Some of the finest remaining meadows in Wiltshire are owned and managed by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, and we can be pleased that they are safe and protected. All but 3% of lowland species rich meadow have been ploughed up or “improved” since the last war. We have witnessed, in this time, an agricultural revolution, and our green, farmed countryside is now mostly dominated by monocultures of man-made cultivars of Rye Grass, Wheat, Rape, Barley and Sugar Beet.

We need food, and we need a healthy environment, and we need nature. You could say that the harm done to nature, and to the environment, has gone too far. It is not the farmer’s fault. It was UK and EU agricultural policy, pushing for greater and greater food production, come what may. But now, we are where we are. Our countryside is not what it was. However, a garden meadow can help to restore nature, and can help to heal the environment. However small, every little meadow contributes. It all adds up.

But is it worth it? 45 years ago the late Dr Terry Wells (my hero) of The Institute of Terrestrial Ecology conducted experiments and devised methodology for the production of native seeds for use in meadow creation and restoration. At that time, it was recognized that meadow conservation and restoration was important, and today it is even more so. The combined value of the ecosystem services meadows provide (carbon storage, clean air and water, flood prevention, pollinator services, biodiversity) now far exceeds the value gained from turning more wild land over to food production.

Take pollinator services. Grasses and cereals do not directly provide pollinator services. They do not produce nectar and/or sticky pollen. But meadow flowers do. A study by Bristol University found that, acre for acre, nature reserves produced the greatest abundance of pollinator services (nectar and sticky pollen), with gardens coming a close second, and conventional farmland way down the scale. Unsurprisingly, they also found that native species produced greater pollinator services than bred garden flowers (which are often sterile hybrids, or double flowered and sterile). Also, and interestingly, when comparing individual native species, they found that some species that we may consider to be weeds, Ragwort and Thistles, are amongst the best providers of pollinator services.

Photograph of a meadow at Manor Farm in Bath

There are two ways to make a garden meadow. One is to sow onto bare prepared soil (meadow creation). The other is to sow into existing species poor grass, such as a lawn (meadow restoration). Ground preparation and seed sowing is quite different for each method, but management and aftercare are much the same.

Sowing onto bare prepared soil (meadow creation)

Select ground that is not highly fertile, and does not have a problem with perennial weeds. Remove any existing vegetation by repeated cultivation or turf stripping. Then dig to bring up clean soil, rake to produce a medium tilth, and roll or tread to produce a firm surface.

Sow in the autumn or the spring, or at any other time of the year if the ground conditions are good. The seed must be sown on the surface, as most wild meadow seeds require exposure to light to break dormancy. Do not incorporate or cover the seed, but firm in with a roll, or by treading, to give good seed/soil contact.

Sowing into existing species poor grass (meadow restoration)

Meadow restoration is more challenging than meadow creation, and success depends upon, (1) a good site, (2) very hard scarification, (3) autumn sowing and (4) Yellow Rattle. Note that this method is only suitable for autumn sowing.

Select an area of lawn, the bigger the better, on poor to moderately fertile soil. Prepare in late summer by cutting very low. Then scarify very hard by raking, aiming to create around 50% bare soil. This is best done when the ground is dry. Sow on the surface in the autumn using a mixture of meadow seeds containing Yellow Rattle. Then roll to firm back the soil and give good seed/soil contact.

Photograph of yellow rattle and red clover

Yellow Rattle is a hemi-parasitic annual of other plant species. Its’ hosts include Perennial Ryegrass and Yorkshire Fog. Sowing Yellow Rattle can reduce competition from existing grasses.

Management and mowing

The management is the same each year. Leave the garden meadow uncut from the end of March to mid-summer, allowing the sown species to flower in June and July. After flowering, cut and remove the vegetation. A scythe is ideal. Then maintain as mown lawn through to the end of March in the following year. A scythe can also be used to selectively cut perennial weeds, but make sure it is done as the weeds flower and before seed set.

Part of the joy of a meadow is watching it change through the summer, and seeing it become more diverse and structured as the years roll by. From our observations, it appears that the structure of a meadow is conducive to the establishment of additional species from seed borne on the wind. Astonishingly, one of our new meadows was colonised by seven species of Orchid, four species of which must have travelled 10-20km to get to our spot.

 Blog written by Donald MacIntyre, Emorsgate Seeds. 

About Emorsgate Seeds:

Emorsgate Seeds, who hold a Royal Warrant, established in 1980 and grows seeds of native wildflowers and grasses. These seeds are supplied throughout Britain for use in the creation and restoration of species-rich native grasslands and other habitats. 

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