Credit: Wakehurst Place, American Prairie Meadow
In the eighth of a 12-part series on designing a large country garden we look at how to include a wildflower meadow.
DESIGNING A WILDFLOWER MEADOW
The beauty of a wildflower meadow is that it is in a state of constant change, providing one of the most beautiful sights of summer and an ever-changing pattern of colour from early spring to late autumn. But flower-rich meadows are also one of the most important habitats for wildlife, attracting wonderful birds and insects, many of which rely on meadow plants for their survival.
Large country gardens naturally lend themselves to meadows, so we often suggest them to clients as a matter of course. Carpets of wildflowers, rare birds and beautiful butterflies can be a lot more interesting than large areas of continually mowed lawn. With 97% of our wildflower rich meadows lost since the 1940s, largely because of intensive farming practices, growing a wildflower meadow will give you the immense satisfaction of knowing you’re helping to keep an important feature of the British landscape alive.
Wildflower meadows can support as many as 700 different species of plant, 1400 species of invertebrate, as well as the associated bird and animal life. Additionally, they can store 500% more carbon than fields of pure grass, so all told, they are environmentally, greatly valuable too.
There is often confusion about the different types of meadow mixes that exist and which to choose.
Annual wildflowers, such as Cornflower, Corncockle and Poppy, are a simple way to achieve bold, colourful displays that will provide a succession of interest from early June to the end of October, but they will only flower for a single year, since their seeds can only germinate on disturbed ground and not amongst an established grass sward, where grasses will outcompete them. Thus, such meadows need sowing every year.
Perennial meadows, on the other hand, can last forever. More muted in colour, with plants such as Cowslip, Vetches, Field Scabious and Oxeye Daisy, they are much slower to establish from seed, but once they get going will come back year on year. Which one you choose will depend on personal choice, but it will also be determined by the size of your garden and how much time you want to spend creating your spectacle of wildflowers.
We planted this beautiful annual meadow (below) in 2019. Blurring the division between the garden and surrounding countryside, it contains an amazing variety of different plant species including multi-coloured Cornflower jostling for attention with Corn Poppies and the lacy white flowers of the Ammi majus, the Bishop’s flower, which sway beautifully in the wind.
SOIL FOR WILDFLOWERS
The first thing to understand with meadows is that most garden soils are too rich for wildflowers and as a result grasses will dominate. With time, however, the fertility can be reduced through removing the grass cuttings when mowing at the end of the season. Alternatively, one can strip the topsoil down to the nutrient poor subsoil and if that’s not an option, introducing Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor) can be key to success. A semi-parasitic annual known as ‘nature’s lawnmower’, it lives on the roots of grasses and can weaken their hold considerably over two or three years stopping them from smothering the flowers you want to encourage. The process will take time but, as with all gardening, patience is key!
A quicker, more instant answer, for a smaller wildflower meadow, is to buy ready-made wildflower turf which you can roll out like a carpet. We planted this one (below) in a suburban garden we designed in Buckinghamshire. In its first year it was already bursting with colour with a mix of Lychnis flos-cuculi (Ragged Robin), Silene dioica (Red Campion) and planting of Camassia bulbs bringing a real sense of the rural to the front of the property and attracting an abundance of wildlife.
Another failsafe option is to introduce bulbs. Although not strictly wildflowers they will look fabulous and add a splash of early season colour to your meadow. Start with Crocuses and progress through Narcissi, Tulips, Camassias and Alliums to provide interest from about February until the end of June. Alternatively, you can create the essence of a meadow with ornamental prairie-style grasses interspersed with non-native flowers such as Echinacea and Verbena.
POSITIONING A WILDFLOWER MEADOW
There is no hard and fast rule about where to position a meadow. In large country gardens, it often comes down to preference. An open, sunny position is the perfect environment for meadow plants, but remember that you will not be looking at a carpet of colour all year round and it can look a little too wild and untidy at times of the year, so placing too close to the house may not be for some.
We often position wildflower meadows away from the house and merging them with the countryside beyond to make the garden more expansive and to create a borrowed landscape. A wildflower meadow planted along a fence line so that it ‘bleeds’ naturally into its surroundings is a lovely way to create a physical boundary without imposing on the view; while we also often use them to create impact along a driveway. In this large garden in Hampshire (below), we created a wildflower meadow to frame the long drive, connecting the house and garden with the adjoining parkland and incorporating a mown verge on either side to show its intention. Within the meadow, the flowers hide secret seating areas and mown focal points around feature trees, creating lovely destination areas to sit amongst nature and enjoy the view.
Of course, if you do want to introduce a meadow closer to the house there are ways of doing so, chiefly by formalising the layout, so mown paths can be cut into geometric patterns through the long grass and flowers, perhaps framing a formal lawn or directing one to key focal points, such as the one below, framing the main lawn to the rear of the house.
Whatever type of meadow you choose and wherever you decide to position it, one thing that is for sure, is that you will never regret creating it. Whether annual or perennial, large or small, a wildflower meadow is the perfect counterbalance to the modern world. Once established there is nothing lovelier than a patch of native wildflowers alive with the sound of wildlife, and on warm days there’s no better place to quietly sit and contemplate the beauty of all you have allowed to flourish.