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  Making Garden Meadows

What is a wildflower meadow?  Before looking at creating a wildflower meadow in your garden, it is important to understand just what is meant by the term ‘meadow’.  A meadow in the countryside can be many different things and each wild meadow is unique in its composition of plants and animals. But most importantly a meadow is about 80% native fine-leaved grasses. These grasses are of the utmost importance.  It is these that create the all important shelter for small invertebrates including the caterpillars of many moths and butterflies plus they are also the food plants of all the group of 'brown' butterflies including ringlet and meadow brown, and many other invertebrates too. Without the grasses you have no meadow community.

Most people who are interested in creating an area of grass and flowers in their garden, or want to convert an area of lawn to an approximation of that wild habitat, will have in their minds an image of the traditional hay meadow, brimming over with many species of wildflower including cranesbill, knapweed, oxeye daisy and lady’s bedstraw. Dainty grass heads weave their way through the wildflowers, and butterflies, bumblebees and other insects dance over the grasses and flowers in the sunshine, and grasshoppers chirp from the depths.  The good news is that this rural idyll is achievable, up to a point.  Strictly speaking though we are referring to creating a ‘meadow effect’. The traditional hay meadow just described would have taken hundreds of years of time-honoured management to create, including winter grazing by animals plus cutting and baling the hay, in order to achieve a colourful and unique tapestry of wildflowers, grasses and their attendant wildlife.  In a garden though, you can recreate an approximation of this habitat, and some of the spectacular wildlife that depends upon these plants will undoubtedly visit your garden if you do.  So a meadow is any area of wild grasses and flowers, whether that be the summer hay meadow of your imagination, or a spring meadow with lady’s smock and cowslips. However it is important to understand that a meadow is composed largely of grasses – as much three-quarters - and that these grasses are crucial to the habitat as a whole and the wildlife that uses it.  Making and maintaining a meadow in your garden requires time, knowledge and dedication.  However once you have decided that creating a meadow is what you want to do, you and your local wildlife will never look back.

The larger the space you have the more impressive your meadow will be, as well as attracting and sheltering a greater variety of wildlife.  But even the smallest corner can be a valuable meadow habitat, as long as it is in full sun.  More shady spaces can be sown with native grasses and wildflowers but in general they will not attract the widest range of creatures.  If provision of a habitat for butterflies is your main interest, a sunny spot is pretty essential.  If possible, choose a spot where the soil is not too fertile.  If rich soil is present, your meadow plans may have to be delayed while the situation is remedied.  Growing a nutrient hungry crop such as potatoes for a couple of seasons can work well, or removing a foot or so of the top soil and replacing it with poorer subsoil (perhaps from the hole where a new pond is planned) will also benefit your fledgling meadow.  Over time, the fertility of the soil will drop naturally and the meadow, with correct management, will settle into a balance between grasses and wildflowers. Although it is possible to create a wildflower meadow in existing grass, the best recreations of this habitat come about from sowing a 'meadow mix' from a reputable supplier.  Wildflower meadows can be sown in Autumn or Spring and once the spot is identified, it must be thoroughly cleared of all existing vegetation.  If there is turf, this must be removed and the underlying soil turned over and raked to a tilth.    If the meadow site is a weed patch, all perennial problems such as couch grass, nettles or ground elder must be dug out completely, or covered with black polythene to exclude light until the weedy species have died off.  This can be a headache but must be done thoroughly.  Choose a turf area if you can, as your new meadow will begin its life with far fewer problems.  After preparation and removal of all perennial weeds (annuals do not matter as much, as they will die out once the grass has established) it is time to measure your area in order to calculate the quantity of seed you require.  4 grams per square meter is the usual sowing rate, although even a little less will work well enough.  If you are unsure of your soil type, choose a general purpose seed mixture which will contain wildflowers that will thrive on any type of soil.  Most wildflower seed producers have a good range of meadow mixes for different kinds of soil – if you know you have clay, a mixture for this soil will exclude species that require a well-drained situation.  Native grasses too have their preferences so take advantage of the growers’ expertise and let them do the selection for you.  Make sure that ‘native’ wildflowers and grasses are specified.

Sowing  Now choose a suitable day and sow your mix.  Avoid very windy conditions – it’s a bit alarming to see all your precious seed blowing away as you scatter!  You may wish to mix your seed with silver sand as this bulks it up making it easier to see and sow evenly.  Walk up and down scattering as you go until the whole area has been covered.  Don’t worry too much if the seed lies more thickly in some areas than others.  Once it has germinated and the grasses and wildflowers begin to spread the gaps will soon fill up.  When all your seed has gone, walk over the area methodically and push it into the soil with your feet.  It is not necessary to rake or cover the seed – indeed this can delay or even prevent germination of some of the species that require light to get them going.  Pressing the soil in (you can use a garden roller in a larger area - see above), is enough to ensure that the seed makes good contact with the soil.  Now water gently if the weather has been dry or no rain is forecast.  Protect your seed from birds in what ever is your usual way.  I find that old shiny CDs hung around the area work well enough at keeping the finches at bay. All that remains now is to sit back and wait.  Many things will appear quickly, including whatever weedy species exist in the seed-bank in your soil.  Don’t worry too much about these, but if there are masses of annual weeds, you can cut them back if you wish with a mower on a high cut with the grass box in place.  At this stage you will not damage your new meadow.  The grasses should germinate quite quickly along with a few of the wildflowers. Ox-eye daisy – a happy coloniser – will usually appear first in some profusion. It soon settles down to a more subdued existence and more wildflower species will appear and spread over time.  It is worth remembering that if your mix contains the very useful Yellow Rattle, this semi-parasitic plant will not germinate until after the grasses are established, as it feeds from their roots.  Yellow rattle can be added later, preferably in the autumn as it also needs a period of cold weather (vernalisation) to germinate well.  It has the effect of suppressing the grass growth which is especially useful in soil that is overly fertile.

Maintenance  A meadow and its attendant wildlife weave themselves into a balanced ecosystem as long as the area is well maintained.  This means cutting and raking off all the hay every year in late summer.  For larger areas a motorised scythe or Allen scythe is useful for this, or a hand held scythe for the energetic.  Ordinary mowers, especially the hover types, or strimmers are not very suitable for this operation, as they chop up the grasses too finely to enable effective removal of the clippings.  This annual cutting and raking is essential and must be carried out every year to keep your meadow flowery and diverse, so do consider this before you embark on a meadow area.  The raking in particular must be done thoroughly.  The seeds will fall from the flowers and grasses during this operation, and small areas of bare soil will open up to enable germination.  Meadows are dynamic, not static habitats and some of the flower species need this activity in order to maintain their populations.  Meadows not cut and raked in this way often lose their flowers and thus their diversity and value to wildlife.

The wildlife in your garden meadow    Hay meadows in our countryside are very special in many ways, but in particular they have a great variety of wildlife associated with them.  Because of the shelter meadows provide to small creatures, it is likely that even a tiny meadow area in a garden could be a place where lots of wildlife will find a home.  Our native wildflowers and grasses in any situation will always have a whole host of small invertebrates feeding upon them.  This mass of creatures attracts specific insect-eating birds such as robins, wrens and tits all year round, but at breeding time virtually all birds will be searching for these insects for their fledglings.  Lots of smaller mammals including shrews, field mice, voles and hedgehogs will also feed on these invertebrates.  The smaller mammals in their turn may encourage larger mammals such as foxes and weasels to the garden, or even predatory birds, especially kestrels, as these feed largely on voles and mice.  Reptiles and amphibians can also find food and shelter in a meadow.  The seeds of the grasses and wildflowers will attract the seed eating bird species especially the finches - goldfinches, linnets, greenfinches, chaffinches and bullfinches.  Over time a whole web of interdependent life will be created around your meadow habitat and a food chain will evolve whereby each creature is dependant upon a plant or another creature, for food.   Plus all will appreciate the undisturbed nature of the habitat.

It is well known that meadows are especially good for butterflies.  In particular there are several that lay their eggs on native grasses although they are fairly specific about the types of grass they need.   Meadow brown, ringlet, gatekeeper, marbled white and the lovely little skipper butterflies are a few of the species that use some of our native grasses as their larval food plants – that is, the plants that their caterpillars feed on.  This means that long grass in a meadow may encourage these butterflies, not just to visit your garden, but to breed there too. So creating a wildflower meadow is an important way to help these insects.

A garden meadow’s strength lies in two things - its range and mix of species of plants and animals, and the fact that it is undisturbed for long periods which means that wildlife has a chance to get established.  The long grasses and wildflowers come to provide homes for too many creatures to mention, all existing in a habitat that over time, nature has designed to take account of their needs and life cycle.

Lastly, avoid at all costs the ubiquitous 'Wildflower Meadow Mixtures' that you might see advertised online or sometimes you will see them in Garden Centres.  Many of these contain no native wildflowers at all, no perennial plants and no grass.  These are not  meadow mixtures - they are simply mixtures of non-native annuals without grass. They may be useful for a handful of pollinators but will not create a lasting habitat. Mixes of native poppy, cornflower and corn marigold seeds are also available.  These will also not create a 'meadow' but will make a valuable contribution to the wildlife in your garden.  Their sowing and maintenance is very different to that of a wildflower meadow. You can find out more about this quite complex subject in the book mentioned below.

You can buy Making Garden Meadows by Jenny Steel in Waterstones, from Amazon  or Contact  her for a signed copy on jenny@wildlife-gardening.co.uk


Related Topics...

* Meadow Butterflies * Making Hay - Cutting a Wildflower Meadow
* Early Summer Butterflies *  Make a Mini-meadow
* Growing Wildflowers in your Garden * Growing Wild Knapweeds
*The Blue Butterflies * The Moths in your Garden
* Encouraging Butterflies to Breed * The Brown Butterflies
* Make a Flowery Lawn * Sow Cornfield Wildflowers


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017