Giving over some space in your garden to grow wild is a fantastic way to attract birds, hedgehogs, frogs, toads, insects, bees, butterflies, and moths.
Although you could just leave a patch to go wild by itself by avoiding weeding or mowing, a more attractive alternative is to grow a wildflower meadow.
Unfortunately, due to intensive farming practices and land development, many of the UK’s grasslands which supported an abundance of wildlife have been lost. Creating a mini meadow in your garden will help some of these species thrive by giving them food and shelter.
Annual wildflowers bloom in their first season and will give your garden a splash of bright colour from the early summer before dying and self-seeding in the late summer or early autumn.
Although annuals are generally only planted to last for one year, with a bit or help you can encourage them to bloom the following year by cutting them down and treading on the seeds to split them up and push them down into the soil. There is no guarantee that this will work though, so don’t be disappointed if your annuals only bloom for one year.
For a truly authentic meadow you’ll need to plant perennials. A perennial tends to have a shorter blooming period than an annual, but the plant will live for at least 2 years. Because they don’t die at the end of the summer when they have finished flowering, they’ll provide habitat and food over the colder months, and have a greater ecological value.
Butterflies, for example, will welcome the nectar from annual wildflowers, but they need perennials and grasses on which to lay their eggs. And insects won’t survive the winter without the protection of perennial leaves.
Annual wildflowers can be sown in the spring. They’ll usually flower about 2 to 3 months after planting and bloom for 6 weeks, so if you stagger your sowing, you should get a show of colour all summer.
The best time to sow perennials is in the autumn between August and October when there is less risk of weeds also growing and competing with the wildflower seeds. Perennials can be slow to establish and may not flower in their first year so unless you have planted alongside annuals you will need to wait before you see any colour in your meadow. Some species of wildflower need a prolonged period of cold before they germinate, called vernalization, so if you plant them in the spring or summer they won’t appear until the following year.
For colour in spring, you could also plant wildflower bulbs. Dry, dormant wildflower bulbs should be planted in autumn, whereas bulbs supplied ‘in the green’ that is with leaves or flowers when the plants are growing, should be planted in the spring.
Annuals – foxglove, poppy, chamomile, marigold, corncockle, evening primrose, teasel, vipers bugloss, wild carrot, wood avens, yellow rattle, cornflower, borage, forget-me-not
Perennials – campion, knapweed, mallow, sorrel, dandelion, field scabious, bedstraw, woundwort, meadowsweet, loosestrife, ragged robin, hawkbit, sainfoin, burnet, selfheal, wild garlic, clover, marjoram, yarrow, bellflower, buttercup, cow parsley
Bulbs – bluebell, snowdrop, anemone, wild daffodils, aconite, fritillary, star of Bethlehem
Semi-parasitic plants, such as yellow rattle, eyebright, or lousewort, can help reduce the vigour of grasses.
Try and obtain seed of British origin and do not take seeds or plants from the countryside to populate your meadow.
Find a suitable area in your garden. You could use part of your lawn or an existing flowerbed.
Most wildflowers prefer a sunny spot and can tolerate full sun for most of the day. If they don’t receive enough light they will produce ‘leggy’ plants and may not flower. Woodland plants will grow in dappled shade but even these need some light so don’t plant under heavy conifers or anywhere in dark shade.
Although annual wildflowers will grow in most soils, perennials thrive in poor soils where they won’t need to compete with grasses and weeds. This means that you’ll need to spend some time preparing the ground to reduce its fertility and eliminate any plants and seeds that over time may prevent the perennials from flourishing. So if you’re planning to sow in autumn, you’ll need to start preparing in spring.
If you are planting the meadow in your lawn then removing the turf should be sufficient to reduce the fertility. Turn over the exposed soil and don’t add any compost or fertiliser.
For anywhere else in your garden, unless you have very poor soil, you’ll need to remove the top 15 cm of topsoil with a spade or turf cutter and replace it with poor quality soil or sand. You could also grow a crop of mustard, oil-seed rape, or potatoes in the first year which will remove some of the nutrients from the soil.
Dig through the soil and remove any weeds and stones. Then rake it to create a fine tilth, breaking up the soil and removing any lumps.
Before you sow your meadow, you need to clear all traces of weeds. The best method for removing weeds is occultation, an organic technique that is used by both small-scale gardeners and large-scale farmers alike. Although this may seem time-consuming, t is much easier to eliminate weeds once and for all before you sow than to deal with a weed problem that emerges later.
Cover the area with a piece of black plastic, weigh it down on all sides, and leave it on the ground for at least 3 months. Any seeds in the soil will germinate but without light will die. Earthworms will come to the surface and with nowhere to go will move along the soil, naturally tilling it. Left over the summer, the heat generated under the plastic will also kill off fungi and bacteria.
When you lift off the cover you may find some vigorous weeds have survived. These should be clearly visible by their white roots, and can be dug up or pulled out of the ground by hand.
Wildflower meadows are best sown into bare ground as grass will eventually overwhelm them. Most grasses used in lawns, such as rye grass, are aggressive and coarse and although you may have some initial success after a couple of years your wildflower meadow will be a grass meadow again.
If your lawn is sown from fine grasses, then you may fare better. Remove some of the grass leaving gaps of bare earth in which to sow your wildflower seeds. You’ll need to keep your lawn cut short for about 6 months after sowing to give your wildflowers the best chance of establishing themselves.
Once the area is free from weeds, you are ready to start sowing.
Wildflowers have a very low seeding rate so you’ll only need 3 or 4 g per square metre. You may want to mix the seed with some dry silver sand to make it easier to handle and to see where you have sown.
Ensure you get even coverage by sowing widthways and lengthways. You can also divide the area you’re planting into squares and weigh out enough seed to cover each area. Stand on a board as you sow to avoid damaging the raked surface
There is no need to rake in the seed or cover it with soil. You may need to cover it with netting or instal some scarers to prevent birds from eating it until it has started to germinate. Keep it well-watered until it is established. Patience is key now – the seeds will lie in the soil until the conditions are right for them to grow and this may well be until after a frost.
During the first year keep an eye on your new meadow and remove any weeds or rough grasses that you didn’t manage to eliminate or that have established themselves from seed dropped by birds.
In mid-summer cut the meadow and remove any dead growth. During autumn and winter keep the meadow at a length of between 5 cm and 15 cm. You may want to leave a longer patch around the edges for insects to nest in when it’s cold.
In subsequent years vary when you cut so that some plants don’t become dominant, and in late summer and autumn allow the plants to set seed before mowing. Remove all clippings which if left on the ground will smother the germinating seeds and can fertilise the soil, encouraging grasses and weeds to take over the meadow.
Make your final cut around Christmas and then leave it until the following year, when you can enjoy the flowers and wildlife visitors once more.
As your meadow matures you should start to see all sorts of wildlife come to visit. Bees, butterflies, ladybirds, and other insects will seek out nectar and pollen. Birds such as goldfinches and siskins will enjoy plants that produce seeds, and other species such a robins, wrens, and thrushes will be attracted by the insects that have set up home in your meadow.
If you’re lucky you might spot a hedgehog come to feed on the caterpillars and beetles living among the plants. And the damp undergrowth will provide shelter for frogs and toads which in turn help gardeners by eating slugs, flies, and other pests.