Wildflower meadow: maintenance

Wildflower meadows require an annual maintenance programme to allow the more desirable species to flourish and to reduce the vigour of the more rampant species. This usually involves mowing and some judicious weed control.

To look their best, meadows need careful maintenance. Credit: RHS/Tim Sandall.

Quick facts

Suitable for Wildflower areas and meadows
Timing Early to late summer
Difficulty Moderate

Suitable for...

The techniques explained on this page are for newly-sown and established perennial meadows. Wildflower meadows usually contain a mix of grass and wildflower species.

Maintaining a meadow

To look their best, meadows need some maintenance each year. The basic process is explained below.

Mowing or cutting

Cutting a meadow helps maintain a diverse mix of flowers and grasses and depending on the timing of cut can allow a gardener to manipulate the range of wildflowers that thrive.

New meadows

To encourage perennial flowers and grasses to make good root development, it is important to mow the meadow in the first year after sowing. Cut to a height of 5cm (2in) after about six-to-eight weeks of growth, and repeat every two months throughout the first summer.

Established meadows

These can be cut at a number of times in the year, depending on the vigour of the meadow and which types of flowers wish to be encouraged. The key cuts of the season fall roughly into three times of year and a perennial meadow can be managed effectively with one or more of these cuts;

  1. Spring cut - this is useful for meadows where grass growth is very lush. Cut back to height of 7.5cm (3in) only and complete this cut no later than the end of April. It can also be used in conjunction with sowing yellow rattle (see Problems section) to help manage grass-dominant meadows.
  2. Main summer cut - this is also referred to as the 'hay cut' and removes the bulk of the material, allowing it to either be baled or composted. This cut is done between late June and the end of August; the earlier cutting favours spring flowers such as cowslips, fritillary, lady's smock, selfheal and bugle; the later cutting favours summer flowers such as knapweed, devil's bit scabious and lady's bedstraw.
  3. Autumn cut - particularly useful for fertile sites, one or two cuts between the end of August and late November removes surplus growth and helps keep grasses at bay to allow the wildflowers to persist.

Following the last cut of the season, all meadows can be kept mown to keep the grass short and neat through the winter is desired. Any cut that produces substantial clippings should have the clippings removed and composted.

General tips

  • It is usually a good idea to leave the initial mowings in situ for a few days to allow seed to drop to the ground but then it is important to collect mowings to reduce soil fertility
  • Aim for the first cut to be 5-7.5cm (2-3in) high. Subsequent cuts can be lower to 4cm (1½in)
  • Many lawnmowers will struggle with long grass. Small areas can be cut with a hand scythe or strimmer (though a strimmer has the tendency to chop up the material quite small, making it harder to remove with a rake). Larger areas are best tackled with a heavy-duty mower (e.g. sickle-bar mowers and motor scythes) or a two-wheel strimmer

Watering and feeding

A wildflower area doesn't require any additional watering or feeding. This could alter the natural balance of plants in the area. Many native flowers colonise poor land and the addition of extra nutrients and water will only encourage excessive vigour in the grasses, which will consequently out-compete the more desirable flowering plants.

Problems

The main problem that is likely to be encountered is an abundance of weeds or dominant grasses.

  • Perennial weeds - thistles and nettles for example - can either be weeded out by hand or spot treated with a weedkiller based on glyphosate, such as Roundup or Tumbleweed
  • Lawn weedkillers should not be used, as these will kill the wildflowers you wish to encourage
  • Where grasses become dominant try sowing the annual wildflower, yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) which is semi-parasitic on grasses. Sow this in August and keep the grass mown until March

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  • monica borrin flint

    By monica borrin flint on 01/09/2014

    At the Bowman's Wildflower Preserve in S.E Pennsylvania, we recommend mowing the meadow in early spring. By doing so we hope to permit overwintering pollinators, as well as chrysalises, to have the chance to escape the attrition caused by mowing. We also recommend mowing one half of the meadow on one day, the other half on another, allowing escape routes for insects and small mammals. Does this seem reasonable to you too?


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  • denmans

    By denmans on 09/10/2017

    I run a successful garden chalk meadow. I do some scything but need to mow in Oct/Sept. Problem is ant hills wrecking the mower. I don't want to kill the ants, It's a conservation project after all. Any suggestions? Are there any mowers with an extra high setting?


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