The draw to a more natural and wilder garden is becoming increasingly more popular, with invariable nostalgia of gentle grasses and endless wild flowers. But appearances can be deceptive, for there is much preparation to be undertaken to ensure that results are long lasting, pleasing to the eye, and sustainable. After all, at its most simple, you are broadcasting seed, crossing your fingers and anxiously awaiting an explosion of colour. But such an approach is dicing with chance, for germination is so unpredictable, and unwanted nasties can germinate and take over. So how do you best maximise your chances of success? Crucial principles can be adopted to better your chances of creating a rich and beautiful meadow.
Like all planting, right plant, right place is a crucial principle to abide by. Assessing the soil will determine if it is free draining, poorly drained, thin, and whether the aspect is shaded or in full sun. In addition, it is important to note what is already growing on the site; teasels and yarrow will suggest that the site is sunny and free draining. Marsh marigolds will conversely relish a damper situation. Work with these clues and then assess what should be retained, preserved, and enhanced. Generally, wildflower meadows thrive best in low nutrient areas, for otherwise the grass out-competes the wildflowers. However, annual wildflowers are the exception, but by their nature annuals are just that, they will only flower once and cannot be relied upon to reseed and repeat in the following year.
Once the site is selected, a few preparatory tasks must be carried out to maximise germination chances, by creating a soil with a fine tilth and low nutrient levels. Whilst it may be instinctive to want to rotovate and rake the soil to a fine tilth, this can disturb a seed bank of dormant weed seeds, such as docks, nettles, and thistles, which will overwhelm the wildflowers you want to encourage. In particular, turning the soil and exposing dock seeds to UV light for 1/5th of a second stimulates their germination and a whole new generation of docks appear, swamping any wildflowers that may be trying to germinate! Instead, scarifying sward, aiming to reveal 50% of the area as open soil will enable seeds to be sown without too much disruption.
This method will not address ground with high nutrient levels which needs to be tackled by either removal of topsoil, adding composted green waste or sharp sand as a low nutrient mulch into which to sow or the much more sustainable and preferable method of sowing Yellow Rattle. This is an annual wildflower that naturally parasitizes the grass and so weakens the latter, enabling the wild flowers to have a much better chance of survival. This will self-seed, however, reintroducing small amounts in Autumn will maximise its affect.
For the UK, August-September and March-April usually produce the best conditions for sowing outside, albeit March–end of May is best for annuals. Conditions of soil will also impact when is best to sow, such as avoiding Autumn for sites prone to waterlogging, which will wash the seeds away in coming months. Some plants need to be sown at particular times to fit in with their life cycles or biology. For example, Cornfield Annuals need to be sown in the autumn or before May to achieve a flowering display.
There are four main ways of planting a wildflower meadow:
1) Wildflower turf- As the most expensive option, it is easy to install, often having instant results. Watering during the early days is critical, and the range of wildflowers within the turf is limited unless ordering more than 400m2 then a bespoke plan can be made.
2) Wildflower plugs- These are a cost-effective way of maximising control of plant species, whilst avoiding vagaries of germination as they are already growing. These come in large quantities, but experienced contractors can plant up to 500 plugs a day!
3) Wildflower Bulbs- With wide variety, such as Fritillarias and Bluebells, the familiarity of bulbs allows for a landscape which changes throughout the year, and can be used to extend seasons.
4) Wildflower seeds- Perhaps the most complicated method, the sowing rates for wild seed mixtures are much lower than for conventional lawn as the aim is slow and gentle. If there is a good grass sward already then pure wildflower seed can be sown. The seed should be mixed 1 part seed: 5 parts sharp sand, to identify where you have sown. The seed should be broadcast by hand when the weather is calm, then rolled gently with the back of your foot or a garden roller. The outcome of sowing seeds varies massively at different sites; thus it will be an ongoing process of monitoring growth and spot weeding.
Whilst rewarding, creating a wildflower meadow is a difficult process which may require some trial and error. If you are an experienced gardener then creating a wildflower meadow might be the challenge for you, or if not then it is still achievable with a little help.
The growing interest in wild flower meadows is to be welcomed. But success is down to good preparation. It is not as simple as sowing some seed but conversely the effort is so well rewarded.
Since 1996, The Garden Design Company Ltd has created many wild flower meadows so if you would like help with your meadow, please get in contact.
To find out more, visit https://gardendesignco.co.uk/