Reviving a Flagging Meadow

Wildflower meadows are hot property.  In fact they are almost a fashion statement in the ‘designer’ garden these days.  But those of us who have known for some time that a meadow can enhance a garden not just aesthetically, but environmentally too, have probably been having a love affair with the wildflower meadow for some time now.  Even the smallest ‘mini-meadow’ in a corner can increase the wildlife attracting potential of the average garden considerably.  Sadly, there are garden designers and contractors who have little knowledge of the dynamics of this habitat and the work involved in keeping it flowering.  Many a wildflower meadow has been installed in a garden with little regard for the maintenance involved or the work required in keeping it looking bright and cheerful over the longest possible time.  Through no fault of their own, gardeners have found that over time the wildflowers have disappeared and their once floriferous meadow has become a sea of grass.

This can happen to the best of us, as neglect and lack of essential maintenance will both cause a decline in the number and diversity of the wildflower species.  If the meadow was made in an area where the soil nutrient content was a little on the high side at the start, this slow decline can happen even more quickly, much to the dismay of the gardener who may have paid a contractor to make the meadow in the first place.

So how do we deal with a worsening situation, because there is no doubt that the meadow will continue its downward trend if nothing is done?  The good news is that there are ways to remedy this situation and October is an ideal month to tackle the problem.  New plants added to a meadow area now will have a good chance of establishing over the autumn and winter months.

The first consideration is the maintenance issue, as the slow disappearance of the flowery plants can be entirely due to neglect!  A wildflower meadow needs to be cut and vigorously raked at least once every year – a few hours hard work, but well worth the effort.  If your meadow has not been regularly cut and raked, this could explain why the grasses have ‘taken over’.  Remedy the situation by cutting this month with a scythe or strimmer to a height about five to ten centimetres.  Allow the cuttings to lie for a few days as this gives any insects in the grass a chance to find a new home, then with a friend or two (this IS hard work), rake the cut grass up and off the area.  Even when all the cut hay is cleared, continue to rake, removing moss and scratching up the surface to expose bare soil here and there.  This alone can be enough to revitalise a meadow.  Wildflower seeds stored in the seed bank (in the top layer of soil) will be brought to the surface by this action and their exposure to the air and light will trigger their germination, either within the next week or two, or next spring.  This method of revitalising a tired meadow has been known, if carried out annually over several years, to bring about a radical change in the flower composition – depending on which seeds are available in the soil.  Many gardeners have been surprised at what has turned up after this treatment – even orchids have been known to appear!

However for most of us neglectful gardeners this may only bring about a flush of oxeye daisies next spring.  Nice enough of course, and a step in the right direction, but if you want to encourage your meadow to overflow with flowers next year, you made need to be a little more proactive.  Adding new plants in the form of plugs could be the answer.

Small plug plants are now readily available by mail order, or you could use slightly larger pot grown wildflower plants from your local garden centre.  Choosing plants suitable for your soil type is important – often species die out because they are not adapted to the local conditions.  Check with a wildflower gardening book to find out which are best suited to your conditions or play safe with a small range of really adaptable species such as knapweed, field scabious and cowslip rather than more fussy species that may not last until next spring.  If you are successful with your introductions you will soon get a feel for which wildflowers your local conditions will happily support.  Plug plants can be added to the cut and raked area this month by using a bulb planter, or taking out a core of soil with a small trowel.  Be prepared to water if the conditions are dry.

An alternative to adding new small plants is to try spreading extra seed.  This is not always successful as it does depend on the amount of bare soil you have exposed in your vigorous raking.  Seeds need to make physical contact with the soil in order to start the germination process, and if your grass is especially thick this method may not work for you.  If however the grass is thin and poor, this is worth a try.  A mixture of wildflower seeds or your choice of individual species can be carefully sprinkled into the barer patches and then pressed into the soil.  Don’t forget that these small areas will need some water in drier weather and that small seedlings are vulnerable to all sorts of predators.  You will need to keep a careful eye on any tiny seedlings that appear in your sown areas.

The last maintenance task to try at this time of year is to add the seed of yellow rattle.  This annual member of the mint family can only be sown directly onto existing grass.  It is partially parasitic on the roots of some native grasses and cannot grow without its host plant.  After cutting and raking your meadow area (or any thin grassy area where more colour and less grass growth would be appreciated) scatter the seed, again targeting any patches of bare soil.  The seeds of this plant also require contact with the soil to begin the germination process.  October is the perfect month to sow yellow rattle as it needs some cold frosty weather through the winter months to trigger its germination.

All this work may make you wonder whether a wildlife meadow is really worth the effort of maintaining it!  But don’t forget that this is just one essential task at the end of your meadow’s growing season.  If this is the only attention you pay to the area every year, it will still reward you with flowers in profusion and wildlife of all sorts – a diversity of insects, small mammals and birds - from January to December.  In particular the meadow butterflies that are associated with a long grass area – the ringlet, meadow brown, gatekeeper and maybe even the marbled white - will make all that hard work seem really worthwhile.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017