Making Meadows

Making Meadows

Meadows present a natural, seemingly effortless beauty, with an undeniable allure.  For the most part, meadow guardians save much of the energy that gardeners spend repeatedly mowing and maintaining traditional lawns.  Nevertheless, meadows are not an easy option; creating a meadow requires endeavour, careful planning, and time, to ensure success.

Meadows change through the seasons and vary in their appearance from one year to another. One year, a particular species may do well; while the following year, another plant may come to the fore.

Perennial meadow plants

Our native British, perennial meadow plants flourish in poor soils, where they grow contentedly alongside sedately-growing, fine-leaved grasses.  Perennial wildflower meadows take time to develop their true glory.  Seeds can be sown this month, but these plants are unlikely to flower within their first few years of growth.  But don’t let this deter you, a perennial meadow is a beautiful place to be and creating a perennial meadow is a truly wonderful thing to do.  Perennial meadows benefit a wide range of insects and wildlife.  Once established, the plants will knit together to form an informal lawn replacement.

It’s important to make the time to cut perennial meadows during March; collect up your cut grass and remove all your mowings, so as not to enrich your soil’s fertility.

For optimum results, choose seeds of meadow plants that are suited to your soil type, moisture levels and situation.  Meadow plants thrive in open, sunny areas.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) has gorgeous ferny foliage; plants produces flat flowers in dusty shades of off-white or pink.  Achillea millefolium flowers display a horizontal form that’s refreshing and incredibly welcome; the flowers add another dimension to the meadow, giving a lovely contrast against the many vertical flowers and grasses.

Achillea millefolium.

Achillea flowers provide a useful landing pad for butterflies, hoverflies, flies, and other insects, who can relax and take a walk across the flowers, as they feed.

Betony (Betonica officinalis)

Betony (Betonica officinalis), produces spikes of purple flowers, held on stems of varying heights.  Each flowering stem is topped with chocolate-maroon and delivers whorls of purple flowers, from June to October.

Common knapweed (Centaurea nigra)

Common knapweed (Centaurea nigra) produces splayed flat-topped, purple, thistle-like flowers that attract bees and butterflies.  This wildflower may have some resemblance to a thistle, but there’s no need to keep your distance; this spine and spike free plant won’t hurt you.

Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum)

Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum) produces stems topped with frothy yellow flowers that are full of zing from early summer to autumn.  Galium vernum flowers appear bubbly and soft; their intensely coloured yellow blooms illuminate the plants around them and contrast beautifully with many colours, especially purple.

When dried, Galium verum produces the scent of sweet hay.

Vetch (Lathyrus pratensis)

Vetch (Lathyrus pratensis) is a naturally scrambling wild flower with classic pea-like yellow blooms.  In flower from May until August, this naturally sprawling perennial is a food plant for caterpillars of Cryptic Wood White and Wood White Butterflies.

Ragged robin (Silene flos-cuculi)

I smile whenever I think of Ragged robin (Silene flos-cuculi).  This super perennial thrives in moist soils, producing these gorgeous pinky-mauve flowers, during the spring and summer months.

Silene flos-cuculi.

Rough hawkbit (Leontodon hispidis)

Rough hawkbit (Leontodon hispidis) produces bright and cheerful yellow flowers that are often mistaken for dandelions.  This is a rosette forming plant that survives some mowing and so can also be included in areas that are mown more often.  Leontodon hispidis thrives in a traditional meadow.

Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)

Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) is such a good natured plant, it’ll grow almost anywhere, producing large and totally fabulous daisies.  With its long flowering season, Leucathemum vulgare is a delight to have around; it’s an important plant to include when sowing a new meadow, as plants of this Leucanthemum species settle in and establish themselves quickly, blooming ahead of the rest of the plants.

Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)

Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) is a sweet little darling; it’s also known as eggs and bacon, due to the colourings of its sunny yellow, orange and red flowers.  This dear little plant is ever so cute; it’s very versatile too, growing happily in almost any meadow type and attracting bees, butterflies, moths, and other insects.

Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris)

Buttercups (Ranunculus) create a meadow that looks like it has been carefully crafted from sunshine. Be warned that this perennial will rapidly colonise an area. Ranunculus acris is easy to grow with a long flowering season.

I love meadow buttercups (Ranunculus acris).  This upbeat wildflower is a cheerful fellow with an easy-going, happy disposition.  Ranunculus acris flowers seem to capture sunlight and radiate joy.; they shine and sparkle across the meadow  These tall meadow flowers grow to around a meter (3.3ft) tall, they flourish when grown in moist soils.  Beware that Ranunculus acris is a naturally spreading and conquering plant that soon takes control of new areas, flourishing on wet or moist ground.

If you have the space and a site with damp soil, I’d encourage you to plant and enjoy the magical spectacle of a buttercup meadow.  Plants are floriferous and fun!  Ranunculus acris bloom from April to October.

Cowslip (Primula veris)

Cowslips (Primula veris) are another plant for moist ground.  Like their relation the primrose (Primula vulgaris), cowslips (Primula veris) form rosettes of handsome and attractively veined leaves.

In springtime, Primula veris plants produce flowering stems topped with butter-yellow coloured, bell-shaped, perfumed flowers.  Primula veris grows to around 25cm (10 inches) tall.

Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris)

Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) is such a resilient wildflower.  Although Prunella vulgaris is shorter in stature than many of the other plants I’ve mentioned, this stocky plant seems to flourish in almost any soil or situation; plants are happy in well drained soil but I’ve seen them appear equally buoyant in moist or damp soils.  Prunella vulgaris flowers from May until September.  This gorgeous wildflower produces fat, maroon topped stems of purple flowers.  Prunella vulgaris is a valuable bee plant that also attracts butterflies, moths, and other pollinating insects.

Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor)

It’s important to grow only naturally reserved natured meadow grasses in a perennial meadow.  Many grasses, like the ones we see in regular lawns, are naturally vigorous and spreading, they’ll soon provide a hefty covering of leaves that covers every inch of ground.  If these robust and resilient grasses were grown in a meadow they would out compete the perennial meadow plants, which would be catastrophic.

Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) is an amazing annual that naturally weakens the vigour of its neighbouring meadow grasses, clovers, and wildflowers by taking some of these plants’ nutrients; in doing so, the Rhinanthus minor plants create room in their meadow for perennial flowers to establish and shine.

If you want to grow Rhinathus minor, to ensure success, you’ll need to source fresh, new seed, as yellow rattle seeds soon degrade; they aren’t viable when they’re more than a year old.  Sow Rhinanthus minor seed outside in September; these seeds need to experience cold winter temperatures in order to germinate and grow successfully.

As this is a root hemiparasite, to grow this plant successfully, it’s important to sow Rhinanthus minor seeds in amongst fine leaved meadow grasses, clovers, or other meadow plants.  Rhinanthus minor takes some important nutrients from the plants that grow around it, it won’t grow alone.  Plants will thrive when grown in moist soils and in well drained soils.

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)

Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) produces tall stems topped with frothy cream coloured flowers, from late spring until early autumn.  This sweetly scented plant flourishes in damp soils.

Dandelions (Taraxacum species)

There are more than 60 species of dandelions (Taraxacum species), so there’s a dandelion for almost every situation!  Dandelions seed readily.  Their flowers provide a wonderful food source for bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects.  As if that wasn’t enough, dandelion plants are also edible – every part of a Taraxacum plant can be eaten; a coffee substitute can be made from the plant’s roots, the flowers can be eaten raw or added to cooking, while the nutritious leaves can be used in salads or other dishes.

Clover (Trifolium pratense)

What could be lovelier than spending an afternoon looking for four-leaved clovers?  Absolutely nothing, I’m certain.

Clover (Trifolium pratense) is a Nitrogen-fixer that can help to enrich the soil.  This adorable plant produces fat round, bushy flowers in tones of pink.  A fantastic bee plant with handsome flowers.

Meadow plants for clay soils

If you have a clay soil, consider growing these plants:

  • Common knapweed (Centaurea nigra)
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
  • Betony (Betonica officinalis)
  • Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria)
  • Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum)
  • Hedge bedstraw (Galium album)
  • Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
  • Rough hawkbit (Leontodon hispidus)
  • Plantain (Plantago lanceolata)
  • Cowslip (Primula veris)
  • Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris)
  • Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris)
  • Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor)
  • Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
  • Ragged robin (Silene flos-cuculi)
  • Dandelions (Taraxaum)
  • Silaum silaus
  • Tufted vetch (Vicia cracca).

Meadow plants for sandy soils

While these plants are superb drought tolerant choices for sandy soils:

  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
  • Knapweed (Centaurea nigra)
  • Wild carrot (Daucous carota)
  • Viper’s bugloss (Echium vulgare)
  • Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum)
  • Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)
  • Toadflax (Linaria vulgaris)
  • Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)
  • Musk mallow (Malva moschata)
  • Hoary plantain (Plantago media)
  • Cowslip (Primula veris)
  • Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris)
  • Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris)
  • Scabious (Knautia arvensis)
  • Sorrel (Rumex acetosa)
  • Clover (Trifolium pratense)
  • Autumn hawkbit (Scorzoneroides autumnalis), are all drought tolerant plants that will prosper on sandy soils.

Meadow plants for chalk and limestone soils

A blue butterfly feeding on Scabiosa columbaria, also known as small scabious, at Pewley Down Nature Reserve in Guildford. Scabiosa columbaria thrives on chalk and limestone.

Some of our perennial meadow plants thrive on shallow chalky and lime-rich soils.  If you’re thinking about sowing a meadow in a thin, low fertility chalk or limestone soil, choose

  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
  • Kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria)
  • Knapweed (Centaurea nigra)
  • Greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa)
  • Wild basil (Clinopodium vulgare)
  • Wild carrot (Daucous carota)
  • Lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum)
  • Field scabious (Knautia arvensis)
  • Ox-eye daisies (Leucanthemum vulgare)
  • Rough hawkbit (Leontodon hispidis)
  • Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus cornicullatus)
  • Marjoram (Origanum onites)
  • Oregano (Origanum vulgare)
  • Cowslips (Primula veris)
  • Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris)
  • Hoary plantain (Plantago media)
  • Meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris)
  • Small scabious (Scabiosa columbaria).

Fast growing, native perennials

I love daisies; they’re cheerful flowers to grow in your garden. The blooms attract bees, butterflies, moths, hoover flies and other insects.

Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) is an absolute hero that bravely dashes in, readily colonising any soil (except for continually wet soils).  Plants produce gorgeous, cheerful daises, throughout the summer and autumn months.  Regular deadheading will extend your plants’ flower production.

I find Leucanthemum vulgare plants are keen to bloom.  Young plants take less time to reach flowering size, compared to most other perennial meadow plants; Leucanthemum vulgare are usually the first plants in bloom in a new perennial meadow.

Despite the dreadful, wet and stormy start to 2020; this year, a couple of my Leucanthemum vulgare plants began producing a few flowers at the end of January!  They’re still in bloom now, in early March.

Grow native plants to help wildlife

Lotus corniculatus, more commonly know as birdsfoot trefoil, planted in the butterfly meadow, around the Butterfly Dome, at the RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show 2017.

Native perennial plants benefit all manner of wildlife, their flowers provide pollen and nectar for bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects.  Many native plants are also food plants for caterpillars.  Bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) are a source of food for the caterpillars of a number of butterfly and moth species, including the Common Blue Butterfly.  Bird’s foot trefoil succeeds in any soil (with the exception of continually wet soils; although I often see this plant growing happily in areas that flood from time to time, or in soils that are wet during the winter months).

Cornfield annuals

Annual meadows, at their peak, are full of flowers. They can have a real impact on the garden.

Cornfield annuals, like poppies (Papaver rhoeas), cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), and corncockles (Agrostema githago), thrive in richer soils.  These plants add a vivacious sparkle, creating a floaty haze of flowers that will fill your garden beds and borders with delight!  Cornfield annuals sown in March, will flower this summer.  In April, make an additional sowing, over the same ground, to extend the flowering period.

Mistakes to avoid when starting a meadow

Avoid any temptation to sow meadow perennials and cornfield annuals together on the same patch.  These plants have different growing requirements.  To ensure success, evaluate your soil and choose to grow one or the other; annuals in fertile soils and perennials in poorer soils.

Exotic meadow and prairie plantings

Phacelia tanacetifolia is an annual plant that makes quite an impact! Plants are easily grown from seed sown from March to May. This plant is often grown as a green manure, but it makes an ornamental annual meadow plant that’s a rich source of pollen and nectar for bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects.

Want brighter colours?  Longer lasting blooms?  Create a sunlit prairie, using exotic plants, like Phacelia, Coreopsis, Ammi, Cosmos, or Rudbeckia.  These plants excel in rich soils, so they’re another option for your garden beds and borders.

These Rudbeckia flowers are as warming and golden as September sunshine.

Non-native plants aren’t as beneficial for wildlife as native plants, which are often food plants for caterpillars or other insects.  However, if you choose single flowered forms, these plants will produce an abundance of pollen and nectar for bees, butterflies, and other insects, throughout the summer months and well into autumn.

Plants for flowering lawns

Clover creates a green lawn with a country feel and flowers for bees, butterflies, and pollinating insects.

Prefer something shorter?  For a nectar-rich flowering lawn, cultivate bird’s foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus), selfheal (Prunella vulgaris), daisy (Bellis perennis), dandelion (Taraxacum species), ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata), rough hawkbit (Leontodon hispidus), red clover (Trifolium pratense) and white clover (Trifolium repens) and lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum).

These plants will form a charming flowering lawn that can be mown like a regular lawn.  However, if you allow this nectar-rich flowering lawn to grow just a smidgen longer than the traditional (devoid of flowers, boring monoculture, bowling green) lawn, you’ll create a tapestry of beneficial plants and flowers for bees, butterflies, and other insects.

Unlike the usually sown lawn grasses, red clover (Trifolium pratense) and white clover (Trifolium repens) retain their green colouring in summertime.  A clover lawn remains green, and feels lush and soft during the summer months; quite a contrast to the dried, faded stubble of the traditional grass lawns which are usually a faded shade of brown at this time of year.

Where to sow a meadow?

All meadows require a bright and sunny, open site.  None of these plants want to be hidden away in the shade.

Meadow preparation

First, take the time to clear the ground.  Meticulously weed your soil.  Don’t skimp on your preparations or it will be your undoing.  The preparatory work you do now will affect your meadow for years to come and will govern whether your meadow is successful or not.  Leaving weeds or any undesirable plants remaining in the ground will undo all your efforts.

Clearing the ground ready for sowing a meadow

If your soil is choked with docks, nettles, bindweed, couch grass, brambles, and other thuggish pernicious weeds, it is worth investing your time to clear the ground thoroughly.  Once you’ve meticulously weeded the site, leave the area for four weeks to allow time for the first flush of seeds that remain in the soil to germinate.  Then gently, but thoroughly, weed the ground and return in another four weeks to check it over again.  This will reduce the quantity of weeds that will compete with your meadow plants and will allow time for any remaining roots left in the soil to show themselves by producing leaves – when you can spot them and weed them out.  Repeat these steps until you’re sure that you’ve removed all traces of any undesirable plants.

My suggestion may seem dreary and without reward; particularly, as if you’re currently struggling to remove these vigorous plants I’d recommending weeding every four weeks and delaying sowing any seed direct on your meadow site until autumn.  Nonetheless, to ensure you’ll enjoy the tranquil beauty of a meadow in future, regular, painstaking weed removal is the most effective option.

Starting meadow seeds in containers

Don’t be downhearted, you can get started sowing seeds of perennial meadow plants in containers now.  Avoid the mistake of using rich compost – these plants need a poor, low fertility growing medium – perennial meadow plants will decline with the use of fertiliser.  Fill pots with low fertility soil from your site.  Remember to water your containers during dry weather.

Once your meadow area has been throughly cleared, you can plant out container grown plants in autumn, when the ground is free of any troublesome weeds.

When to sow meadow seeds

September is a superb time to sow seeds of traditional meadow plants, as many of these seeds require a period of cold vernalisation to trigger germination.  However, if you garden on clay or heavier soils that often become waterlogged over winter, springtime is often a more preferable time to sow seeds.  Our last autumn and winter was a wash out, so many seeds will have rotted in the soil or been washed away.  Happily, many of these meadow plants will germinate from a spring sowing.  March, April, and September, are the best months to sow seeds of hardy meadow plants.

If you have a heavy soil, you could try sowing seeds in containers, in September.  Fill planters with soil from your site and place your containers in a sheltered area, away from the worst of the winter weather.  Storing pots sown with meadow seeds in a refrigerator over autumn and winter will help to break the seed’s dormancy.  While, half-hardy and tender meadow plants can be started off in springtime.

When you’ve finished your preparations and your soil is bare, take dolly steps; tread, shuffle or moonwalk over the soil, to firm the ground.  Next, scatter seeds over the surface, then press your seeds into the soil by repeating your shuffle/moonwalking/rolling action.  You don’t want to bury the seeds; the aim is to sow seeds on the surface of firmed soil.  Press the seeds into the ground, so the seeds are in constant contact with the soil.  Remember to water during periods of dry weather.

A shortened version of this article was first published in the March 2020 edition of Vantage Point Magazine.

Other articles that may interest you…………

For some super tips of plants that provide pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies and flower for ages, please click here.

To read about my wildlife pond, please click here.

To read about my Tomato Trial, please click here.

For information of beautiful spring gardens to visit in Surrey, please click here.

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