At West Dean, we garden on a flint- and chalk-based soil, which is low in fertility, making it ideal for wildflower meadows. A rich and diverse meadow will thrive on poor soils, as the conditions favour wildflowers over the more dominant grasses, which prefer fertility.
The process of managing a meadow can be simple, but it’s all about timing. During August, the majority of wildflowers have had time to set seed, which has fallen to the ground. By cutting the grass and removing as much of that top growth as possible, we expose areas of soil for those seeds to germinate in, also removing the potential for more fertility, which long grass foliage offers the ground as it decays. The top growth can be composted, providing lots of heat to the compost heap, which is essential to accelerate decomposition.
Once the top growth has been removed, keep the meadow mown tightly to help the germinating flower seed and continually remove that top growth until Christmas time. This will also encourage more fine, delicate grasses and deter the thuggish, taller grasses we associate with the motorway verge, which often collapses and looks terrible. In December, when growth has slowed down, we can cut the meadow for a final time, tightly to the ground, just before the snowdrops, daffodils and other bulbs emerge.
Meadow creation can be accelerated by the presence of yellow rattle, a parasitic plant that feeds off the grass, in turn weakening its vigour, thus aiding the establishment of wildflowers. There are a number of yellow rattle seed and wildflower plug suppliers online – Meadow Mania (meadowmania.co.uk) is worth looking at for inspiration. If you’re starting a small meadow at home, consider an area of grass that you have mown tightly in the past, as those delicate grasses will already be in existence. Scarify the lawn and add yellow rattle seed to exposed soil and plant any plug plants, making sure to water them in well. Do some research to make sure the wildflowers you’re choosing are suitable for your soil type, but this is a style of gardening that can be incredibly rewarding and challenging to novice and experienced gardeners alike.
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