We were lucky enough to go on a guided walk through the wild flower meadows of Greenfield Farm in the Chilterns recently. The farm has several stunning meadows, each surrounded by ancient beech woods. The prize meadow, which was started in the late 1990s, now boasts over 100 species of wild flowers, including 5 species of orchid. It is a glorious sight, which is gobsmacking from a distance and even more extraordinary as you get up close. So why aren’t there more wildflower meadows like this? Why can’t we all replicate this, even on a small scale, in our gardens?
The fact is, the setting of Greenfield Farm is very favourable for wild flowers, far more so than most of our gardens. The soil is chalky, the aspect is a gentle south and the wind is tamed by the surrounding woodland. A considerable amount of skill and effort has undoubtedly been deployed too, but these natural factors are a huge advantage. Unless your garden is a depleted, flinty hillside, wild flowers are going to be hard work.
Our garden and meadow is about as far from a flinty hillside as you can get. It’s a clay loam that makes it easy to produce plump vegetables and a lush lawn, but it also produces sturdy thistles and feisty nettles.
So can we do anything about it? The answer is yes and no. There are things we can do to increase the number of wild flowers and attract more invertebrates (think massive insect hotel!) but we will never be able to replicate the amazing diversity of a chalky hillside meadow. So it's worth doing, but we need realistic goals. 100 species is way too ambitious.
After consulting Charles Flowers and others, we have decided on a four pronged attack:
- Yellow rattle. This is a clever annual that attaches itself to the roots of grasses and in so doing weakens them. Over a few years this should reduce the grass population. The main drawback is that it is most effective in the areas that already have the weakest grasses, so it won’t help as much where the grasses are strong.
- Grazing and cutting. Grazing with sheep from August to April and haymaking in July. The sheep help deplete the soil by eating the grass, they tread in the yellow rattle seeds and their hooves makes small holes for wild flowers to colonise.
- New seed bed. Kill off all existing growth with a herbicide and rotovate to prepare a new seed bed. My hunch is that the soil is packed with undesirable dormant seed which will relish the new space we provide it so we going to test this in a small area first.
- New plants. Collect and buy seed of wild flower varieties that are most likely to survive, for example birdsfoot trefoil, which is common locally and reasonably robust.
That’s the plan. One more wildflower meadow is on its way.