When to cut back your wild flower meadow

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As summer draws on, wild flowers and grasses start to set seed.  Because they’re no longer needed to power seed production, some of the leaves and stems start to turn brown and die back.

If you are growing wild flowers in your garden, this is the time to start thinking about dead-heading in a big way…..we’re talking about the annual cut-back.

wildflower meadow at Felbrigge Hall Norfolk

This meadow area photographed in July 2015 is almost - but not quite - ready for it's annual haircut.  When I visited this garden at Felbrigge Hall in Norfolk, the butterflies were loving this area but the flowers had almost finished and the grasses were beginning to turn brown and strawlike.

 

In my garden, the annual cut back usually happens around August.  It’s July now and I’m still seeing plenty of clover, knapweed, birdsfoot trefoil and scabious flowers.  The oxeye daisies have just about finished flowering and are starting to form seedheads.  Ditto the campions and the yellow rattle

The grasses have formed their seed heads and have turned to a beautiful straw colour. This year, my mini-meadow had more grasses in it than I wanted so I don’t want those seeds to fall back to earth and germinate.  I want to be discouraging the grass, not nurturing it.  This year then, I’m going to sacrifice some of the flowers and cut the meadow back in July.  Hopefully some of the species will have a second flush of flowers later in the year.

My mini-meadow was created using Traditional Meadowmat.  There are five different types of Meadowmat, four of them should be cut back in summer, but Meadowmat for Birds and Bees needs to be trimmed in late winter (February-March) so as to get the full benefit of the bird-friendly seed heads.

Why you need to cut back your wild flower meadow

The idea of cutting back your meadow and taking away the debris is to keep soil fertility as low as possible.

During the spring and summer, plants have drawn nutrients from the soil to help them grow.  These nutrients are now trapped within the leaves, stems, flowers and seeds of those plants.  Left to her own devices, Mother Nature would let the dead material fall to the ground and rot.  As it rotted, the nutrients trapped within it would be recycled and returned to the soil.

As a meadow manager, you are aiming to reduce soil fertility – because wild flowers favour low-nutrient soil – so you can interrupt the natural process and take the dead material away.  That way it can’t add to soil fertility.

So – how you cut your meadow is important. 

Using the right tools for the job

If you use a strimmer, it will send little bits of debris flying here there and everywhere and you have no chance at all of collecting them up.

A lawn mower simply can’t cope with the long grass and the thick stalks

Ideally you need either a scythe.  Personally I’d love to learn how to use a scythe but I’m pretty unco-ordinated and there’s a strong risk of me cutting my ankles.

cutting a wildflower meadow using a scythe

Wildflower meadows were traditionally cut with a scythe.  This takes a bit of practice but will give you a full-body workout

As I only have 5 or 6 square metres of meadow, I tend to get on my knees and cut it with shears to start with, then run over it with the lawnmower on its highest setting a couple of days later to make it look neater.

It does take a couple of hours but I never cease to be amazed at how many creatures are living in the bottom of the sward.  Spiders, beetles, grubs, the occasional frog, slug, snails- all sorts.  Thankfully I’ve not come across a snake in there yet – not sure what I’d do if I found one.  I suffer from Ophidiophobia so there’s likely to be a bad reaction.

Tidying up

It’s a good idea to leave all the clippings on the surface for a couple of days.  They’ll dry out beautifully and you can store them to use as pet food later – or even as packaging for parcels.  Hay is incredibly versatile.

Not only will you get a nice crop of hay, the flower seeds will drop back into the sward where they stand a good chance of growing and giving you some colour next spring.

When you do take the clippings away, make sure you gather up everything.  You don’t want anything to add nutrients back into your soil.

Your meadow will look a bit sorry for itself for a couple of weeks.  A bit brown and straw-like but once it’s had a good rain on it and some sunshine it will soon start to perk up.  By the time autumn arrives it’ll be lovely and green again.

To summarise

  • Most wild flower meadows should be cut back in July or August, once most of the flowers have turned to seed and the grasses are brown and straw-like

  • Meadowmat for Birds and Bees should be cut back in late winter – so as to make the most of seedheads

  • Use a scythe or shears to trim your Meadow.  Not a strimmer!

  • Leave clippings to dry on top of the Meadow for a couple of days before removing them completely

  • Your Meadow will look brown and sad for a couple of weeks but will soon perk up after a good drink and some sunshine

More articles about meadow maintenance

 

Wildflower meadow jobs for summer time


Wildflower meadow maintenance in autumn


The 5 principles of meadow maintenance

 

 

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