How to make a meadow
PUBLISHED: 11:23 29 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:06 20 February 2013
Flower meadows are quintessentially English but don't be fooled into thinking that all it takes is to let your lawn go to seed. Meadows need a little tlc says Ross Barbour.
Around ten years ago when I first arrived at Ragley I saw an area of nicely cut grass just below the rose garden. Covering nearly one and a half hectares (three acres), I thought that keeping this part of the garden in a lawn like state was going to be a huge waste of energy and resources. So the mowing stopped immediately and the area which is now the 'Wild Flower Meadow' was conceived.
In the first few years the grass was very dominant with just a few cowslips dotted throughout and the odd spotted orchid popping up. But this sort of gardening isn't about instant gratification and patience had to be the name of the game. While it might have been easy to rush in and fill the area with flowering plants, instead of allowing local flora to colonize, we resisted. Gradually more and more native species began to appear eventually creating the very rich and diverse sward of grasses and herbs that the Meadow boasts today
However, while nature is generally left to take care of this part of the garden, as usual we still need to carry out some maintenance.
The care of the meadow is based on that of a traditional hay meadow. Hay meadows were generally grazed by cattle or sheep throughout the winter until early spring when the stock was removed and it was left to grow freely until cut for hay in July. Supporting many invertebrates, birds and mammals, the traditional hay meadow has now become a rare habitat.
The whole ethos of our maintenance is to try and weaken the grass sward allowing flowering plants to become established. Cutting and removing the top in late summer imitates the hay crop. It is then mown irregularly to stop it getting too long again, as if being grazed by stock. This regime should reduce the dominance of the grass. Until last year I got my timing wrong leaving it right up until late August before cutting it back. Although this is great for the wild life, leaving it so late allows the grass to grow stronger and dominate, making it harder for any flowering plants to establish themselves and thrive. This is why July is the perfect time for cutting this kind of meadow.
I did imply earlier that we had not added anything to the area but this isn't strictly the case. We have sneaked in around two thousand Snakeshead fritillary (Fritillaria melleagris), and added five hundred Allium hollandicum 'Purple Sensation' to the west side this year. These flowered in May, standing proud above the main sward bringing an extra dimension to the area as they fused with the yellow creeping buttercup to produce an aye catching display.
Last autumn we also scarified a large proportion and hammered it back, exposing a few bare patches into which we have sown some yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor). Yellow Rattle is an attractive, partially parasitic, grassland annual and once it is established it can reduce the competitive vigour of certain grasses by up to 50 per cent benefiting other wild flowers. Ideal conditions this year have allowed the Yellow Rattle to germinate well, flower and produce seed for next year. I only hope it doesn't take over!
Large areas around trees in the meadow and some strips are not cut at all. This is very important for wildlife as it allows some seed to be left but most importantly provides cover for small mammals. These strips are rotated annually.We also stripped the turf from a small area which will be left to regenerate. The inclusion of meandering paths cut through the meadow provides access into it, but these paths also give the impression that it is cared for and not just an unkempt patch of overgrown lawn.
I would recommend installing a meadow to any garden, in the right place it looks great, is fantastic habitat and you don't need half a hectare to do it. One square metre could work just as well as long as you follow the basic principles. Each site is unique, with different soil and a varying aspect so there will always be a few surprises. If you get it wrong then take heart that even professional gardeners mess it up sometimes. That's the great thing about gardening. All you need is some patience to watch your site and change your maintenance accordingly. There is something new to learn every year.