For my readers in the UK and beyond.
Did you know that a shocking 97% of the UK’s wild meadows have disappeared in the last century? Well, it therefore, should be no surprise that biodiversity, and wild bees, are also in danger of disappearing.
Understanding the importance of meadows in preserving biodiversity and knowing how we can contribute, is the first step to protecting the environment and wildlife in the UK, just a little at a time.
By taking the decision to contribute to a small slice of meadow in your own home, be it your balcony, your garden or your windowsill, you are too supporting the restoration of meadows in the UK.
What is a Meadow?
Meadows are lands where a variety of wildflowers and grass are in abundance. In the UK, they have traditionally been lands used to grow hay and are often also referred to as grasslands.
Meadows are not usually used for pasture or animal grazing and so their soil remains of low fertility. It is this exact low fertility that supports the growth of resilient plants we call wildflowers and grasses, forming the meadow we know.
Why Are Meadows So Important?
Meadows are essential to biodiversity as they provide larvae and adult feeding resources for insects, which in turn support the livelihood of birds, bats and small mammals.
Taller grasses can also serve as a good habitat for animals laying eggs, building nests and hibernating. At the same time, wildflowers have deeper roots compared to lawns and grass, helping retain moisture in the soil and hence preventing floods during heavy rains.
What Are The Different Types of Meadows?
There are many different types of meadows, characterised by the species and soil type on which they grow. Some of the most common types of meadows in the UK are upland hay meadows, seasonally flooded meadows and lowland meadows.
Visually, meadows differ by the height and colour of the species that grow there. For example, a species-rich meadow full of perennials like coneflowers, bee balm and sage, will be tall and bring gentle colours year after year, while one less species-rich will most likely welcome buttercups and clover, maintaining a low profile.
How to Create a Meadow
Where Should You Start Your Meadow?
A meadow can exist in any size, anywhere. You can create a meadow by the sidewalk, in a public park, at the end of your garden, your roof, or even in a small pot on your patio.
There are a few things you should consider when selecting the right space for your new meadow:
- Public Interaction – Will the meadow attract litter, obscure the path of dog walkers or create a safety concern?
- Maintenance – How much time and effort are you willing to put into maintaining the meadow? Perhaps it is better to start small.
- Soil Type – Is your soil too fertile? Soil fertility and type will determine whether you can grow a meadow and what type.
- Appearance – Will a mature meadow have a desirable appearance or will it be deemed an eye sore? While a meadow can be bursting with colours in summer, for some, it might appear scrappy in winter.
What Types of Plants Should You Have in Your Meadow?
Meadows are typically a mix of grasses and wildflowers. Depending on your soil type, commitment and the appearance of the meadow you wish to have, the mix will include different ratios of perennials, annuals and grasses.
These are things to consider when choosing different types of plants for your meadow:
- Perennials – These plants provide a very good source of nectar and a year-round habitat for smaller insects. They require little maintenance and will come back year after year. However, a perennial-rich meadow requires patience as it may take years to reach full maturity and a steady flowering rhythm.
- Annuals – Chamomile, Poppies and Cornflowers are examples of annual wildflowers. They flower relatively soon after they are sowed and come with strong, vibrant colours, making them more popular than perennials. Their downfall, they are not as efficient in seeding and will need manual help to come back each year.
- Grasses – Although ryegrass has become the most common grass in the UK, meadow grasses can easily be identified as rushes, sedges or grasses. Some examples include the feathery Yorkshire fog, the fluffy Meadow foxtail and the proud Cocksfoot grass.
As a starting point, consider that most meadows contain an 80-20 ratio of Grass : Wildflowers and try to maintain a similar ratio. If in doubt, these are some organisation offering high quality wildflower mixes that you can start with:
- Emorsgate Seeds Ltd (recommended by Devon Biodiversity Record Centre)
- Plantlife (also a charity)
How To Start Planting A Meadow
The effort required to create a meadow will entirely depend on you and the state of the existing land. You may simply choose to stop using pesticides and leave your lawn untended (this will also lead to a future meadow) or decide to remove all and start from bare earth.
If you plan on starting from zero, here are the main steps you will need to take:
- Prepare the Soil – This means stripping and turning the soil over until you have only bare earth and as little plant matter as possible (remember plants are compost and compost is fertiliser, which we don’t want in a meadow).
- Sow Your Seeds – Seeds should be sowed at a rate of 4g/m2. If this is too technical, don’t worry about it, just spread them sparsely by hand. OR
- Plant Plugs – If you opt to buy small plants instead of seeds, you should ensure you are spacing them enough when planting. OR
- Lay a Wildflower Turf – Similar to lawns, meadows can also come ready-made as turf. When deciding whether you would like to buy wildflower turf, please remember it comes with a plastic mesh which will eventually break into small pieces into your soil. OR
- Spread Green Hay – Spreading green hay cut from an existing meadow will encourage the seeds to set and shed onto your soil, forming the beginnings of your own meadow.
Starting a meadow is very simple and can be tailored to each persons own capacity and time for further maintenance.
How to Maintain Your Meadow
The maintenance of a wildflower meadow is a lot less than a manicured garden. Some of the key aspects of meadow maintenance are keeping the nettles, docks and thistles under control and cutting the grasses once a year.
When considering the maintenance of your meadow, remember the the less you cut the better and so cutting once a year is perfectly acceptable. A better time to cut might be in the warming of spring, just before the plants start to flower and right after hibernation has ended. A fine line, I know!
Nettles, docks and thistles are notorious for spreading and competing against other wildflowers. One way to control them is by reducing their population a little every year and making sure they do not overtake a big area of your meadow. Planting yellow rattles and eyebright will also help control grasses from spreading too much.
Meadows are crucial for bees and other wildlife and provide a haven for them (and us), especially in urban settings. Some of my fondest memories include walking in a sea of grass or waiting impatiently for spring to bring all the wild colours back, the reds and blues, the pinks and purples, the yellows.
Starting a meadow does not take much, in fact it takes less effort than to maintain a perfect lawn! But, as nature kindly teaches us about growth, meadows require patience. Some meadows might need up to 15 years to reach full maturity, making it a marathon, not a race.
If starting your own meadow sounds like too much effort, then simply do nothing! Leave the edge of your lawn untended, use less fertiliser and no pesticides, or ask your council if they can leave the strips by the road alone.
And if, in the contrary, you can’t get enough of your meadow, and want to do more, consider adding fruit trees, a bug hotel, a pond, bird and bat boxes or even a bench for you to enjoy the magic of the wild. You can also visit any of the listed meadows on the Wildlife Trust website for a fun day out.