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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’!

The choice of flowers

Both years I sowed from two packets:

  1. Seed Mix (Boston Seeds ‘Restore and Enrich’) – 23 native wildflowers, including annuals such as red poppies and cornflowers, and perennials, such as ox-eye daisies and meadow buttercup.

  2. Yellow rattle seeds

More on Yellow Rattle

Although the Boston Seeds mix already included some Yellow Rattle I sowed extra as it is a ‘wonder-flower’! As well as being a pretty, pollinator-friendly flower in its own right, it also helps to hold the grass in check. It is semi-parasitic and feeds on the grass, thus reducing its energy to grow too quickly and vigorously. Consequently the yellow rattle, and all the neighbouring flowers get more space to grow as well!

Plants instead of sowing

Spring 2021

Worried I wouldn’t see results this year, and also prompted by Gail and gardening gurus such as Monty Don, I decided to also try planting pre-grown flowers this spring rather than just relying on the seeds. I might have a go at growing my own from seed next year, but this year I wasn’t organised enough and so bought 50 plants – an expensive approach, especially when rabbits had half of them before they had a chance to establish!

And the results?

Spring 2020

Well, not a lot happened in spring and summer 2020, following the scarifying and sowing in autumn 2019. There were a handful of poppies and cornflowers, some birds foot trefoil….it was disappointing, but I was expecting it. Most of the flowers take the first year to establish themselves and don’t flower until the next.

The one flower that did well was the yellow rattle – perhaps not surprising as I’d sowed so much of it. And the effect on the grass was noticeable. The photo below from the end of the season (September 2020) shows the area where the yellow rattle had been. Notice how patchily the grass has grown compared to the surrounding areas.

The effect of yellow rattle sown into grass – green areas where grass has been held back.

Spring/Summer 2021

Well hurray! This June the 2019 sowing is beginning to show. May brought lots of daisies and buttercups which we’d already had, but then this month we’ve had an abundance of yellow rattle, common vetch and ox-eye daisies. The birds foot trefoil is also beginning to show.

Birds foot trefoil, ox-eye daises, buttercups, yellow rattle and common vetch – sown autumn 2019, flowering spring 2021

I’m not sure how well the molehill seeding has worked – I may have sowed them too late, or it may be that, as with the 2019 sowing, the real results will come in the second year. That said, I do have some poppies coming up from a few molehills, so maybe these are early good signs…

Poppy in a molehill

The plants I bought and planted earlier this spring (those that survived the rabbits), are also doing well – already much bigger and more established than the plants sown two years ago, like the red campion and red clover pictured below.

Red campion (left) and red wild clover (right) – planted and flowering spring 2021

What next? New discoveries this week!

While writing this this week, I’ve also been talking to people on the Moor Meadows Facebook group about no dig approaches to meadow making. There have been two types of suggestion: 1) Use nature’s opportunities – e.g. sow in mole hills or where animals have dug, or 2) Mimic nature – e.g. mow the grass very short as though it has been grazed, tread the seeds down in to the soil like an animal treading on the ground.

I love the molehills approach and will do that again this autumn, although I am yet to find out if it’s going to work. I’m also going to take advantage of an area of bare earth in the corner of the meadow where Brian has done some landscaping and have already bought a wildflower and grasses mix to sow there.

Maybe I should get me a few sheep too – let them do the work.

Rough grassland discovery

One really important piece of information that I got from the Facebook group – and it’s kind of thrown everything I’ve done up in the air – was that the thick Yorkshire Fog grassland that we have here is a really valuable habitat for mice and voles, and therefore also for their predators – barn owls for example. Known as ‘rough grassland’, if the grass is left to grow and then left to die back down (rather than cutting and clearing, as I’ve been doing), it creates a litter layer of dead thatch under the new grass – great for little critters to burrow. And wildflowers grow in it too – perhaps just not as many as the hay meadow. A really good video on this here.

Wow! There was me thinking that because the Yorkshire Fog was not ideal for hay meadow making it didn’t have any value at all. Pretty stupid assumption really. I’m so glad I know this now. I’ll probably still continue the hay meadow approach of cutting and clearing the areas where I’ve already sown seeds, but this has certainly made me think twice about attempting to convert the whole area to a hay meadow style wildflower area. It feels like I am learning a very important lesson in working with nature where it wants to be not where I want it to be!

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