Making Hay - Cutting a Wildflower Meadow

Once you have established a wildflower meadow in your garden, it is vital that you carry out maintenance work every autumn to allow it to flourish.  A meadow left to its own devices will soon lose its species diversity.  Some of the tougher wildflowers may survive, but in general many of the flowering species will suffer and even slowly die out if the meadow is not cut and the hay removed from it on an annual basis.  It is essential that you have this commitment to your meadow before you begin, or you will be disappointed with the results in the long term.

Maintenance of your wildflower meadow in Year 1   Almost as soon as your meadow seed starts to germinate, a decision must be made.  In order to encourage the flowers to establish it is generally recommended that the newly growing plants are cut all through the first spring and summer to a height of between 5 and 10cms, unless you have added cornfield flowers.  Cutting in this way will keep the grasses under control, while the wildflowers get established.  This is very hard to do – the temptation to see the beginnings of your new habitat are very strong!  If you decide you cannot cut in the first spring and summer, or you have added cornfield annuals that must be allowed to grow up and flower, do not worry unduly.  The meadow will survive, but a few species may take a little longer to get going.  I have never been able to bring myself to cut a meadow in its first year – it is far too exciting to watch it develop.

Traditionally wildflower meadows in the countryside are cut as early as June.  In our garden though cutting as early as this would mean that we, and our garden wildlife did not benefit from the meadow flowers through the summer, so wildflower meadows in gardens are generally left until September or October.  Cutting the area in these months, once most of the wildflowers have finished flowering, is crucial, however small the area, and in general a lawn mower is not suitable for this job.  Mowers chop the grass too much, producing a mulch of grass fragments on the soil surface, which we want to avoid.  Cutting with an old fashioned hand scythe, as seen above, is very efficient, but it is hard work and takes a degree of skill. A strimmer can be used, but is not ideal.  For larger areas a motorised scythe (or Allen scythe) is a good option and these can be rented from tool hire firms. However you decide to cut, choose a warm dry day if possible, as the whole process is easier if the grass is not soaking wet.  Take your time and look out for small mammals and amphibians as you go.  Small areas can be cut very efficiently with hand shears, but for really large meadows, it may be necessary to contact a local farmer and have the area professionally cut and baled. 

Cut to a height of between 5 to 10 cms and leave the hay for a few days to dry. During this time the seeds will fall to the ground, ready to replenish the flowers and grasses, allowing then to spread. Your next job is to rake all the cuttings off.  Each year as you rake off the hay the fertility of the soil is reduced, which benefits the wildflowers.  Most importantly, raking opens up the turf a little, exposing small areas of bare soil, where the wildflower seeds that have fallen can germinate.  The raking should be vigorous – don’t be surprised if the area looks patchy as a result – this is what you want.  For larger areas the alternative here is to use a chain harrow or even borrow a sheep or two to crop the grass.

You may want to cut the area a few more times in the autumn – the mower will suffice here as long as you set the blade on the highest cut and use the grass box to remove the clippings as you go along. 

Subsequent years – a summer flowering meadow….

The strategy above, used in subsequent years will keep your meadow established and encourage the wildflowers to spread.  If your meadow has mainly summer flowers (no cowslips for instance) you can also now cut a couple of times in March and April if you wish, again with the mower blade on a high cut, and the clippings removed.

….and a spring flowering meadow

Even if your meadow contains cowslips, spring bulbs, bugle, ladies smock or any other spring flowering plants, the maintenance is exactly the same – only the timing is different.  All the activities occur earlier in the year, so there is no cutting in spring, the main cut and rake is in July, and subsequent cuts must be high and the clippings removed.

If you have a meadow with spring and summer flowers (a combination meadow), follow the guidelines for the summer meadow, and avoid all cutting until August/September.

© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017