Wildflower Spaces, Meadows, lawns and alternatives

Steve Head, Forum Coordinator
June 2017
Common spotted orchid in Jenny Steele's wildflower meadow

About 90 people came to our conference on Wildflower Meadows at Magdalen College Oxford in June. We had a morning of talks and discussions on the generalities and practicalities of wildflower meadow creation, then in the afternoon we visited the Oxford University Botanic Garden to have a look at their new Merton Borders.  These are definitely not meadows in any sense of the word, but they are a novel (and cheap) approach to filling a large area with vigorous perennial plants, flowering colourfully and attracting pollinators over most of the spring and summer.

Designed and installed by Professor James Hitchmough of Sheffield University, the beds are planted with drought-tolerant plants from three biogeographic provinces, North American prairie, South African Veldt, and Mediterranean/Europe Asia steppe.  Delegates were amazed that the borders were planted from seed, not established plants' which slashed the otherwise huge costs of the 850m2 site.  The densely established perennial plants need relatively little management and no watering.  There is really no reason why a similar approach – planting into 10cm of sand on a carefully prepared site – could not work at the garden scale, either just to create something visually stunning, or by concentrating on near-native species from the western Palearctic and Mediterranean, as a consciously wildlife enhancing alternative.

Self-heal and bird's foot trefoil hesitantly appearing in my lawn

For most of us, introducing biodiversity into our existing lawns is something we would like to achieve.  I would really like to hear your experiences – both good and bad, using the website comments option on Contact Us.

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Wildlife Gardeners behind one of the Eurasian plantings in the Merton Borders

This made me think about why I feel these plantings could offer a sideways look at why people want to plant “wildflower meadows” in their gardens.  In my introduction to the conference I noted that “meadows” mean different things to different people, and suggested that what many people yearn for is the real or implanted romantic memory of open fields full of wildflowers and butterflies. 

We heard from Jenny Steele that with time, patience and careful management this can be achieved.  It isn’t easy however, with major problems over high fertility causing grasses to outgrow the flowers, as well as weed incursion from the old soil layer.

Stuart Ball from John Chambers Seeds talked about growing meadows from seed, and James Hewetson-Brown showed how special wildflower turf can be a quick solution.  Both of these methods exclude competitive grass, achieving a colourful display relatively easily, but as we all emphasised, only after very careful preparation of the site, and subsequent management.  But neither approach is really a “meadow” – the essence of which is historically managed grass for fodder, with the flowers as a bonus on top.

James used a phrase I found instantly compelling, referring to these “non-meadows” as “Wildflower Spaces”.  I’ve been searching for a word that is much broader than “meadow” or “flowery lawn”, but captures the romantic essence of what we are looking for –  large expanses of flowers which we can walk through, at least at certain times of the year.  Even the best SSSI meadow won’t look good after extensive trampling. Furthermore, “real” meadows only carry flowers for a short season, while these other approaches can be in bloom for much longer.

I’ve always “had it in” for stripy lawns, so I’m keen to get on with the “Lawns” section of this website, where we can discuss improving lawns for wildlife, as well as the quicker new alternatives.  On that score, I’m delighted that after 25 years of cutting and removing arisings, plus no weedkillers or fertilisers, my lawn is beginning at last to look awful. That is to say, it’s getting full of flowering broad-leaved (largely) natives.  I’m experimenting with cutting desire-line paths, and leaving the areas where the grass is weak to grow long and flower.  I love it!