Creating a Wildflower Meadow in your Garden

20 August 2020 | Posted in Michael Blencowe
Creating a Wildflower Meadow in your Garden

Corona Wildlife Diary: Day Twenty-seven

In Episode Eight of our Beginners Guide to the Butterflies of Sussex (available here) I look at six species of butterflies found in meadows - and also use the opportunity to encourage people to turn their boring lawns into vibrant wildflower meadows filled with wildlife. 

I thought I'd write a blog highlighting what we did to create our small, butterfly-filled wildflower front lawn.

When we moved to this bungalow it was the first time we've ever owned a garden and our dream was to turn it into a garden that we can enjoy - and can be enjoyed by all sorts of wildlife too. 

The main thing for me is that I want a garden that's interesting.

And I just find trimmed lawns and neat rows of flowers mind-numbingly boring.

People are horrified when a local woodland is faced with the chop or vast swathes of Amazon rainforest are destroyed - yet they'll happily fire up their lawnmower each Sunday and destroy a vital wildlife habitat on their doorstep all in the name of 'keeping up appearances'.

This behaviour might have been acceptable in the 1970s, but in 2020, with so much of our country's wildlife in decline, owning a garden is your opportunity to do your bit to save the planet.

When we moved here in 2012 the front garden was a trimmed lawn and the back garden was half trimmed lawn, half paving slabs. Dull, boring and lifeless. 

Zoopla 1

(the back garden in 2012)

(There was also a really retro kitchen, we kept most of that because we thought it was cool)

Zoopla Kitchen

But I wasn't going to keep the neat lawns. There's nothing that winds me up more than a mown lawn. It's a complete waste of planet. They're so sterile and boring when they could be vibrant and bursting with life. So after we moved in, it was time to make some changes.

Do you remember that Kevin Costner movie ‘Field of Dreams’? Kev plays an Iowa farmer who, after hearing strange voices, transforms his land into a baseball pitch and summons the ghosts of a long-dead baseball team. Ridiculous. Yet, when I stood on my new perfectly manicured 15ft by 20ft suburban front lawn, all I could hear were voices in my head telling me to destroy it. All I wanted was a mini-wildflower meadow full of bees, butterflies and crickets. I could hear a voice in my head- “Plant it and they will come”.

Rumours soon spread of my debauched gardening plans. My new neighbours eyed me with suspicion. One neighbour, wildlife photographer David Plummer, was interested in my plans – and he seemed especially interested when I told him I was planning on hiring a stripper for the weekend.

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The clattering of the petrol-powered turf stripper was only drowned out by our maniacal laughter as David and I razed the 300 square feet of lawn to mud.

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(David hard at work on the front lawn)

The thing is, if you want a wildflower lawn, you can't just let your front lawn grow wild. The chances are the grasses are already established and the topsoil is too fertile. So the grasses will dominate and all you'll get is long, rank grass. So you need to take off the top layer of your lawn.

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It was hard work. My front lawn looked ready to host a re-enactment of The Battle of Agincourt. You could hear the house prices dropping all along the cul-de-sac.

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Over the following weekends I dug it over and turned the soil into a fine tilth. I love that word so I'm going to type it again.

Tilth.

Then the neighbourhood watched from behind twitching curtains as I carefully broadcast native wildflower seeds over the bare soil. I scattered a mix of seeds from plants which thrive on freshly tilled soil ('Cornfield Annuals') and a general wildflower meadow mixture

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And then spring came.

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The ground erupted into a riot of colour. and, in that first summer, the meadow looked particularly stunning with yellow Corn Marigold, white Corn Chamomile and blue Cornflowers.

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After that crazy first flush of flowers the meadow began to settle and we soon started seeing Meadow Buttercup, Oxeye Daisy, Cowslip, Yellow Rattle, Lady’s Bedstraw, Crested Dogstail, Red Clover, Bird's-foot Trefoil, Ragged Robin. 

Richard ragged robin w800h600

And then the wildlife arrived. Bees, bee-flies, beetles, burnets and butterflies. Unusual species appeared too: Wall Brown and Brown Hairstreak butterflies, Ghost Moths, Wasp Spiders and a lone Common Spotted Orchid. On summer days my mini-meadow sang to me; a choir of buzzing bumblebees and chirruping grasshoppers and crickets. There seemed to be something new to look at every time I walked down the front path. Last year one of my highlights was the arrival of Marbled White butterflies who formed their small colony in the meadow.

Richard marbled white

My own nature reserve; beautiful, wild, endlessly fascinating and filled with life. I am genuinely bemused as I watch my neighbours struggle with their lawnmowers each week or even pay some other bloke to mow the lawn for them. Why go out of your way to kill something when you can just sit back, let it live and enjoy it? I simply swing my scythe and mow my meadow once, at the end of the summer. I imagine I look like that shirtless bloke from Poldark (although I probably look like the Grim Reaper after too many trips to Greggs).

Richard lawn

Wildflower meadows were once a widespread feature of the English countryside, but since the 1930s we have tragically lost 97% of our flower-rich fields. Many have been improved with fertilisers, re-seeded with faster growing grasses or ploughed for arable crops. This in turn has caused a massive decline in many species of wildlife that depend on them. I'm lucky to own a very small square of this planet, I want to make sure that I'm doing my bit to make to make it a home for everything. By creating my own humble field of dreams it feels as if I am summoning the ghosts of the English countryside and giving them life.

And then, last summer, I turned the corner to see a deer, an actual wild Roe Deer, lost in suburbia but stood seemingly at home in the wildness of my meadow. Ridiculous.  

Richard deer 

(I managed to get a photo of the deer when it came back to the meadow)

If you’re interested in creating your own wildflower meadow there's more information on Sussex Wildlife Trust's website here.

Michael and Jane Joseph are great supporters of Sussex Wildlife Trust and are passionate about wildflower meadows. You can watch them talk about their meadow here

Martin Kalaher has also turned his garden in Storrington into a haven for butterflies - you can read about his garden here.


Comments

  • Karla:

    23 Aug 2020 11:40:00

    Loved reading this. Just in the midst of creating our own wildflower meadow in the corner of our garden – much to the neighbours amusement.

    Michael: Great to hear Karla - it'll be you who'll be laughing next year when it's full of butterflies!
  • Martyn:

    23 Aug 2020 18:00:13

    I’d love to do this, but our “lawn” is on clay. I don’t see any possibility of creating any kind of tilth – no matter how many times I write the word. At the moment it’s brown and sere, with anthills and cracks through to Australia.

  • Sheila Powell:

    23 Aug 2020 19:27:00

    Thank you for this article, we wanted a wild flower meadow in a portion of our back garden but just let it grow wild and dug little patches to plant wildflower deeds but the grass just grew and only one or two wild flowers appeared, we did not realise we needed to take the turf up so that is our autumn job this year.

  • El:

    24 Aug 2020 05:25:00

    Looks wonderful. Inspired me to do the same – in two small areas out the back.

  • Sharon Sellens:

    24 Aug 2020 12:21:00

    This has inspired me to have another go at the 8ft by 3ft strip that has been designated ‘your wildflower meadow’ whilst himself mows the rest of the lawn – hey ho! I’ll get him turf digging & stripping in the autumn. We’re on Wealden clay, which flowers would thrive best? x

  • paul bayne:

    27 Aug 2020 11:00:00

    Great story. Unfortunately I tried the same earlier in lockdown but without removing the old grass first but am now hoping that after I cut it down in the Autumn that the hidden seeds will finally germinate and come through next Spring-what do you think or have I drowned them out and will have to remove the grass and start all over again? It is quote a large plot as well!!

  • David Phillips:

    27 Aug 2020 11:05:00

    Inspiration stuff but a bit more detail on how best to achieve something on stodgy wealden clay would help. Our little patch does well for cowslip – would snakehead fritillary thrive?

  • Peter Sheppard:

    27 Aug 2020 11:23:00

    Lovely article. I’ve unsuccessfully broadcast some seeds naively direct on existing paddock. I’d love to get wildflowers growing there but it’s about 1/3rd of an acre and I can’t take all the to a fine tilth! Anyone aware of any schemes or environment plans that could assist or sponsor it?

  • Julie Macnabb:

    27 Aug 2020 11:33:00

    looks just amazeballs

  • Steve:

    27 Aug 2020 11:51:00

    Hi guys, we have clay soil and have no problem growing wild flowers, but stripping back the fertile top soil certainly helps, buying plugs is also helpful, Steve

  • Min:

    27 Aug 2020 11:56:00

    I have a big area in my front garden which would be ideal for a wild flower garden, and have wanted to create something for a couple of years. However, I have the same challenge as Martyn – rock hard in the summer! ‘Tilth’ is not an option. If I take the top layer off, I fear the cracks will be worse and nothing would grow. Any suggestions would be really appreciated.

  • Anna Crabtree:

    27 Aug 2020 12:11:00

    A lovely wildflower meadow! My chickens have, very helpfully, removed the grass in nice little patches all over the garden. I can now fill the holes with tilth – yes, say it again: ‘tilth’ – and sow some wildflower seeds.

  • David Bright:

    27 Aug 2020 12:17:00

    If you are a landowner in The High Weald AONB there are grants available for creation of wild flower meadows and other land management projects. Details on their website.

  • Jan:

    27 Aug 2020 12:20:00

    Have just scarified back lawn to an inch of its life and sown yellow rattle seeds. Hopefully the parasitic action of rattle will halt grass. Intend to sow bee and butterfly friendly wild seed mix next spring. Patience is a virtue with creating meadows.

  • Allan Godfrey:

    27 Aug 2020 13:05:00

    Thank you for your article. I am trying to develop a wild flower garden. Would someone please recommend to me where to buy wildflower seed, especially orchid see. I am in a chalk area.

  • Claire Saxby:

    27 Aug 2020 13:10:00

    Lovely blog – very inspiring and useful as I develop mine. No sign of the wasp spider from last year yet. But will be hand-cutting the grass soon and keeping sharp eye out for the cocoons that you featured in your wasp spider blog, in case. Keep blogging!!

  • Chiara Vagnarelli:

    27 Aug 2020 15:24:00

    Looks amazing and its such a good idea to remove the grass, that’s where we have been going wrong! Also thank you Michael for writing with humour, so it made me laugh as well as inspired me!

  • Patrick Collinson:

    27 Aug 2020 15:34:00

    I look after 2 acres of churchyard in Lewes for the sake of peace and quiet and the wildlife.
    I was not allowed to remove the turf but I’ve now almost covered the entire area in Rattle seed (from some Michael gave me). The difference is amazing. Thanks to seed collecting around and about there are now over 150 varieties of wild flowers with bees, butterflies and much else. It’s a 10 year project!

  • jane Holbrook:

    27 Aug 2020 15:37:00

    Feeling really inspired by your success. Will be keen to have a try.

  • David Phillips:

    27 Aug 2020 15:52:00

    Inspiration stuff but a bit more detail on how best to achieve something on stodgy wealden clay would help. Our little patch does well for cowslip – would snakehead fritillary thrive?

  • Jan:

    27 Aug 2020 16:11:00

    Have just scarified back lawn to an inch of its life and sown yellow rattle seeds. Hopefully the parasitic action of rattle will halt grass. Intend to sow bee and butterfly friendly wild seed mix next spring. Patience is a virtue with creating meadows.

  • Tricia Forsythe:

    27 Aug 2020 16:45:00

    We have great bare patches in our ‘lawn’ and I’m wondering if it could successfully be transformed into a wildflower area. Some is in the shade – would that work? We are on sandstone with very shallow topsoil which is acidic. Advice please.

  • Jane Lawrence:

    27 Aug 2020 17:24:00

    We removed the top layer of our high weald clay earlier in the lockdown after reading Michael’s first blog – a patch about 20 sq metres – and broadcast seeds from https://britishwildflowermeadowseeds.co.uk. They sell a special High Weald seed mixture. Michael advised to wait until autumn, but we were eager and went ahead anyway. We scattered cornfield annuals mixed in with the perennials, which have bloomed and provided a riot of colour. Bees and butterflies are starting to come. The perennials are also growing and we have high hopes for next spring. We plan on scything the annuals before they set seed so that the perennials take over. Good luck to all who try this – we have found it to be amazing so far.

  • Carol Katrawitz:

    27 Aug 2020 20:57:00

    We have a large grass bank belonging to the local housing association in front of our bungalows. When I suggested planting/sowing wildflowers I was told it would make the place look untidy and encourage fly tipping. The bank slopes towards us and is protected by a crass barrier and is in a cul-de-sac.

  • Tessa Crowe:

    28 Aug 2020 06:28:00

    You don’t need to take the soil off but it takes a bit longer for the meadow to establish and you won’t get a cornfield of annual flowers, more a perennial meadow but the display just as good, with ox-eye daisies, orchids etc. Just sow fresh yellow rattle seed this autumn and next summer you should see rattle flowers. The rattle is semi-parasitic on grass burns a hole in the grass so other seeds you subsequently sow (in autumn) will germinate.

  • Steve Dubois:

    29 Aug 2020 02:40:00

    We need to encourage local authorities to leave green areas to grow rather than mowing. We had a large area that had grown wildflowers during lock down, but was all cut afterwards presumably as it looked “untidy”. It’ll save them money and increase insect populations.

  • James:

    29 Aug 2020 06:24:00

    I love this article for two reaason 1. Because I loved mowing when I was younger, and secondly because i’m a complete convert. I’ve been wanting to grow a wild flower meadow err patch for a while now, and I’ve recently bagged myself an allotment in my town near Emsworth. So you can guess what is going to make an appearance in one of my planting areas :)) …thanks for the inspiration

  • Caroline Mellor:

    30 Aug 2020 14:30:00

    I plan to do this on a field which we rent, which is mostly covered in long grasses. When’s the best time to dig up the topsoil?

  • Maria:

    01 Sep 2020 13:45:00

    You are so sweet, loved your story and your courage! May God bless you, you touched our hearts very deeply. Bravisimo!

  • David:

    03 Sep 2020 15:40:00

    This is a lovely story! If only more homeowners made an effort to establish a wildlife haven in their front garden as opposed to a sterile grassy monoculture.
    As demonstrated, it’s really important to reduce the fertility of the soil if you want to establish a wildflower grassland. I see a few concerns about clay as a base: you can actually sow on to a new layer of sand instead, or any other low fertility substrate, such as subsoil. It helps keep rye grass and other greedy and invasive species at bay. I would also consider including low vigour grasses in the mix to help keep it looking tidy over the dormant months. Proprietary mixes are available: Emorsgate seeds are a reputable and knowledgeable supplier I have worked with.

  • Kate Moore:

    09 Sep 2020 08:26:00

    Its lovely. Advice about turf removal where I went wrong. But to convince my hubby, what does one do in winter? He says will be too messy. So how can I provide year round interest?

    No way around it - it will look like a big patch of mud all winter - but only for the first winter Michael
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