Wildflower meadow: establishment
Wildflower meadows are an alternative to lawns and borders, and can provide a display for many months. Choose from annual meadows that provide a one-off show or perennial meadows that persist from year to year.
Timing: Mid spring or early autumn
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
What type of wildflower meadow?
It is important to choose the meadow that will be most successful on the site you have to offer:
- Perennial meadows thrive best on poor soils because the grasses compete less with the wildflowers. If you have rich soil, it is worth removing the top layer and sowing directly into dug or rotovated sub-soil
- Annual meadows, usually of cornfield annuals, need rich soils. These are a good choice where you are converting an existing border
Wildflower seed merchants supply mixtures of wildflowers and grasses suitable for various soil types and situations. Choose one that suits your local conditions. Where possible, obtain seed of British origin. It is advisable not to take plants from the countryside and repeated seed collection would be likely to have a destructive effect on many species over time. In some cases, it also can be illegal.
When and where to sow wildflower meadows
Sow during March and April or in September, depending on soil conditions. On lighter soils, autumn-sown seeds generally germinate and establish quickly, although some will not come up until the following spring. This delay makes it advisable to wait until March or April on heavy soils, as waterlogging may cause the seed and seedlings to rot during winter.
Please note that garden ‘wildflower’ seed mixes and/or plants (which may contain non-natives or be of unknown provenance) should not be sown in the wider countryside or close to environmentally sensitive areas. They should also never be sown without a landowner's permission.
Sowing wildflower meadows
- For small areas, remove weeds by hand or cover with black plastic or a weed-suppressing membrane for at least three months prior to sowing - see our advice on non-chemical weed control
- Where vigorous perennial weeds, such as nettles, docks and dandelions, are present in large numbers eliminate them by digging out and removing the roots. This might be part of removing top soil to lower fertility to levels that favour wildflowers (see next bullet point). For big areas engage a landscape contractor with suitable machinery. As a last resort, on land unsuited to machinery for example, consider getting rid of existing vegetation with non-residual systemic glyphosate-containing weedkillers
- On very fertile soils it may be an advantage to remove the top soil but, for anything other than the smallest area, this requires machinery. An alternative approach (on soils other than clays and those with high organic matter) is to put the land down to oil-seed rape (seed is sold in pet food shops) or mustard for a season to reduce fertility, removing the crop at flowering time
- Once the ground is free of vegetation, dig or rotovate the soil, then firm and rake to make a seedbed as for a new lawn
- Don't incorporate manure or fertiliser as high fertility encourages excessive vigour in grasses that then crowd out the wildflowers
- Allow four to six weeks for the soil to settle and for any weed seeds to germinate. Hoe these off before sowing
- Even large areas can be sown by hand quite easily
- Rates will vary between individual mixes but, as a rough guide, pure wildflower seed should be sown at 1g per sq m (¼oz per 5 sq yd) and wildflower and grass seed mixes at 5g per sq m (¼oz per sq yd). These tiny amounts can be difficult to broadcast evenly so mix the seed with silver sand to make it easier to handle
- To further ensure that the seed is scattered evenly, sow half lengthways and the remaining half widthways
- Rake or roll in lightly to give good contact between the seed and the soil, water thoroughly and leave them to grow naturally. However, be prepared to protect the seed with netting if birds prove to be a problem
Smaller areas can be watered in dry spells until germination but larger areas will need to be left until the rains return. It is worth hand weeding out obvious weeds not in the seed mix during the first summer. For more on cutting your new meadow, see our page wildflower meadow maintenance.
Where soil fertility is too high to allow perennial wildflowers to flourish, consider sowing a cornfield annual mix that includes plants such as cornflower, corn poppy, corn marigold and corncockle. Some barley and wheat seed will add an authentic touch.
- Sowing should be done on bare soil, free of perennial weeds
- Autumn sowings generally favour poppies, while spring sowings favour corncockle
- Many plants will flower within three months of sowing
- Leave the plants to self seed, clear them away in spring and rake over the ground to remove weeds and encourage seed to germinate
- Additional sowings may be required in the first few years until the wildflower seed bank increases in the soil
Converting a lawn to a meadow
Lawns can be converted into wildflower meadows, but it can take a number of years for the balance between grass and wildflowers to be established.
- Stop feeding and weedkilling the turf
- In the first year, continue mowing weekly to weaken the grass
- Some wild species will establish and thrive
- Raise others from seed, introducing them as one- to two-year-old pot-grown plants planted into holes in the turf
- Many wildflower suppliers offer plug plants that are ideal for planting into an established lawn. For a natural look, plant in small groups of the same plant
An increasing number of companies offer wildflower turf, which comes on short rolls in the same way as conventional grass turf. It can be a useful alternative to seed sowing on ground which is high in weed seeds or where speedy establishment/flowering is needed. Higher costs usually means it it only suitable for small scale wildflower projects. Choice of wildflower mix will also be more limited.
It is now possible to source wildflower turf grown on a plastic-free felt base - other suppliers may use a plastic mesh to help reinforce the turf.
Prepare the ground in the same way as for grass turf, omitting the fertiliser. Although it is possible to lay wildflower turf year round, spring is usually the best time. Keep well watered in the first summer.
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