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.
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.
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;
- 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 in August (see Problems section) to help manage grass-dominant meadows.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.