How to… grow a wild flower meadow

Suttons Seeds wildflower mix results

Fields flecked with poppies, cornflowers and hazy-blue scabious are the traditional image of the countryside in summer. But you only need a few square metres to recreate the beauty of a wild-flower meadow in your own garden, turning it into a haven for bees, butterflies, birds and other wildlife.

Where to start

The best soil for meadow flowers is thin and poor - low in fertility so that competing grasses are kept to a minimum - so if your lawn is stubbornly refusing to ‘take', it could be the best place to try wild flowers instead.

If a lawn is established, you can't just scatter wild-flower seeds over the top as there won't be enough room among the dense, close-cropped planting for them to germinate and grow. However, as long as yours is not a manicured lawn, hasn't been exposed to chemicals or fertilisers, and isn't of a vigorous-growing type such as rye, you may be able to create a small meadow by leaving part of it unmown and letting the grass grow to its natural height, so that any existing wild flowers get a chance to grow alongside it.

Alternatively, you can grub out patches of lawn, or remove one larger area, and plant the exposed soil with wild flowers and meadow grasses. Strip off the turf and the top 6cm of soil, then remove all weeds (including roots) and rake to a fine tilth. If the soil is heavy, add horticultural sand to make it finer, which will help seeds to germinate.

What to grow

To get an idea of which species will do well in your garden, see what appears naturally and take note of flowers already flourishing in nearby fields and hedgerows so that you can help preserve the local ecology. They can be cultivated from seed (which will take a couple of years to reach full flowering glory) or, for faster results, planted as ‘plugs' or pot-grown flowers.

Decide whether you want a spring-flowering meadow (cowslips, buttercups, violets and fritillaries) or a summer-flowering one (scabious, campions, harebells and oxeye daisies). For a small patch, you might want to use a flowers-only mix, while in a larger garden you could try a mixture that includes 80 to 90 per cent wild grasses.

Seed suppliers will provide specially formulated mixes for coastal gardens and hedgerow or pond-edge planting, or areas designed to attract specific wildlife including bats and butterflies. It's also a good idea to include some annuals in your first year: species such as cornflowers, poppies and corn marigolds will act as a ‘nurse' crop, helping to protect the developing perennials. Suttons Seeds sells an annual wildflower mix (£2.75 for 1,000 seeds) which will flower the same year it's sown.

Broadcast the seed widely, then roll or trample it in - there's no need to rake it over. If you're incorporating plugs or plants, allow a trowel's length between each one.

To restrict lawn regrowth, oversow the area with yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) seed - this semi-parasitic wild flower will slow down the grass and help other species to germinate. Meadow planting is best done in autumn, so that the roots are established before competing plants appear in spring, but it can be planted up to the end of May - or even during summer - as long as your water butts can keep up with demand. 

How to maintain it

Although the beauty of a meadow garden is its untended appearance, it requires careful management to keep it flourishing. However heartbreaking it seems to cut back your new growth, you need to mow regularly during the first year (whenever it reaches a height of 10 to 13cm) to keep annual weeds at bay.

After that, you can leave it unmown until the plants have set seed and started to die down, then perhaps cut it again in the autumn. Once established, you can simply enjoy your meadow's natural splendour, or mow a path that lets you wander through the flowers and grasses.

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