The following excerpt is from Matt Rees-Warren’s new book The Ecological Gardener (Chelsea Green Publishing, April 2021) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.
(All photographs courtesy of Matt Rees-Warren.)
There can be little doubt that the surge of interest in wildflower meadows in recent years is due to a growing appreciation for indigenous plant species. Many have lamented their almost total loss, but many more have had to ask: What is a wildflower meadow? The answer would seem at first rather simple, with many of us able to conjure up an image of a colorful rolling pasture. And yet, as with much in the mysterious world of horticulture, everything isn’t always quite what it seems. Meadows can take on many novel forms and although they can sometimes look similar, they have vastly different means of survival.
The most distinctive difference is between those that are natural and those that are manipulated by human and animal intervention. Natural meadows are areas of ground that usually experience harsh climatic conditions that resist the normal successional formation of forests. They might occur above the tree line in the mountains, along the salt- and wind-lashed coastline, or in areas of severe drought and fire such as deserts or prairies. These specific environments– sometimes called perpetual meadows – are the perfect places for perennial grasses and wildflowers to make their own and, over many thousands of years, create highly diverse sustainable habitats. Natural meadows can also form as successional stages where a previously forested area suffered a disturbance – a fire, for instance – but these will only ever be fleeting and are sometimes called transitional meadows. All other meadows that we are likely to see were formed by human intervention.
It all begins with agriculture, and the way our early farminga ncestors, by chance or design, managed to marry these two distinct types of meadows together. First, they created a transitional meadow by clearing the land of trees and scrub through burning or felling, and then mimicked the perpetual meadow by establishing grazing patterns for their livestock to stop the forest ever forming again. Why hasn’t the type of grazing still practiced the world over today – in a far more intensive form – not resulted in a world full of wildflowers meadows, then? Because wildflower meadows require a delicate balance between over- and under-grazing. Traditionally, another stage of agricultural production, hay-making, helped strike this balance. To feed and sustain a population of livestock year-round on grass, the traditional method was to allow some fields to go ungrazed through the spring and early summer, and then cut in late summer for hay that could be fed through the winter. This would give perennial flower sand grasses the chance to reach their potential within the year, and as farmers left these fields like this for many hundreds of years, they became, in essence, managed perpetual wildflower meadows. The key to the meadows’ species diversity lay in the fact that this method depletes the soil of nutrients due to the full growth of the plants, much like growing crops would; therefore, over time, grasses began to yield to more adventitious wildflowers that fared better in the nutrient-poor soil. Unfortunately, farming practices changed completely after the Second World War, with the intro-duction of herbicides, faster growing grass species and silage production, all combining to eradicate the late summer hay-cut, and, as such, meadows disappeared in line with these changes.
This history is vitally important before we embark on creating our own wildflower meadows, and so too is one further distinction. Meadows are always perennial, but they have a close relative in annual cornflowers. Once again, agriculture laid the path for their prosperity by producing arable land for crop growing. The soil is first ploughed to remove all vegetation, and this bare earth induces the flowering of a vast seed bank that has been waiting patiently for its moment to break out of dormancy. As this cyclical ploughing persisted, so too did an ever more diverse population of annual species benefiting from the lack of competition from their perennial cousins. The farmers saw these species as only weeds, taking away from their designated crop, and once again changed their methods, resulting in the disappearance of arable wildflowers. We need to realize this difference, as an annual cornflower field requires annual ploughing to induce the seed into flowering and is not a meadow at all. This is counter to the methodology for creating a wildflower meadow, which requires absolutely no ploughing whatsoever – an important distinction to remember!
If understanding the difference between wildflower groups is vital, this pales into insignificance beside knowing what a wild-flower meadow does for the natural world and ultimately why we would want to restore and recreate this habitat. Meadows offer a wealth of sustenance and habitat for wildlife, but perhaps more importantly they are evocative and beautiful to us. Much of wildlife habitat can be rough and scraggly, but wildflower meadows are like paintings of loose expression and color, which, combined with what they provide to the natural world, makes them feel like the perfect blend of human and wild creation.
Deciding which species to sow in your meadow is one of the first steps, and although this can be daunting, there are general seed collections to guide you. However, your site will always have variations of soil, aspect, water drainage and microclimate that are unique from any other, so it’s worth researching the correct mixture of species suitable to your conditions. Also, in the centuries that wildflower meadows were present in the landscape, dazzling diversity of species took hold that became quite specialized to certain local regions. Many of these species are now either extinct or critically endangered, so seeking out the latter will not only restore a lost heritage but also engender a wider amount of biodiversity within the meadow. Common wildflower meadow species include: meadow buttercup (Ranunculus acris), ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), greater knapweed (Centaureascabiosa), lady’s bedstraw (Galium verum), meadow foxtail (Alopecurus pratensis), meadow brome (Bromus commutatus) and sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum).
Wanderlust will only take you so far though, and with meadows it’s really only time and labor that will yield results. A wildflower meadow can be grown anywhere and be of any size, but why not start with the grassy sward many of us already possess: a lawn? A lawn is a type of meadow, albeit a rather strange one with unusual species in it, so it seems only logical to reimagine it as a wildflower meadow.