Making Mini-Meadows

After hopefully a productive, but relatively leisurely time in the garden through mid summer, we should now be in the mood for a new project.  Late summer and early autumn are good times for planning and embarking on changes in the garden, as the weather cools and rain refreshes both plants and soil. Thoughts of improvements are in our minds and best acted upon whilst the enthusiasm is with us! This is also a good time to sow seeds, especially those of some of our native wildflowers, and to plant bulbs so a perfect project as the summer winds down is to create a flowery lawn or 'mini-meadow'.  A wildflower meadow is one of the most enchanting and exciting habitats 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.  Mini-meadows 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 relatively easy.  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 it for a few weeks may yield some surprising results.  Species including 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, birds-foot trefoil, clover 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 but wait until early spring and leave a small patch unmown from late March onwards and see what appears. 

This approach in my own new garden has revealed buttercups, daisies, two species of Veronica, oxeye daisies, white clover, selfheal, silverweed and common mouse ear.  In places there are even self-sown Polyanthus in a variety of colours  - a good indication that cowslips and primroses can be added in the next few weeks.  Admittedly the ‘no-mow’ policy has revealed large numbers of dandelions, but the local goldfinches, linnets and 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.  Now is the time to prepare by finding a good 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 birds-foot 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 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 you wish.  If your supplier’s information is scant, use a wildflower book to check the conditions your preferred flowers enjoy.  Planting species inappropriate for the conditions in your garden dooms them to failure and is a waste of money. If you are a competent gardener, you can grown your own wildflowers from seed and create your own plug plants - a cheap and easy way to get started.

Preparation and Planting  While you are waiting for your plantlets to arrive (or seeds to germinate if you are growing your own), 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 mini-meadow will look better and be more accessible to examination (and appreciation) if it is closely mown around its 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 and not ‘Indian Summer’ weather), plant your plugs in groups, using a narrow trowel or a bulb planter.  Keep them watered into the autumn months if necessary, or until they show signs of having established.  At this stage, 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 and primroses.  If you are happy to have a dash of colour later in the summer try knapweed, which can out compete the competitive rye.  Once flowering is over, cut and rake the area well from late summer through to the end of the year as you would a proper wildflower meadow.

Maintaining a Mini-Meadow

Keeping your lawn colourful and floriferous relies on the same principles for maintaining a wildflower meadow.  As already mentioned the area must be cut and the cuttings removed, generally in late summer, but this can be done several times through the summer if you wish - cutting and allowing species like white clover to flower again.  In September you can cut as short as you like for the rest of the gardening season. 

Suppliers of Wildflower Plugs – British Wildflower Plants

Suppliers of Wildflower Bulbs – Johm Shipton

Supplier of Native Seeds – Emorsgate Seeds



© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017