It’s time we went wild

child in meadowThe disappearance of our flower rich meadows has had a lot of press coverage recently.  Not least because the loss of our nectar-rich native plant species is having an adverse effect on our pollinating insects, without whom many of our food crops would be threatened.

97% of species rich grassland has disappeared since the second-world war and bumblebee numbers have fallen by 60% since the 1970’s. Intensive farming techniques seem to be taking the blame but arguably changes in population density, lifestyles and yes, garden design are also partly responsible for the decline in wildlife habitat.   

The UK population density has increased from about 500 per square mile in 1945 to 660 per square mile in 2011.  That means more houses, schools and hospitals; more roads, car parks and retail parks and fewer fields, hedgerows, heaths and meadows.

Consider too that we’re all eating far better than our grandparents did 60 years ago, and it’s clear that our Farmers are trying to produce more food from less land. Little wonder then that there is no room in agriculture for what have, until recently, been regarded as unproductive wild flowers.

Government schemes to re-introduce wild flowers into agricultural land have been successful in some areas but are in danger of falling foul of economic cutbacks.....so I guess it’s up to local authorities, gardeners and the general public to bring back wild flowers.

Therein lays another setback.

Changing lifestyles mean fewer plants in gardens

A recently published survey by the London Wildlife Trust shows how busy lifestyles and a reluctance to spend time maintaining a garden have resulted in householders swapping their lawns and flower beds for decking and paving. Many of the Garden Designers I’ve spoken to will verify that “minimal maintenance” is often high on a client’s wish list. So much so that 3,000 Ha of greenery, aka wildlife habitat disappeared from London alone between 1998 and 2008.  Presumably similar results could be generated almost anywhere in the UK.  Certainly in my home village, my Mother-in-Law’s photographs taken in the 1950’s and 60’s feature a lot more trees, open spaces and greenery that I see around me today.

Dame Miriam Rothschild, writing in the preface of Pam Lewis’s book “Making Wildflower Meadows” tells us that the acreage of gardens in England is greater than the acreage of nature reserves and she goes on to suggest that it is possible to nurture wild flowers alongside more conventional planting schemes.  Obviously cultivated plants need different management, so rather than plant native species among the roses, create a mini wild flower meadow in part of the lawn or use an island bed to grow cornfield annuals.

butterflyAs a rough estimate, if just 10% of our garden acreage were turned back over to native plants, we would reinstate some 10,000 hectares of butterfly habitat.

It seems that a change of mindset is in order, and who better to set a good example and inspire householders, than those who manage public open spaces such as parks, gardens, sports fields and even our roadsides?

The traditional wild flower meadows were managed cheaply and carefully by farmers past who wanted maximum nutritional value for minimal cost. No expensive inputs such as herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilisers were used.  The whole ecosystem thrived on a combination of grazing, resting and haymaking and a healthy respect for Mother Nature.

Saving maintenance costs

With prices rocketing and budgets shrivelling, the prospect of cutting back on inputs sounds quite inviting. Especially when you consider that the maintenance costs for area of meadow is estimated at around £1.23/m2 per annum compared to £9.00/m2 for bedding plants.*  Not everyone, I’m sure, has room for a flock of sheep, but the whole meadow management system can easily be replicated without hoofed helpers.

The most difficult part of establishing a wild flower area is just that; establishing it.  I’ve been running a small trial in my own garden and I’ve found that getting wild flower seeds to germinate and out-compete what’s already in the soil seed bank is quite a challenge.  I found that using a wild flower mat may have cost a little more in the first instance but gave much better coverage and 4 months on, shows no sign of being swamped by weeds.

The mat I used was a standard seed mix comprising 4 species of native grasses and 30 species of perennial native flowers.  I hesitate to use the term wild flower, even though the seed was derived from UK wild flowers, I always think that if a flower has been placed and nurtured by man, it’s not exactly wild.

Flowers are beautiful but grasses are essential

wild flowers and grassesIn a meadow area, grass is essential.  It shelters the soil from the heat of the day and from drying winds, it’s the perfect perch for butterflies and other insects and it makes a great hiding place for small mammals and amphibians.  Be vigilant though for grass also has the potential to outcompete the flowering plants and so the meadow must be carefully, but not necessarily intensively, managed.

Whether by seeding or installing a pre-grown mat, low fertility soil is the key to a successful and floral meadow.  Too much nitrogen will allow the grasses to swamp the more delicate flowering plants. If fertility can be reduced, either by removing topsoil, or by an intensive program mowing hard and taking away all clippings for 12 months or so before starting work, managing the established meadow will be much cheaper and easier.

For seeding, an autumn sowing will probably be most successful.  That’s when Mother Nature does most of her planting and many species actually need a period of vernalization (cold) to break their dormancy.  Matting is available all year round and can be ordered to fit in with your work load.

 

Wildlife habitat means easy maintenance

Ongoing management simply involves allowing the meadow to grow freely between April and September, cutting it back at the end of the growing season, taking off the hay crop and then mowing between September and March to keep the grasses in check.  NEVER add fertilizer.

Winter mowing should be to a height of around 4cm and ALL clippings need to be removed.

Mowing and hay cutting needn’t be done in one fell swoop either. Paths mown through a meadow will encourage people to walk through and see the wild flowers up close.  In a larger wild flower area, you could add a fun element by creating a maze.  Mown paths will also help support creatures like the blackbird that prefers to forage in short grass.

Consider mowing part of the meadow in June/July and the rest in September so as to extend the flowering period and maximise the benefits to wildlife. If you’re planning on mowing in September, you could maybe add extra interest by sowing some cornfield annuals in the sward in march/April.  Cornflowers, corn cockle, poppies and corn marigolds are excellent sources of nectar and bring colourful vibrancy to a grassy area.

There can be no doubt that it’s time to bring our native wild flowers back into the forefront for the sake of our pollinating insects and ultimately, our food crops.  Raising public awareness and teaching people to respect and appreciate our flora and fauna is not just a job for the media.  By re-establishing native species on road verges, in school grounds and in parks and gardens we can support the planet and save ourselves a fortune in maintenance costs. 

Creating a wild flower meadow

Angela’s wild flower meadow was established using MeadowMat, a UK grown product using British native species.  More details are available at www.meadowmat.com, or phone Q Lawns on 01842 828266

For information on wild flower seed or plants, visit www.jubilee-seeds.co.uk 01797 260 673

*www.npt.gov.uk/biodiversity

Watch the Video: How to create a wild flower meadow

What does a wildflower meadow cost?