Over the past 60 years, 95 per cent of our wildflower-rich meadows have been lost, mainly due to changes in farming practice. Creating small areas of wildflowers in your garden not only attracts wildlife and increases biodiversity, but also provides an area of sumptuous beauty. You can create a meadow in your garden with only a few square metres with which to work. The key thing to remember is that wildflowers respond best to hardship and trauma, so impoverished soil is a must.
The first thing to do is reduce the fertility of the soil. This can be achieved by scraping off the topsoil, or by importing a substrate of hard core (builders’ rubble or old broken garden bricks, for example), crushed limestone (available from builders’ merchants) or fine gravel laid on top of a weed-suppressing geotextile. Immediately stop fertilising the area, and either this month or next month sow a wildflower mix that suits your soil type and situation. To make it easier to broadcast your seeds evenly, try mixing them with silver sand. Sow half your seeds lengthways and half widthways, rake in lightly, water thoroughly and leave them to grow. Do not fertilise.
If you are stuck for inspiration regarding which wildflowers to grow, find out which varieties naturally flourish in your area, or use the Postcode Plants Database at www.nhm.ac.uk/science/projects/fff; it generates lists of native plants for any specified postal district in the UK. Where possible, obtain seeds of British origin, grown by wildflower seed companies on their own land. Cut your meadow at the end of the summer, remembering to rake up and remove all debris. Be prepared to manage your meadow in subsequent years by removing any dominant thugs, incorporating further sowings and supplementing with plug plants.
Bear in mind that traditional wildflower meadows can take many years to establish. But for those who don’t have quite that level of patience, there are a couple of cheats and shortcuts available. The first is to sow a Pictorial Meadows seed mix. Developed by Dr Nigel Dunnett at the University of Sheffield, these mixes have been carefully blended from native and non-native hardy annuals to provide a long season of cost-effective and painterly “meadow effect” displays. They overcome many of the problems associated with creating meadows from seed and are perfect for creating flower meadows in the garden. Unlike most wildflower meadows, the success of these mixes is largely down to good ground preparation and good soil fertility. My favourite blend is the annual short mixture, which contains California poppies, larkspur, love-in-a-mist and cornflowers, and which flowers all summer long with glorious intensity.
Or, for an “instant” wildflower meadow, you can buy rolls of pre-seeded felt that you lay just like a carpet. This biodegradable material is the ultimate low-fertility medium and acts as a barrier against pernicious weeds and other more aggressive grasses that would normally stop wildflowers from taking root. The felt also retains moisture, helping the wildflowers establish quickly in the soil below. The British wildflowers in this product have been selected to provide a colourful display and a prolonged flowering period, although you can order a bespoke seed mix if you prefer.
Gardens to visit for inspiration
Naturescape Wild Flower Farm Visitor Centre, Lapwing Meadows, Coach Gap Lane, Langar, Nottinghamshire (01949 860592; www.naturescape.co.uk).
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, Pattinson, Washington, Tyne and Wear (0191-416 5454; www.wwt.org.uk/centre/123/washington.html).
Pictorial Meadows, Manor Lodge, 115 Manor Lane, Sheffield (0114-276 2828; www.pictorialmeadows.co.uk).
Lindum Wildflower Turf, West Grange, Thorganby, York (01904 448675; www.turf.co.uk).
Landlife Wildflowers, National Wildflower Centre, Court Hey Park, Liverpool (0151-737 1819; www.wildflower.org.uk).
Really Wild Flowers, HV Horticulture, Spring Mead, Bedchester, Shaftesbury, Dorset (01747 811778; www.reallywildflowers.co.uk).