Some 41 years ago my wife Hilary and I had the opportunity to plan our garden from scratch: the area was an arable field growing barley immediately before development took place in the south west quadrant of Stony Stratford. The soil is a heavy loam over clay and is slightly alkaline. The original plan was not strongly influenced by the needs of wildlife but fortuitously it did include flower- and fruit-producing shrubs and trees (cotoneaster, pyracanthus, crab apple, holly, bird cherry, apple and plum) as well as buddleia and sycamores on one boundary (the last courtesy of MK Development Corporation). For the rest, it was planned as a conventional lawn with small flower beds and vegetable plot. The shrubs and trees are mostly still extant and have proven to be a good investment for wildlife providing cover and attracting winter bird species such as resident and winter visiting thrushes, tits, sparrows, finches, an occasional redpoll, and for one memorable period in spring 2017 a small flock of Waxwings. In spring and early summer, the blossom is also good for insects of all sorts particularly bees and bumble bees: the trees are visited by other common woodland garden birds all year round.
Gardens evolve over time and ivy has established itself as an important additional species for wildlife. Planned changes have seen the vegetable plot added to the lawn and the flower beds reduce in area as the shrubs and trees become dominant. It is the lawn itself which has taken my main garden attention over the past 20 years.
From lawn to mini ‘meadow’
Garden lawns grown from seed are usually made up of a limited range of the coarser grass species. My aim in converting to a meadow ecosystem was to increase the biodiversity of the area with more species of flowering plants, which in turn would attract more invertebrates (butterflies, moths, bees, beetles, grasshoppers, spiders, snails, slugs, and more), and again in turn more vertebrates (frogs, toads, and newts), and their predators (I do not have a pond so I must thank two of my neighbours for the semi-aquatic species). The main top predators to date have been birds, bats, Grass Snake (just once), and the occasional Hedgehog – a mini food chain. ‘Meadow’ is not a precise term but mine now provides some succession of flowering plants alongside the grasses over the early spring to September period: one area is in semi shade under fruit trees and the other in full sun with a mown lawn path between them.
Which new plants to introduce and how?
It is an option to just let nature take its course and see what happens once you stop mowing and fertilising the lawn. My first venture into creating a meadow area was driven by a wish to include Snakeshead Lily (Fritillaries) which were purchased in flower and put into the ground during April. Some ten plants in flower were dug into the lawn in semi shade and these have multiplied very successfully from their seed since then. I have had similar successes with planting flowering Cowslips and Primrose; less so with Ragged Robin and Meadow Cranesbill, but I keep trying. In other cases. I have introduced wild seed either in the autumn or early spring having first scraped the lawn with a rake. The one ‘must have’ species is Yellow Rattle which will help to control the dominance of the existing grasses on which it is semi-parasitic.
I have been surprised by the variety of what appears on its own account. For example, Ox-eye Daisy, Sweet Violet, Germander Speedwell, Bulbous Buttercup, Self-Heal, Black Meddick, Cut-Leaved Cranesbill, Common Vetch, Marjoram, Knapweed and Wild Carrot have all established themselves without intervention. Others have appeared and, disappointingly so far, then disappeared including Bee Orchid, Pyramidal Orchid, Twayblade and Lady’s Bedstraw.
The succession with overlaps between them starts in early spring with Sweet Violet and Primrose; April, Snakeshead Fritillary; Cowslip in May; Ox Eye Daisy, Bulbous Buttercup, Yellow Rattle, Self-Heal and grasses through late May, June to early July; and finally, Wild Carrot and Knapweed through to September.
Depending on the weather I usually mow over the meadow areas not later than early March on a high setting. During the growing season I try to balance the need for ‘weeds’ to be controlled while at the same time avoiding trampling on the species I am trying to encourage! So, what is a ‘weed’ in a garden meadow? Since the primary objective is biodiversity I consider as a weed any species that will dominate if not controlled. This includes some of the coarse grasses even with Yellow Rattle well established (e.g. Rye Grass and Cocksfoot), Ragwort, Common Cleavers, Dandelion, and tree seedlings. In fact the plant which has proved most difficult to control is a highly invasive garden geranium species!
I cut the meadow after the seeds have set. For early flowering plants like the fritillaries this may be mid-July but for others it will be from mid-August to early September. Before cutting I collect the seed of those plants which I want to spread elsewhere. As to cutting, my preferred method is with shears on hands and knees. This has a number of advantages: you can control the height at which you cut; there is less ‘collateral’ damage to wildlife in the meadow (e.g. resident frogs); and it also allows selective removal of the ‘weeds’ that I have been unable deal with during the growing period. I let the cut material dry off for further seed fall and then compost. I do a high cut mow over the area during September and October before winter sets in.
Find out more and give it a try
Julie Lane offered some very helpful generic advice on Gardening for Wildlife on the website as a follow up to the 17th November Members’ evening on this topic. There is also much published material about gardening for wildlife and if you are interested in creating your own mini meadow you may want to follow one of these up (e.g. https://rspb.org.uk/get-involved/startawildlfowermeadow or just put ‘RSPB start a wildflower meadow’ in your search engine). It really can make a difference to your garden’s biodiversity and whilst it is not maintenance-free, it is for no better cause!