Why wild flowers do better in poor soils

I’m a gardener who happens to be married to a farmer.  Ever since I can remember, I have been taught about improving soil to get better and more productive plants.  Until now.  Now that I have been bitten by the wildflower bug, I’m learning that not all plants like rich soil. 

Horses for courses

The best way I can explain the difference between wildflowers and what we’re used to growing in our gardens is to use an analogy from the world of horses.

Centuries ago, man took a liking to wild horses and he domesticated them.  Through generations of selective breeding, he produced all sorts of different horses that he could use in different situations.  Tough little Shetland ponies to help haul coal out of the mines.  Gentle giants that could pull a plough, graceful carriage horses for transporting lords and ladies in style, elegant racehorses built for speed but not much else.  The list goes on.

racehorses looking out of stable doors

These racehorses are a bit like well-bred flowers - their metabolisms have changed so that they are dependent on high quality nutrition.  These beautiful creatures could never thrive in the wild.  Conversely, wild flowers cannot thrive on nutrient rich soils.

Most of these different types of horses need careful diets to keep them in good shape.  The thoroughbred for example is an athlete.  No way could a racehorse live out on the moors all winter eating heather and gorse.  He needs oats, maize, bran, molasses – a carefully balanced diet of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.  A working carthorse can’t sustain himself on just grass just like an olympic shot-putter can’t survive on pop-tarts and pasta.

The wild horses of Dartmoor, Exmoor and the New Forest however, are small, tough, and built for survival.  Their thick woolly winter fur mean they don’t look as good as the fella who advertises that bank on the TV – but they don’t need stables and rugs in the winter.  Their bodies are fine-tuned to make the very best of what little they have.  If they are overindulged with rich grass, oats and supplements they become ill and die.

Wild plants and wild horses need simple diets

Man has bred food crops and flowers that do best when they are well fed and sheltered from inclement weather.  Do our hybrid tea roses look lovely after a rainstorm? No.  Do wild dog roses look awful after bad weather? No.  I rest my case.

blue and white wild flowers

Wild flowers create a colourful display in poor quality soil.  To recreate this look in your garden, replace the top 8cm of soil with some low nutrient topsoil and grow Meadowmat or seed in it.

Just like those wild ponies who are effectively poisoned by “good” nutrition; wild flowers have very simple needs and are just not equipped to deal with artificially boosted nutrient levels.

Years of farming and gardening has redefined our soils

Man has been improving the soil probably since he started farming.   The earliest farmers would probably have noticed their crops yielded better when manure was added to the soil.  Over the centuries soil science and plant nutrition have become big business and literally very few stones will have been left unturned.

What does that mean for wildflowers?

It means that apart from very few inhospitable areas – like moors, bogs and beaches – most natural soils in the UK have been enhanced.  Think about it.  If land has ever been farmed, gardened, intensively grazed or used for leisure, it will have been improved with some or other fertiliser. 

Simple tips for preparing the soil for wild flowers

Wild flowers don’t need excessively rich soil.  If you want to grow wildflowers in your garden…..

  • Buy a testing kit and find out how much phosphorus is in the existing soil – aim for a level of less than 26mg/litre – ideally it should be less than 10mg/litre but this is awfully hard to achieve.
  • Don’t add fertiliser
  • Don’t add manure
  • Don’t mulch
  • Do scrape the top layers of soil away and replace them with low nutrient soil
  • Do think about growing in a raised bed filled with low nutrient soil
  • Do tailor your seedmix to the soil conditions

 

More articles about wild flowers and soil types

 

The best UK soil types for growing wild flowers

 

Wild flowers for clay soils

 

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