Lawn  Keeping your lawn colourful and floriferous relies on the same principles as those for maintaining a wildflower meadow.  If you have smaller plants such as clover or selfheal this can be done on a rotational basis.  In my garden these areas are left to flower for about three weeks, then they are cut and other clover areas are left to flower.  The cuttings must be removed so either use the grass box on your mower if the area has not grown greatly or small areas can be cut with garden shears.  You can then continue to cut as short as you like for the rest of the season if you wish, using your lawn for picnics, sunbathing and any other task that a ‘normal’ lawn would perform.  Indeed you have the best of both worlds – a colourful family friendly area for the summer that buzzes with insects through the spring.  An ideal compromise for the wildlife-friendly family garden!


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017