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Meadow Making

Meadow June 2021 – Ox-eye daisies, yellow rattle, buttercups

Here’s me, yesterday, proudly posing with my patch of meadowing success – a tumbling, waving, intertwining, buzzing mixture of grasses and wild flowers. Finally! As everyone warned me, it’s a game of patience – but at last here’s something to show for my efforts. I’ve been pretty despondent about this project at times, wondering whether I was doing it right, or whether there was any point in doing it at all, but while the sun is shining on me and my patch is alive with colour and insects, I thought I’d share my journey so far.

Our meadow

Behind the house there is about an acre of grassland that slopes down to the house. There is a mature damson tree in the middle, and now a sprinkling of young trees planted by us around its margins. The land is tussocky and lumpy – due in part I imagine, to the many many hills thrown up over the years by generations of mining moles.

April 2018 – Our lumpy bumpy slopey meadow

In our first summer, 2018, we had a local tractor driver come by occasionally and cut the grass for us. Meanwhile, we wondered what to do with this area. It was clearly not destined to be a fancy flat lawn, and we had no appetite for attempting to see off the moles – all options for this seemed either useless or brutal.

Letting it grow – The start of it all

At the start of 2019 we had hired our brilliant gardener, Gail, who suggested we leave the grass to grow and see what happened. This idea has now really caught on, with lots of us understanding the wildlife value of leaving the grass to grow, but just two years ago it hadn’t occurred to us. Yet it seemed brilliantly simple and let us off the hook of any complicated landscaping.

What grew was beautiful: tall, soft, billowing Yorkshire Fog grass, interspersed with wild flowers here and there: buttercups and daisies, poppies, common mallow, red and white campion.

Summer 2019, after deciding to let the grass and flowers grow freely

We mowed meandering paths through the area. As the grass grew taller and hid the paths from view, they became more and more romantic and magical to walk along – or hide in, for our young daughter.

Yorkshire Fog

This success got me curious about wild flower meadows. Could we develop what was already here and create a meadow with even more flowers? I bought Pam Lewis’ book ‘Making a Wildflower Meadow’ and started my research.

I was soon disappointed. Our beautiful Yorkshire Fog grass was considered too virulent for a wildflower meadow – its vigorous habit would swamp new seedlings trying to get established. Pam Lewis’ suggestion, and others I have read, is that the best way to establish a really good meadow is to scrape off the top soil and start again, laying down more nutrient-poor soil which is what wildflowers do best in (this because the grasses grow more slowly in less nutritious soil, giving the flowers more of a chance to see the light) – and sowing seeds for gentler, less bullying grasses than our Yorkshire Fog.

Yorkshire Fog at various stages of growth – closed/open

I’ve never had the appetite for this though. There’s already so much earth moving going on here with different landscaping and building work – it would be terrible to have the meadow area all bare too. And it would be an immense job – too much for me!

So instead, I have carried on working with the unideal but lovely Yorkshire Fog (read on for important new discovery about this), following all other advice in the hope that we might get some more flowers established despite our grassy impediment.

Replicating hay meadow traditions

Traditional wildflower meadows developed over centuries due to the human activities of hay making and animal grazing. The annual cutting and removing of hay depleted the soil’s nutrients, and then droppings from the grazing animals redressed the balance sufficiently for the hay to grow again. The level of nutrients was just right for wildflowers to grow between the grasses. Furthermore, the hooves of the animals would disturb the soil, leaving bare patches where young seedlings could get established without too much competition from neighbouring grass.

For the last two summers – 2019 and 2020 – I have followed advice to replicate the hay making tradition, by cutting the grass at the end of the summer, leaving the cuttings for a week or two for seeds to drop off and creatures to escape to new homes, and then gathering all the cuttings up. This saves the cuttings from a) adding more nutrition to the soil, b) forming a ‘thatch’ that new seedlings cannot penetrate.

A family weekend brought an impromptu opportunity for some hay gathering

This is not easy – it’s a lot of work! And actually, I’ve only ever managed to collect up grass from about a quarter of the whole meadow area. In 2019 I was lucky that on a sunny family gathering the idea of a picturesque bonding session of hay making struck everyone as a great afternoon’s activity. Last year I was on my own (weren’t we all?) – well my nine year old did help a bit too – and it took me four hours to rake up and clear away about a quarter.

I’m not sure if there’s an easier way. The grass is too long for a mower that could collect. We get our tractor driver to come over. Scything, as many meadowers do, is just a step too far for me at the moment, although I like the idea of a quieter, gentler method than the heavy, noisy tractor.

Of course we had piles and piles of hay. I did ask on the local Facebook page whether anyone would like it but was met with silence. I’ve since learned that some wildflowers, specifically ragwort (which we do have, although not in abundance) is dangerous for horses if they eat it in their hay, so I guess that might explain the disinterest. Still, I can use it for making compost and mulching myself now that I’m getting the hang of those.

It would be handy if I could borrow a sheep or goat or other grazing animal or two for the autumn and winter months – they could keep the grass short and open the ground with their hooves. But with zero experience of looking after live stock I’m not rushing into this just yet!

How to sow the seeds

When sowing onto thick grass rather than bare soil, there has to be a way of getting the seeds into the ground. I’ve tried two approaches to this over the last two years – one mechanical, one natural.

1. Scarifying with the digger – Autumn 2019

To prepare the ground for sowing I did my version of ‘scarifying’, or breaking up the soil. Usually this is done with a rake, but for some reason that I can’t remember now , I used the digger instead – scraping the ground with the bucket ‘teeth’.

Scarifying the area with the digger – Autumn 2019

This was a pretty crude improvisation, and although two years on it looks like it might have had the desired effect, I don’t feel good about the method. With veggie growing I am taking a ‘no dig’ approach, minimising disturbance of the soil as much as possible to avoid damaging the structure of the soil eco-system and to keep the carbon under the ground (see my post on this here) – so I’d like any future meadow work to be no dig too if possible.

2. Sowing into mole hills – Autumn 2020

A no dig method that happened more by accident than design last year was using molehills. I’d bought more seeds but then hesitated all through the autumn about how to sow them. Then as autumn turned to winter and I gazed out the window at the lush green meadow I had the last minute idea of sowing into the hundreds of mole hills that had appeared over the preceding months. No need for scarifying – little pockets of soil were already exposed. I mixed the seeds with sand, sprinkled them onto the hills and squashed them down with my heel. Easy, and completely ‘no dig’!