Autumn is the perfect time to sow a wildflower meadow. Itíll look beautiful next summer, and should attract a wide variety of wildlife into your garden, as Michaela Strachan reveals
"Thereís a bright golden haze on the meadow
Thereís a bright golden haze on the meadow,
The corn is as high as an elephantís eye,
And it looks like itís going to reach up to the sky."
Yes this month, as we come to the end of summer, weíre going to be talking meadows. (And you get a big pat on the back if you can sing the next line of the song and say what musical itís from. Answer at the end of the article!!)
Anyway, enough of the frivolity, although I did think we might all need cheering up a bit now the days are getting shorter and BBQs in the garden on warm summer evenings start to become a distant memory! But hey, look on the bright side, the birds are starting to sing their little hearts out again, butterflies are fluttering about and bats can be regularly seen. Bushes and trees are bursting with fruit and itís the perfect time for the trusty wildlife gardener to begin harvesting fruits and collecting seeds. Itís also a good time to plant evergreen shrubs and trees, and thisíll cheer you up, September can also be the time for the final trim of the lawn. Hooray!
But why not use this month to do something a bit different? How about setting aside a part of your lawn for wildlife and make a wildlife meadow? ďBut why?Ē I hear you ask. Well, it looks pretty, and wildlife desperately needs it. Like a lot of our important wildlife habitats, meadows have recently dramatically declined in number. In fact, a staggering 95% have disappeared. Wildflowers are the natural home of butterflies, bees and grasshoppers, and obviously if you can encourage these insects into your garden a lot of other wildlife will follow.
It would, of course, be great if we all had huge gardens and could cultivate enormous meadows, but even in a small garden you can make a difference. The soil in your garden will determine whether your meadow is going to be successful. Some soils are naturally too rich for a pure wildflower meadow, but donít despair, if your soil is too fertile you could actually still have a colourful display by planting a cornfield flower patch instead. Simply sow a mixture of annuals, things like poppies (one of my all-time top ten favourite flowers), cornflowers, corncockles and corn marigolds. After the flowers have set seed, rake over the soil so that thereís open ground for them to grow in next year.
Anyway, for those of us whose soil fertility level is normal, or even better low, this is what you need to do. First of all, try to use local seeds to reflect what grows naturally in your area. If youíre not sure, seek out your nearest natural wildflower meadow and take a look or get in touch with your local Wildlife Trust. Never use imported seeds or plants grown from unreliable sources. Itís also important to plant carefully and leave gaps between seeds. So no ploughing the fields and scattering the good seeds on the land! (Another line from a song, or a school hymn, if I remember correctly!). For top results Iíd recommend you remove whole squares of around 30 x 30cm of turf and top soil and dig over thoroughly. This will reduce fertility and therefore reduce the growth of weeds. Then carefully choose one or two types of wildfower to plant. Suggested possibilities are: birdís foot treefoil, betony, field scabious, meadow cranesbill, ox-eye daisy, selfheal, yarrow, bugle, cuckooflower, meadow buttercup, to name a few. Plant a mixture of about 20% flower seed and 80% grass seed. You can sow the flower seed into an area that has already been lightly seeded with a natural grass mix. Donít over sow. Now this may sound a bit strange, but you can mix the seeds with sand or sawdust to achieve an even spread. After sowing give the surface a light rake and then firm it down with a small roller or your feet if you donít have one!
Wildflowers can be introduced into grassy areas as pot-grown plants too, which may appeal as an easier option. Plant them in groups into the turf. This is the ideal time of the year to use this method, since it allows the roots to establish before competition from other plants becomes fierce in the spring. You can also spread a mulch around your new plants or replace the turf upside down around the plants to give them a better chance.
By sowing your seeds now they can establish themselves during the winter. Youíll need to cut them in the spring when the grasses have reached roughly 10cm. This will get rid of unwanted weeds, and you should pull out any thistles or docks; continue to cut every 6 to 8 weeks for the first year.
You should be able to reap the full enjoyment of your meadow next summer when you can sit back and enjoy the colourful display, have a few picnics on it if itís big enough, and sing ĎOh What A Beautiful Morningí from Oklahoma!! (Donít forget to give yourselves a pat on the back if you got that.)
Stay gardening wild and sing a few songs while youíre doing it!
(PS For more information about meadows, the Wildlife Trusts are extremely helpful. You can visit the main website at http://www.wildlifetrust.org.uk/)
See also our Helping Hands workshop: How to sow a wildflower meadow