Making wonderful wildflower meadows

Outdoor Living

DRIMBAWN HAVEN  Biodiverse meadows are a paradise for pollinators and other iNsects that rely on meadow plants for their survival. They also contribute to carbon sequestration and capturing flood waters. Pic: Frank Steffens


Gardening
Frank Steffens

There is a lot of talk about wildflower meadows and their benefits for biodiversity, and every supermarket and garden centre has meadow seeds on offer. These seed mixtures come in as many varieties as Covid and there seems to be no end to the mutations either.
Many wildflowers will do best in well-drained, poor soil. If the soil is very rich the flowers will lose in the competition with grasses and you’ll be soon back to a boring lawn. The golden rule in gardening is always: Know your soil. Is it rich or poor, sandy or loamy, dry or wet, alkaline or acidic? If you’re not keen on repeating all meadow preparations every single year, you need to find out.
Ask a local nursery or experienced gardener if you’re not sure. Equipped with this knowledge you can contact seed dealers like Connectingtonature.ie or Wildflowers.ie, who are specialised in wildflower seeds. They will tell you which mixture is best for you.
Many gardeners have had the experience where the first year was impressive with a lovely display of many different flowers. The reason for that is that most plants simply don’t know that they are in an unsuitable place. Unfortunately they find out very quickly, and the second year usually proves that.

Preparing your soil
Some plants will need cold stratification – that means the seeds can only germinate after a period of cold weather. On a smaller scale, you can simulate cold stratification by putting seeds into the fridge (not freezer) for some weeks. Other ways of stratification include heat, mechanical or through the digestive system of an animal to name just a few (to simulate the stratification through the digestive system is probably possible but I wouldn’t like to go into detail here).
The main issue with creating your wildflower meadow, and it doesn’t matter what kind of mix you use, is how to prepare the patch and how to keep it nice for many years to come. There are different ways to tackle it, and here in Drimbawn we have tried them all.
It is essential to have bare ground to start your meadow. To do this, cover the ground for six months with plastic sheeting or a piece of tarpaulin. This will kill off most of the vegetation.
Alternatively, spray the area with a herbicide; wait for a couple of weeks and the vegetation will die off.
Or you could scrape off all surface vegetation mechanically. This is probably the best solution, as there won’t be any chemicals involved and the area will be ready for the seeds pretty much straight away.
The downside of the first two ways is that not all vegetation will be dead and some will start to grow again, and in all cases the area needs to be raked to break the surface and take off most dead plants.
None of these jobs are as much fun as they sound.

Sowing your seeds
The best time to start your wildflower meadow would be late autumn or spring. If you take a closer look at nature you will find that she sows her meadows mainly in late summer/autumn, that’s the time when seed are ready to drop. In spring, when temperatures rise they will start to germinate.
After preparing the ground, spread the seeds and roll the surface so they have good contact to the ground and therefore moisture. It helps a lot if the ground doesn’t dry out once the seeds start to germinate. They won’t forgive you for that; just imagine you have to drink instant coffee without the water.

My experience
Last year we decided to turn our orchard lawn into a meadow. Since we didn’t want to spray an herbicide nor could we scrape the soil because of the risk of damaging the root systems of the existing fruit trees, we took a different approach.
In a way we wanted to invite wild flowers to the area. That of course wouldn’t work well with the dense lawn we had, so we scarified the area on a very low setting to create bare patches, to break the density of the lawn.
Once that was done we spread 1kg of yellow rattle seeds. I can truly tell you that 1kg of seed is not a lot if you want to spread it on an acre of land; after 1,000sqm you’ll realise that already half the seeds are used. It helps if you, mix it with some moist sand. By doing this you’ll ‘dilute’ the seeds with the sand and it will make it easier to spread more evenly.
Yellow rattle needs some cold weather to germinate, that’s why we sowed it in October. This plant is semi-parasitic, tapping into the root system of mainly grasses to draw nitrogen. Subsequently, the grass will be reduced, giving more space to other plants. Over the years it should develop into a wild flower meadow with seeds being blown in or carried in the digestive system of some animals.
The downside is the length of time it will take to achieve what we like to achieve. But after all, we are dealing with nature, and as much as we think we can push her in a direction that we like, it will never work out long-term. Furthermore, don’t expect a picturesque, clichéd meadow with an ocean of poppies or cornflower. You will attract beauty but in a more settled way. The local insects, spiders and birds will thank you for that.

Frank Steffens, is head gardener at Drimbawn Garden in Tourmakeady. Drimbawn is a member of the Clew Bay Garden Trail, a chain of beautiful and unique private gardens that open to the public during summer to raise funds for charity (see www.clewbaygardentrail.ie for more). Each month an article by a trail member will appear in these pages.