How to Create a Wildflower Meadow
Growing a wildflower meadow is an act of rebellion to save the planet from ourselves.
During 2022, County Carlow Environmental Network (CCEN) will be distributing free native Irish wildflower seeds to individuals and communities within the county. A wildflower meadow captures carbon but requires very little input. The lawnmower and petrol can are retired, saving you money as you give pollinators food and shelter. A good meadow once established will support biodiversity year round, with what seed heads you leave over winter attracting colourful birds to replace the showier butterflies of summer. We hope the following tips and advice from Molly Aylesbury about how to create a wildflower meadow will help you in your endevours.
How to create a wildflower meadow
Go forth and rewild
The slogan ‘don’t mow let it grow’ has been brilliant for creating wilderness corners in estates and gardens around the country. However, it can lead to just as much frustration and disappointment if you find the only thing you can grow is useless grass and ‘weeds’. While thistles and nettles can support some biodiversity on their own, they’re not the colourful tapestry you picture like the photo above provided by Mary Ryan, when you have given up part of your lawn.
This is normal and not your fault. Lawn grass is a pest bred to outgrow and outcompete everything else.
Up until you made the choice to rewild a part of your garden, you probably cared for it lovingly killing any invaders and regularly feeding it. Soil can’t magically grow what isn’t there either. If the seeds aren’t there, neither will the orchids, knapweeds or anything else. You’ll need to either collect or buy wildflowers to get your meadow started.
When buying your seed mixes, look for native mixes that are produced in Ireland. While other countries wildflowers may be pretty, borage for instance, they can quickly become invasive here and do more harm than good. Our wildlife have favourite foods they have evolved to eat over thousands of years, and a garden escapee is not usually it!
If you are choosing to collect seeds yourself please do so responsibly. Remember to follow the 1 in 10 rule- for every 1 you pick leave 10. Rewilding a garden is pointless if you destroy wild spaces to do it.
Knowing whether the spot is wet/dry, gets any sun, or if it is very acidic will inform what mix you go for. In shady dry spots for instance, foxglove will thrive, versus meadowsweet in damp, sunny spots for instance!
I have seeds for my wildflower meadow, now what?
The first thing you have to do is prepare your ground which is mainly removing that grass we talked about earlier. There are a few ways to do this.
Introduce specific wildflower species
You can severely cut back the area, removing clippings and introducing species like yellow rattle or red bartisia which feed on and weaken grasses. This is a very natural but very slow process. Yellow rattle and red bartisia are annuals which means that if you need them in any quantity you should be buying rather than wild harvesting. Annual means that they will not regrow again and need new seed in the soil to do so. If all those seeds are gone to your garden, that wild space will be over-run by grasses.
Set up a chicken run
If you have access to chickens you can set up a portable chicken tractor and let them dig the grass for you. You have the added benefit of getting eggs from this arrangement though it is a bit more of a commitment that some plants. Environmentalism is a slippery slope though! By concentrating their efforts on one area at a time I am left with bare patches of soil I can plant my yellow rattle and friends onto.
Cover the grass
You can cover the areas down for a period of 6 months or longer to kill off all the vegetation. You will still need to lightly dig over the space and allow time for an remaining weed seed to appear and be removed with your tool of choice.
This can be used to great affect when you only want to turn some areas of grass into meadow, as I did below. The internet may tell you a week is enough to kill grass but it is Murphys law that it won’t work unless you don’t mean to kill the vegetation it won’t die! Leave for a minimum of 6 weeks to at least knock back any vegetation enough that your wildflowers will have a fighting chance.
Below is my garden plot where I have just uncovered my new potato bed, formally my fallow bed. It has been covered for almost 8 months and still the clovers and nettles are thriving. This bed will need to be dug over.
If you are just starting out you may want to double dig, that is creating a trench one spade depth and removing the sod and clay.Next to this trench you will start another lifting the soil and sod out and turning upside down into the trench you created in step one. Repeat until you have the desired size and in your last trench turn in the sod and soil from the first trench you dug. . Once again leave time for some any weed seed to germinate as above and then off you go with your seed mix.
Creating a wildflower meadow in a large space
Obviously these methods above aren’t feasible if you have a larger space, no time, or aren’t able for the physical work.
The chicken tractor will give it a good go but then you do have to take care of chickens. For these it would be worth getting a rotavator or a person with a plough in. Again the same process of till, wai, till would be employed.
I haven’t mentioned sprays as yet because it seems hypocritical to talk creating habitat and start with chemical warfare But they do fit in here.
Sometimes sprays are the best option for you and a targeted attack that will transform a lawned wildlife desert into an oasis seems like a good payoff. I cannot advise on what to spray, but I would use a targeted herbicide and choose a calm dry day to minimise collateral damage. You will need to spray, disturb the soil, and spray again after any weed seed has started to re-emerge.
Prepare to sow the wildflower seed mix
Once you’ve prepared the ground everything else seems simple in comparison! Simply put:
- Rake the top of the seed bed to level and remove any stones.
- Broadcast seed. Rake to distribute if you it all ended up at one end. The best time to sow is in March until the end of April or September if you aren’t quite ready yet
- Rake or tread into the ground to ensure good soil contact. They do not need to be buried.
- Sit back and enjoy! Annuals will flower year one and unless you resow over time your meadow will go to the less showy (but still good) perennial plants. You can collect your own seed to resow from your own meadow with no guilt!
- Aftercare will vary depending on what you want from your meadow. You may do the traditional two cuts timed with haycutting or one cut from September-November. Cutting timings will affect what flowers thrive and if you want a showy display for example tidy towns competition you should bare this in mind! If you can, you can do a cut in Spring only and leave stalks for overwintering insects and seed for birds. This is left until mid-April after other flowers have started! Whenever you cut your meadow the cuttings need to be removed. This keeps the fertility low and allows the wildflowers to compete with grasses. This long term maintenance could be an even longer post so I have included some web links below which summarise.
Still tempted after all you’ve read? If so get out there and go wild!
Thanks for this article which has been written by Molly Aylesbury, the current CCEN Chair. Molly has a BSc. in Environmental Biology, an MSc in Sustainable Development and a diploma in Organic Horticulture. She is an environmental educator and consultant, wildflower horticulturist, master composter and Zero Waste champion who runs eco-living workshops.
With her colleague Mies Stam, Molly hosts market stalls in North Dublin selling loose, organic, food staples and hygiene products that help people live zero waste lifestyles. Molly makes most of her own food, beauty and cleaning products, adapts her own clothing, forages, and is author of an occasional blog Confessions of a Part Time Hippy. To get in touch or to follow Molly’s adventures, you can find Bare Necessities on Instagram and Facebook.