Our vibrant annual wildflowers get a lot of attention, so why not create the same display at home? This one minute video with our gardener Mary O’Connell will show you how.
How to create a wildflower meadow – tips from Brigit’s Garden
The first step is to decide if you want your area to be an annual or a perennial meadow:
- An annual meadow lasts for one summer and needs to be re-seeded each year. Annual wildflowers are suitable for gardens, and even small areas can be lovely. The right seed mix will give great colour with red poppies, blue cornflowers, yellow marigolds etc.
- A perennial meadow is like a traditional hay meadow and will develop and change over the years. It is more suitable for larger gardens and for bigger areas such as verges and fields.
Both are `great for biodiversity and pollinators. Perennial meadow is an important habitat that is unfortunately in decline due to the use of agricultural fertilizers and herbicides, so restoring a perennial meadow can be an excellent contribution to supporting biodiversity in your local area.
To create an annual wildflower area
- Any garden soil will do, it just needs to be as weed-free as possible.
- Sow in April-May for a display from June to September.
- Measure the area and purchase the correct amount of seed for that area.
- Various seed mixes are available, both native and non-native. Online retailers include www.wildflowers.ie and www.pictorialmeadows.co.uk At Brigit’s Garden we use mixes from Pictorial Meadows which are good quality (one small packet covers 2 sq.m.)
- Follow the instructions to scatter the seed evenly over the area. It helps to mix the seed with some dry sand or soil to bulk it out – this makes distributing it by hand easier. See our demonstration video here.
- Rake in the seed to half cover it and then water it in.
- If it is very dry continue to water, otherwise rain usually suffices.
- As the seed is scattered rather than sown in rows it can be hard to tell which are weeds, so it is usually best to leave it alone and only remove very obvious weeds like docks and nettles.
To establish a perennial meadow
From our experience at Brigit’s Garden this is a trickier but hugely worthwhile undertaking. Having a meadow that changes with the seasons is wonderful for both people and wildlife.
It is best for nature to only use native species in a perennial meadow, ideally with locally sourced seed. This is to avoid weakening the gene pool of native species – for example, Spanish bluebells can hybridise with our native bluebells.
Here are some suggested steps:
- Review and prepare your site
- A meadow needs a mainly open and sunny site.
- Different species will grow depending on how dry or damp the soil is, and whether the soil is acidic, neutral or alkaline. The best guide to what will grow well in your meadow is to look in your local area at non-agricultural areas such as verges, graveyards, neglected fields and riversides.
- Has your site ever been fertilised or sown with grass seed? If not, you have a head start and all you may need to do is leave it to grow for a season and see what is already there. You might be surprised at the diversity.
- If it has been fertilised you need to reduce the fertility. Low fertility soil is a key to a successful perennial meadow. Fertile soil will benefit the grasses at the expense of the wildflowers. A good strategy that will pay dividends in the long run is to remove up to six inches of the topsoil. This should remove a) Most of the unwanted fertility and b) The seed-bank of unwanted species such as dominant grasses, docks and thistles.
- Some advisors recommend using herbicide two or three times to clear the site. We don’t advocate this for two reasons – firstly, it does not reduce the fertility of the soil or remove more than a percentage of the seed-bank, and secondly herbicides kill important soil-based invertebrates as well as plants.
- If preparing by hand, dig over a few times to remove all perennial weed roots such as couch grass, bindweed, docks etc; then rake to an even, weed-free surface.
- Trying to improve the diversity of a lawn by putting in plugs of wildflowers can work but often doesn’t, as the grasses will probably just squeeze out the wildflowers if the soil is at all fertile.
- Decide on the type of meadow you want and source the seeds
You can buy seeds, source seed-rich hay from another meadow or collect your own seeds locally.
- To buy seeds, there are mixes available for a variety of Irish soil types from www.ecoseeds.co.uk (based in Co. Down) or www.wildflowers.ie.
- Scattering seed-rich hay from an existing meadow is a preferred way of establishing a meadow if you can source it.
- Ideally, take time over the summer to collect as much seed as possible from local wild plants and use these to seed your meadow. We did this for our Esker Meadow at Brigit’s Garden and it was successful (and very satisfying as we got to know and identify the plants in the process).
- The second key to success in a perennial meadow is to establish Yellow Rattle Rhinanthus minor. Yellow Rattle is a hemiparasite, so it is parasitic on the roots of the grasses and keeps them under control. Some mixes include Yellow Rattle seed, but the seed is not viable for more than a few months so this may not be sufficient. In our experience the best strategy is to learn to identify the plant, note where it grows locally and then collect seed in July when it is ripe (and the pods rattle, hence its name). Once you identify it you can see for yourself how effective it is, as areas with a lot of Yellow Rattle will have good wildflowers and few grasses, and areas with lush grasses will have little or no Yellow Rattle. Yellow Rattle seed is best sown in the late summer or autumn. It can be introduced into an existing meadow by turning over small sections of the sward with a spade and sowing the seed into the fresh soil.
- Ongoing care of your meadow
- Keep vigorous grasses under control. A natural meadow will have a good range of native grasses in it, but these will be in balance with the wildflowers. A lush green meadow with few flowers is a sign of fertilized soil and/or previous sowing with perennial ryegrass, where the flower species cannot compete effectively. If your meadow becomes over-run with vigorous grasses you can a) Introduce Yellow Rattle as above b) Dig out clumps of heavy grasses by hand if feasible or c) Take more drastic action by removing the topsoil to reduce the fertility and try again.
- Keep unwanted weeds under control. As the meadow grows it can be difficult to see which plants are wanted ones and which are unwanted weeds. The main ones you want to get rid of where possible are docks, nettles and large thistles.
- Remove tree seedlings. It is best to remove any tree seedlings just before mowing by digging them out. Otherwise, mowing tends to remove the top growth but not kill the roots so that the baby tree throws out more shoots next year, making them harder to dig out.
- Establish a hay meadow mowing regime. It is vital to mow or cut your meadow once a year, any time from late August to October. It is best to leave the cut hay on the ground for a day or two for the seeds to drop out. Then rake up all the hay and remove it to keep the fertility of the soil low. We then rake a second time with a springy wire rake to scratch the soil surface, as this gives new seeds a chance to contact fresh soil. Alternatively, arrange for some cattle to come in and graze off the meadow. Some poaching by cattle hooves is actually beneficial as it breaks up the sward and gives new seeds an opportunity to grow.
If your perennial meadow is working well you can look forward to increasing diversity over the years with varying patterns of flowers. You will have a vibrant habitat with butterflies, dragon and damselflies, bees and many beneficial insects that provide the foundation for wider biodiversity.