Create a wildflower meadow

Wildflowers growing in a lawn. Sarah Cuttle

A wildflower meadow is a nature-friendly feature that can replace a lawn or take up part of a lawn, to the benefit of many pollinators and other wildlife. In the UK, traditional wildflower meadows have declined by more than 97 per cent since the 1930’s, so by creating a wildflower meadow at home, no matter how small, you can make a huge difference to declining species.

Wildflower meadows are incredibly diverse, offering a rich mix of flowers for pollinators, grasses for butterflies and moths to lay their eggs on, and shelter for anything from grasshoppers and crickets, beetles, hedgehogs, and amphibians. In turn, the greater density of insects in a wildflower meadow provides food for birds and bats.

What is a wildflower meadow?

A traditional wildflower meadow is an area of perennial grasses and wildflowers, which is cut for hay in late summer and then grazed by animals such as cows until early spring. This creates an even sward where wildflowers aren’t out-grown by competitive grasses, and where woody perennials, such as trees and shrubs, don’t take over.

In a garden situation, this can be replicated in an area of any size, where wildflowers are sown or planted among perennial grasses for a beautiful summer display. This is then cut in late summer and kept short until early spring. Most meadow flowers are long-lived perennials such as red and white clover, ox-eye daisy, greater knapweed, cowslip, primrose, and bird’s-foot trefoil, with some annual species like yellow rattle, a semi-parasite of grass, helping to further control grass growth. The balance of species tends to change over time, depending on the soil type and how you manage the space.

Other types of garden meadow include annual meadows, which are planted with cornfield annuals such as cornflowers, field poppies, corn marigolds and corncockles, but may contain annual wildflowers from other parts of the world, such as cosmos and Mexican hats (Ratibida columnifera). These grow and flower quickly before setting seed and dying. Despite setting seed, they usually require additional sowings each autumn or spring. Annual meadows don’t usually contain grasses, and so are less biodiverse than a perennial meadow which has a good mix of grasses and native wildflowers.


Why create a wildflower meadow in a garden

Wildflower meadow in a small UK garden. Sarah Cuttle
Wildflower meadow in a small UK garden. Sarah Cuttle

With a 97 per cent decline in wildflower meadows across the UK and an estimated 60 per cent decline in insects over the last 20 years, there has never been a better time to create a wildflower meadow at home. By growing a wildflower meadow instead of a lawn we can dramatically increase biodiversity, helping to connect our gardens to each other and the wider landscape. Not only will this improve biodiversity on a local scale but it could also provide much-needed wildlife corridors that will link together larger habitats. This could help maintain genetic diversity among wild populations of species like bumblebees and butterflies, and potentially enable them to expand their ranges and reduce the risk of inbreeding.


Does a wildflower meadow need grass?

Annual wildflower 'meadow' planted with cornfield annuals. Sarah Cuttle
Annual wildflower ‘meadow’ planted with cornfield annuals. Sarah Cuttle

A traditional hay meadow consists of wildflowers and grasses growing together, and so a replica of this in gardens would also feature grass. However, annual ‘meadows’ are typically grown without grasses. Annual meadows often contain a mix of annual wildflowers from all over the world, and are more colourful, although far less biodiverse, than a native perennial meadow. What you choose for your garden is up to you, but without grasses you offer few or no foodplants for butterflies and moths, so the space will cater for much less wildlife than if if was planted in a traditional way.


Advantages and disadvantages of wildflower meadows

Advantages

  • Wildflower meadows require much less maintenance than a lawn 
  • A well-managed wildflower meadow provides an excellent habitat for declining wildlife
  • Wildflower meadows feature a range of attractive flowers and seed heads
  • Meadows can be more eco-friendly as they require less power/fuel needed for mowing and no need for lawn care such as scarifying and feeding
  • Wildflower meadows are ideal for tiny lawns or areas where it’s difficult to reach with the mower

Disadvantages

  • Meadows can look untidy in late summer
  • After meadows are cut in autumn there’s little winter interest
  • Long grass is not suited for children’s play or dogs

How to convert a lawn into a wildflower meadow

Wildflowers growing among lawn grass. Jason Ingram
Wildflowers growing among lawn grass. Jason Ingram

Any garden lawn can be turned into a wildflower meadow. But simply scattering wildflower seed onto grass won’t work, as the grass is likely to grow thickly and seeds are unlikely to have room to grow.

The easiest way to convert a lawn into a wildflower meadow is to first stop feeding or using other lawn treatments and carry on mowing for several months, removing the clippings to help reduce soil fertility. Then, in spring, simply stop mowing and see what appears. Even if it’s just a mix of grasses, these still provide useful habitat and food for many species. Sometimes, you may be lucky enough to discover wildflowers that have been there for years and just haven’t had the chance to flower.

The next step is to plant wildflowers, which grow much better from plugs or young plants than from seed. Plant wildflower plugs or small pot-grown plants in autumn or spring, and make sure you include plugs of the semi-parasite yellow rattle (Rhinanthus major), which reduces the vigour of grasses. Before planting your plugs, cut the grass as short as possible.  If the grass is still growing vigorously, cut out sections of turf to make patches of bare soil in which to plant.

In this practical video from BBC Gardeners’ World, Monty Don shows you how to create a wildflower patch from a selection of plug plants. All of them will thrive in heavy stony soil, and include coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), lesser knapweed (Centaurea nigra) and devil’s bit scabious (Succisa pratensis). Watch now to pick up planting tips, including spacing, and discover the advantages of plug plants over growing wildflowers from seed:

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When to sow seeds for a wildflower meadow

Most meadow plants can be sown from early to mid-spring or early autumn, but check the seed packets for details. On lighter soil, some autumn-sown seeds germinate and establish quickly (others need a period of winter cold in order to germinate in spring). On heavier soils, which are usually wet and cold in winter, it’s better to wait until mid-spring to sow seeds. However, by sowing seeds into trays to make plugs you can avoid any potential losses of sowing seed, and keep the plugs in a cold frame until conditions are good enough for planting out. See below for step-by-step instructions.

How to grow a wildflower meadow from plug plants

You can easily make your own wildflower plug plants by sowing seed in trays, to plant out later. Choose wildflowers such as field scabious, greater knapweed, ox-eye daisy, cowslip, ragged robin, red campion, red clover, musk mallow and wild carrot. Sow them in seed trays, then plant them out as strong, healthy plants, to ensure your meadow establishes reliably.

You Will Need

  • Modular tray
  • Seed compost
  • Wildflower seed
  • Soil sieve
  • Watering can

Step 1

Fill the modular tray with seed compost, pressing it down firmly to remove any air pockets. Water well and leave to drain.

Adding peat-free seed compost to a modular tray. Sarah Cuttle
Adding peat-free seed compost to a modular tray. Sarah Cuttle

Step 2

Empty the contents of the seed packet into your palm and use the tip of a biro to place two or three seeds on the surface of each modular cell.

Sowing wildflower seeds with a biro. Sarah Cuttle
Sowing wildflower seeds with a biro. Sarah Cuttle

Step 3

Cover the seeds with a fine layer or sieved compost – use the bottom of a plant pot to sieve the soil if you don’t have a soil sieve.

Sieving compost over the seeds. Sarah Cuttle
Sieving compost over the seeds. Sarah Cuttle

Step 4

Leave the tray in a warm, well lit position. If you’re sowing in spring, the plugs should be ready to plant out in eight to 10 weeks. If sowing in autumn, keep the plugs in an unheated greenhouse or cold frame over winter, and plant out in spring.

Red clover flowering among meadow grasses. Jason Ingram
Red clover and buttercups flowering among meadow grasses. Jason Ingram

How to manage a wildflower meadow

Cutting a wildflower meadow. Jason Ingram
Cutting a wildflower meadow. Jason Ingram

Wildflower meadows should be cut from late July to September. Ideally, cut on a dry day, using anything from shears and a scythe to a strimmer or even ride-on mower, depending on the size of your meadow. Always check for sheltering wildlife beforehand – anything from caterpillars to slow worms, toads and even hedgehogs could be sheltering among the grass – and move them to safety before making the cut. Consider cutting the meadow in stages and/or creating a ‘buffer zone’ where some species can continue to live. This is especially useful for the caterpillars of butterflies and moths, which may still be feeding from the plants you want to cut.

Leave the cuttings where they fall for a few days so any seeds can fall to the ground, before clearing them away to compost. Afterwards, your meadow will look bare for a while but will soon grow again. You can let it grow or keep it short to mimic what would happen in a traditional hay meadow, where cows and other herbivores graze the meadow to keep it short until early spring.

Carts

Accessories

Flower Seeds

Composting

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