Creating a Wildflower Meadow in your Garden
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.
(the back garden in 2012)
(There was also a really retro kitchen, we kept most of that because we thought it was cool)
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
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
And then spring came.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
(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.