A Wildflower in the Garden



A flowers born to the wild, a Wildflower. It is dissociated from the common term “flower” due to one differing characteristic, and that is that they grow without deliberate human help (i.e. sowing or cultivating). In this sense, any flower may be a Wildflower if it’s seeds has found their way into a suitable habitat and spontaneously grow when the conditions are met.

There are many ways to separate flowers into distinct categories, but Wildflowers is a widely recognised term in Habitat Conservation due to their self-propagating ability.

All flowers are of a species that is specially adapted to lead wildlife to do the hard work for them, in regards pollination & seed dispersal. In the end if the conditions are right, flowers tend to gather in particular areas as to form dense networks named Wildflower Meadows.

These Meadows have distinct, critical features that make their habitat successful, and in conservation “successful” means that the presence of these wildflower species offers opportunities for wildlife to support itself throughout their lives.

And when it comes to how we benefit, the presence of a wildflower patch means low-maintenance land that will self-seed their various flowers, attracting a dense reserve of wildlife and protecting soils.


Specifically, what is a Wildflower Meadow?

A wildflower meadow is a variation from the standard grass meadow, in that it is dominated by seasonal wildflowers alongside the secondary presence of short, permanent grasses throughout the year. Unlike ‘cornfield’ varieties of flowering annuals (think fields of poppies) that prefers fertile soils, wildflower meadows grow on low-nutrient soils where the vigorous grasses cannot dominate nor outcompete them.


Benefit to Wildlife

Wildflower meadows are naturally competitive. In the natural world, flowers dominate the nutrient poor soils, focussing instead on storing energy for a short burst of flowering at the right time of year, rather than competing long-term with leafy & growth-focussed grasses, or shade-heavy shrubs & trees.

But funnily enough it is this characteristic that provides a very interesting resource for wildlife. The Wildflower’s focussed approach of rapidly producing attractive flowers for pollination allows multiple species of flower to survive in close quarters by reducing the competition for nutritional resources, and instead on luring in pollinators for sexual reproduction. Essentially, the most attractive wins rather than the best resource-gatherer. This approach results in creating a dense network of tall, complicated, and resource-rich stem, leaf & root structures, surprisingly lasting for a fair length of the year as old plants die and new ones replace them. The self-supporting & sprawling plant networks allows normally grounded creatures an extra elevation upon which to live in, alongside the presence of both resources and safe heaven on literally all sides. The dense foliage protects from predators above and below, whist an abundant reserve of nectar, pollen, sap, insects, mammals, reptiles, etc is provided within the tangled web of greenery. And whilst these resources are only present during the most sun-energy rich periods of the year (Spring & Summer), this presence of flowers alone is worth the risk for most species. And in this vein of thinking that the foliage grown by flowers creates a useful dynamic through heat & water retention due to it’s many insulative layers against sunshine and wind, their high water transpiration rate, and finally their “short height”. All this allows them to retain more heat beneath their upper canopy, whilst further down maintain a cooler yet still muggy and damp temperature; a preferable variety of options for many species.

It is through this dense thicket that Wildflower Meadows multiplies & compresses the food chain into a relatively compact area. Even in the skies above, far away from the flowers, linger a multitude of birds eyeing up the fringes & glades in flowering fields in the likely chance of prey. Or perhaps similarly to other creatures, they are simply looking for nesting material.

Regardless, the benefit to wildlife is self explanatory at this point, and that’s without going into the well portrayed discussion about pollinators.


Benefits to You

Due to the complex & compact nature of wildflower meadows, the soils beneath them are tightly bound together by fine, overlapping root systems to create a very stable soil. Thus when it rains, there is little in the way of run-off from water, and no loss of nutrients. If you have land on a slope, dedicating a portion of that area to a band of wildflowers is a good buffer for poor weather conditions, thereby ensuring your garden is neither flooded nor stripped/saturated with nutrients to encourage weeds or vigorous grass growth.

And on the topic of soil nutrients a typical garden lawn’s grasses have shallow roots, making use of only the surface nutrition, whereas a variety of (flower) species tend to differ their root structures and dredge up the nutrients stuck further down & throughout the the soil. As you’ll learn later on, you cut & remove the Wildflower cuttings from your meadow, allowing you to take those nutrients to be redistributed to wherever you see fit.

As a time saver, wildflowers require you to reduce the amount of mowing, going so far as even just once or twice per season. And with the removal of herbicides & pesticides (neither need controlling in this meadow), you reduce your price costs and run-off water pollution into the surrounding soil.

And as wildflowers tend to do best in poor nutrition soils, you’ll also quickly be able to see where these low-nutrition areas in your garden are if you notice your wildflowers re-seeding & growing elsewhere. You’ll be able to counteract this with your cuttings, or extend/relocate your wildflower patch.

Focussing now not on soil but air, it is due to their vigorous & quick growth rate that Wildflowers also do a wonderful job at removing a range of pollutants from the air, filtering & improving the air quality. They use the pollutants as a food source before they eventually die and lock it into the soil for future generations of growth. On the other side of that coin though is pollen… hayfever sufferers will notice this airborne pain.

Interestingly though, flowers have formed other deep rooted into us aside from sneezing. Our emotional responses trigger in response to seeing blooming flowers, with the sight of them alone causing lowered blood pressure and stress hormone production. For good or bad it seems as if our connection with flowers goes beyond mere appreciation.

To summarise, the introduction of a Wildflower meadow brings a more holistic result. Due to the unique nature of these meadows (water filtration, soil erosion control, extensive nutrient recycling etc) and your maintenance, you’ll see the presence of wildlife in a fairly new format. A ‘balancing’ effect on your garden will arise in the presence of a variety of healthy wildlife populations. Species have evolved in the expectation that other wildlife will be exerting various behaviours upon them, so you’ll see your garden reacting to these introduced behaviours.

As a final and fairly obvious observation, wildflowers also look & smell nice.
So there’s that aspect to enjoy!


Managing Land into a Wildflower Meadow

Jumping straight in, we’ll go over how to set up, maintain, and generally manage your wildflower meadow to the end goal that suits you & your garden.

Introducing & Establishing a New Wildflower Meadow:

The best time to create and sow your meadow is in autumn.

  1. Choose the right time: The overall best time to create & sow your new meadow is in Autumn, however the preparation can be done at any time of year. Sowing in Autumn simulates natural seed dispersal times, allowing them to develop through the Winter.
  2. Choose the right spot: you’re looking for a spot that’s sunny throughout the day & relatively open. Don’t worry if that spot is sloped or flat, you can position it however you prefer.
  3. Soil nutrition: your soil might be too dense with nutrients (i.e. fertile) to host your wildflowers, so other than checking your soil first, you can jump straight in and remove the top 3 inches of topsoil from your chosen patch. This will likely be the hardest part of your wildflower journey as it involves muscles & spades, or a turf-cutter for an alternative option. As a more time-consuming yet less intense effort, sow plants that require many nutrients, let them grow, and then cut them down & remove the cuttings. This will lower nutrient levels over time.
  4. Soil & Weed Work: rake up your soil so it is nice & soft, and remove any roots or remaining weeds. Once you’re looking at your fine, bare soil you’ll be ready to start sowing seeds.
  5. The ‘Wild’ in Wildflower: sowing a mixture of flower seeds does take some of the wilderness out of the approach, however in the following years these species will continue to seed & sow themselves, and as you get visiting wildlife to your garden, you’ll start seeing new wildflowers popping up as they get dropped in your soil.

In the first year of growth it is important to encourage the growth of wild flowers over the competing grasses, weeds, or woody shrubs. After the sown or naturally occurring flowering plants initial growth the following Spring/Summer, return every 6-8weeks to mow/cut down to a height of 5cm above the ground, and repeat this every 6-8 weeks during the Summer season during this first year of establishing your wildflower meadow.

After entering the second year, the method of management lies in not cutting after April until July/August. The aim is to never continuously cut back your plants as they may never grow to the seeding stage, yet avoiding to (repeatedly) cut-back late as this would result in your flower meadow becoming overcome by tough, competitive grasses with lower flower diversity.

To encourage a Spring Flowering for your wildflower meadow, aim to mow from late-June to October, and on the other hand if you prefer Summer Flowers, cut between late-July and March. For those of your who’s meadow may be large enough, try cutting different portions of your meadow at different times of the year from early-June through til early-September. This approach brings the greatest diversity in grass height and structures.

When you do mow your meadow(s), aim for a low sward height of roughly 5cm. Allow the cuttings to sit on the ground for up to 48 hours to allow seeds to fall through disturbances, and the local fauna to relocate to continue a balance population. If you are able, you can encourage this by allowing a section of your meadow to remain uncut for these species to inhabit during winter periods. Rotate uncut areas on a 3-4 year cycle to prevent it becoming dominated by vigorous grasses.

Ensure you remove cuttings after leaving them for a few days, as wildflowers thrive in low-nutrition soils where they cannot be outcompeted by nutrient-dependent grasses & woody shrubs. If left alone, the cuttings will return to the earth to be decomposed and release it’s nutrients back into the soil.

Long-term Maintenance

In surprising contrast to normal flower beds, the maintenance of wildflower meadows is incredibly small. There is no need for any additional watering (though consider in heatwaves) and no supplementary nutrients, doing either alters the natural balances that allows wildflowers to dominate since many of our native flowers survive by colonising our nutrient-lacking land. By mastering the schedule of mowing & nutrient removal, you have done enough to open the landscape to wildflowers.

Issues

Akin to wildflowers, certain weeds also thrive in wildflower habitat. Whilst they are simply weeds from our perspective and still are able to benefit wildlife, they may also dominate your meadow or offer an unappealing flower display, thus you may want to remove them before they set seed. Nettles can be stopped through simple repeated cuttings. Others, such as docks and thistles, can be pulled out by (gloved) hands to limit their returning capabilities.

Similarly grasses can start to become an issue if the cutting regime because interrupted or neglected, or you struggle with maintaining low soil nutrition despite your efforts. Here you can introduce certain seeds (for example, Yellow Rattle Rhinanthus minor) to control the spread of these grasses in an area due to their semi-parasitic nature towards grasses, or antagonistic natures.

General Advice

  • Aim for the first cutting(s) to be around 5cm, but up to 7.5cm is also tolerable. Any subsequent cuttings can be at 4cm.
  • In the first few years, you’ll likely notice a generous amount of nettles or docks. They will have lain dormant and begun generating once your soils were readied for wildflowers, as they respond well to disturbance. Either allow them to stay or remove them and over time they will disappear.

There are always many approaches you can consider undertaking when it comes to managing your garden for wildlife, yet wildflower meadows are one of those powerfully charismatic approaches in the conservation field that seems to go hand-in-hand with all gardens.

Armed only with the essential knowledge of when to mow your garden anyone can create a moving display of flowers, primed to benefit your wildlife.


I hope you enjoy any future meadows you create, or even just a new appreciation for the underpinnings of what is happening underneath your own garden lawn.

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