Three steps to the perfect Wildflower lawn
Wildflowers in a lawn are things of singular beauty and colour. One method of adding them to your lawn is by overseeding in autumn with a commercial wildflower mix. To do this, cut the lawn as low as possible, then rake rigorously to remove debris and to scratch small bare patches.
Mix the seeds with a little sand and broadcast thinly, then rake in. In truth, you may be disappointed with the results, because grass can be a rampant smotherer of tender flowers. A surer way of upping the wildflower quotient of the lawn is to plant out plugs of young plants directly.
Again, plugs are available commercially, although many gardeners prefer to propagate the seeds themselves. A plug gives a wildflower a head start. Mow the lawn closely in spring and dig a hole for the plug with a trowel. If you have some bare patches or mole hills, where the grass has been set back, so much the better for your wildflower plugs. Put some compost in the bottom of the hole and water well.
Where you live will govern to a great extent what wildflowers will thrive on your lawn. That said, there are few places where cowslips, red clover and ox-eye daisies will not establish themselves plentifully.
Arrange the plants in groups of three to five to get a natural effect. Mow with the setting on high once a month to reduce the competition from the grass, with the exception of the summer when the grass should be ‘let go’.
To prevent the lawn looking as though you have lazily forgotten about it, you can mow a path across it. Within three years your lawn should have been transformed into a delight to the eye and nose, as well as a haven for wildlife. It will have changed from a lawn with wildflowers to a wildflower lawn.
If you don’t already have a lawn, or if you have time to put in the extra work, it is highly enjoyable to create your wildflower meadow from scratch. Most grassland wildflowers thrive on an open aspect, so choose somewhere sunny. Curiously, wildflowers thrive on nutrient-poor soil, their beauty and profusion in almost inverse proportion to the richness of the earth.
Step 1. Preparation for your wildflower lawn
Begin by outlining the shape of the lawn with ropes. Unless you have a particularly threadbare existing lawn or chalky, stony soil, you will need to remove one to two inches of topsoil, ensuring you dig deep enough to remove the existing grass’s roots. If this seems like potentially back-breaking labour, you might want to hire a mini-digger.
A method that is lighter on the back and arms, albeit time-consuming, is to put the land down to mustard or oil-seed rape for a season to reduce fertility, removing the crop at flowering time. Whichever method you choose you then need to:
• Rotovate or dig the soil on the prepared area, then firm and rake to make a seedbed.
• Allow six weeks for the soil to settle and for any weed seeds to germinate.
• Hoe any weed seeds off before sowing.
Step 2. Sowing your wildflower lawn
Sowing Seed for a wildflower meadow can be purchased ready mixed, or you can concoct your own (see below) to suit your tastes and local conditions. Whatever you sow, the mix needs to be about 50 per cent grass and 50 per cent wildflower seed. (Ignore any recommendations of 20 per cent wildflower seeds to 80 per cent grass. Whatever the weather conditions or soil suitability, the wildflower seeds will suffer a significant casualty rate.)
Ensure the grass component is varied, and contains traditional grasses such as fescue (Festuca glauca), timothy (Phleum pratense) and cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata).
Another good idea is to put yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) seed in the mix. Yellow rattle, a traditional plant of British wildflower meadows, is semi-parasitic on grass.
Others useful in controlling grass are the Pedicularis and Euphrasia species. These parasitic plants sap the vigour of the grasses, and allow wildflowers to flourish.
Wildflower seeds are often tiny so a little silver sand in the mixture will help handling.
• Sow the mix at the rate of 15g/m2. Sparse sowing plus the yellow rattle seeds will mean that the grasses won’t crowd out the wildflowers.
• Large areas up to an acre can be sown by hand quite easily. To ensure an even broadcast sow half widthways and half lengthways.
• Rake in, and water thoroughly. Cover with netting if hungry birds and the neighbour’s cat’s loo habits are a problem.
Step 3. Maintaining your wildflower lawn
You can choose to have a spring or summer wildflower lawn. This is determined by what flowers you choose (see below), and when you cut the grass.
Spring-flowering meadows should be cut in June and for the remainder of the summer. They are left to grow from February until June.
Summer meadows are cut in August, after most flowers have ripened their seeds. Over the autumn and early winter, they are mown at least four times. They are left to grow from March to August.
Whatever time you cut, your mower will struggle with the 30cm high grass and flowers, so you will need to use a strimmer. Or you could use a hand scythe, which is non-polluting and quick – once you have mastered the knack. The UK charity Butterfly Conservation recommends using a power scythe; these are rather pricey, however.
A wildflower meadow or lawn should never be cut below 5cm. Some butterflies, notably skippers, spend the winter as a chrysalis on the lowest stems of grasses. After the big July or August cut, leave the mowings in place for a few days to allow seeds to drop to the ground.
The grass then needs to be taken away. Put it on the compost heap, or pile up as a habitat itself (snakes love the warmth of rotting grass).
You could even have a go at making hay. On subsequent trims, remove all grass. These trims are meant to emulate a sheep or cow, since in traditional hay meadows a farmer would put on livestock to have a ‘bite’ of the grass between summer and winter.
If you don’t have sheep, mowing is the most environmentally friendly way to manipulate the range of wildflowers.
A quick guide to making Hay (whilst the sun shines)
As mentioned above, an option for your long grass, besides putting it on the compost heap and letting it rot down, is to make hay. This can be very handy if you have herbivorous pets.
Few things in life are more satisfying than making hay, and few things are more nutritious for your pet than the hay you will make. The old adage is true: you ‘make hay when the sun shines’.
Pick a sunny three-day window in the weather. Cut the grass with a strimmer or scythe, preferably late morning when the dew has been burned off. Leave the mown grass where it lies for several hours, then turn it over with a wide-headed rake so the bottom grass comes up to the sun to be dried.
You will need to repeat the drying–turning action (what farmers call teddering) up to three days until the hay is perfectly and totally dry.
Damp hay rots, and can even become combustible. To store the hay, simply pile it somewhere dry and clean.