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Get the wildflower meadow effect

You don’t need a huge garden to create a wildflower meadow-effect. Even small urban gardens can get the wildflower meadow effect, says Debi Holland.

Wildflower meadow

The thought of summer days strolling through warm meadows of undulating grasses and wildflowers wafting in the breeze can feel like a faded dream. Since the 1930’s there’s been a sharp decline in real meadows. A huge 97% of wildflower meadows have disappeared but tides are turning. There has been a movement to reclaim these crucial wildflower meadows and we too can help one garden at a time. 

So how can you contribute to providing wildflowers to help local pollinators if you have a small plot? You can sow and grow in pots and borders.

What is a wildflower meadow?

A true wildflower meadow not only has beautiful flowers but grasses too. These grasses are as important as the flowers for insects and pollinators from butterflies, bees and moths to beetles, crickets, spiders and flies. Flower-rich meadows boast many benefits. Environmentally they store more carbon than woodland. The plant roots help stabilise the soil by knitting it together and by introducing a variety of flora the meadow helps to create a biodiverse ecosystem which supports a wide range of wildlife including small mammals and birds.

Wildflower meadow
A beautiful, nectar-rich, wildflower meadow. Image: Debi Holland

What flowers to sow

Flowering from May to September annuals like poppies offer fairly speedy gratification by completing their lifecycle in one growing year; flowering then setting seed to return the following year. Biennials like knapweed, complete their cycle over two years. Whereas nectar-rich perennials like ox-eye daisies, bird’s foot trefoil, buttercups, cowslips and clover die back in winter and emerge again in spring.

Wildflower meadow
Perennials like ox-eye daisies die back in winter and emerge again in spring. Image: Debi Holland

Whatever seeds you choose make sure they suit your soil type, pH and growing conditions.

Gardener’s can be put off by certain plants that have gained the reputation of ‘weeds’ like dandelions and plantain ribwort but these native gems are goldmines for pollinators, so give them a chance; not only are they beneficial to wildlife they really do look pretty too! 

Sow a wildflower pot

Whether you have a patio or a balcony, fill your plot with flowers by planting up pots. A simple pot can bring joy providing colour and hope, the larger the better, uplifting spirits as well as attracting insects.

Wildflower meadow
Field poppies (Papaver rhoeas) are perfect for pots. Image: Debi Holland

Fill a pot with a mixture of peat-free compost, garden soil and fine grit to create an airy free-draining mix. Water, then thinly sow seeds and cover with a light sprinkle of soil. Leave in a warm, sunny spot to germinate. Have fun watching who visits the pots once your flowers bloom.

Wild pansy (Viola tricolor), cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus) and field poppies (Papaver rhoeas) are perfect for pots. Even grasses can be hosted in pots to get the wildflower meadow effect. Quaker grass (Briza media) is a stunning compact perennial self-seeder with architectural bowing heads that dance or quake in the wind.

Wildflower meadow
Quaker grass (Briza media). Image: Debi Holland

Sow a wildflower border

A pictorial meadow is ideal for garden borders as they are purely flower based rather than including grasses. Create a dense kaleidoscope of colour and transform blank spaces into a floral fantasy. This can be a great way to add larger areas of colour to attract insects but still in a contained space.

Sow 3g per square metre during autumn or mid-spring March to April but if you do not fancy sowing seed then try plug plants. Plug plants are a fantastic way to populate spaces whilst removing the worry of seeds not germinating. Plug plants are small, light and have been grown from seed for one to two years so are petite but established; they can be sent by post and are quick and easy to plant. Voilà, instant wildflower border without waiting for seeds to grow.

Wildflower meadow
Yellow rattle plug plants. Image: Debi Holland

Ragged-robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi), corncockle (Agrostemma githago), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), and cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), will paint your plot with colour and interest alongside field poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and Ox-eye daises ( Leucanthemum vulgare).

Sow a wildflower meadow

If you have space for a wildflower meadow then prepare the ground thoroughly before sowing. Rake back (scarify) grass to expose the soil, wildflowers cannot compete against fast-growing grass. Remove invasive perennial weeds like nettles, brambles and bindweed although it is good to leave a patch of nettles and brambles elsewhere in the garden as they support over 40 species of insects with habitat and food.

Wildflower meadow
Rake back grass to bare soil. Image: Debi Holland

Sow annual wildflower meadows with corn marigold (Glebionis segetum), field poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), to bathe plots in swathes of vivid colours. Perennial meadows take longer to establish but are worth the wait. The large white heads of wild carrot (Daucus carota) and Ox-eye daises (Leucanthemum vulgare) complement the mauve hues of borage, wild marjoram, field scabious (Knautia arvensis), red campion (Silene dioica) and field mallow (Malva sylvestris); all are easy to grow and will come back every year.

Wildflower meadow
Sow with a 80/20 grass and wildflower seed mix. Image: Debi Holland

Sow your meadow in spring or autumn; distribute 80/20 grass and wildflower seed mixes at a rate of 5g per square metre. It helps to host the seed in a carrier of dry sand to make it easier to spread evenly. Most wildflowers thrive in low nutrient soils so do not add organic mulch or fertiliser. Broadcast sow by scattering methodically in one direction and then repeat in the opposite direction to get a good coverage. Keep your newly sown patch well-watered.

The balance between grasses and flowers can be tricky but pre-made meadow mixes will adjust the proportions. Beautiful meadow grasses like meadow foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis), common bent (Agrostis capillaris), and crested dog’s-tail (Cynosurus cristatus) are an asset.

Wildflower meadow
Meadow grasses. Image: Debi Holland

To keep grasses in check, plant yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) and eyebright (Euphrasia). These semi-parasitic plants feed off vigorous grass roots keeping meadows from being overrun, giving the wildflowers a chance to grow. You might need to do a bit of weeding throughout the year to stop invasive plants taking over. 

Let the meadow go to seed before cutting. Rake up after a couple of days to remove cuttings once seeds have had a chance to drop. Do not leave cuttings on the ground as a mulch to rot down as this will put nutrients back into the soil; wildflower meadows function best in poor soils.

A wildflower meadow does take effort but you will be rewarded with a palette of exquisite colour and your local wildlife will have an accessible source of food and shelter.

Wildflower meadow
Let the meadow go to seed before collecting the seeds and cutting. Image: Debi Holland

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