Wildflower Management: Creating Perennial Meadows

Neighbourhoods Green

Planting a perennial wildflower meadow will require a little more effort than sowing annual wildflower seeds; however the investment will help to create an area which you can enjoy year after year.

Perennial meadows contain a mixture of wildflowers and grasses. The grasses will need to be monitored for the first few years, to ensure that they are prevented from becoming dominant (see perennial meadow management).

Plant selection

You will need to choose plants that are appropriate to your site – there are wildflowers for every aspect and every kind of soil/ pH. You will find a useful table of wildflowers for different situations here.

Try to use wildflowers that are endemic to your region to help boost local populations. You can find the details of native wildflowers found in your area using the National Biodiversity Network's database, which is searchable by area.

This database will bring up all of the species in the area so you will need to select 'flowering plant' to view the wildflower species in that area. Not all of the wildflowers listed on the database will be commercially available. The RHS Plant Finder tool will enable you to find UK suppliers for those that are: http://apps.rhs.org.uk/rhsplantfinder/  

Creating the meadow

There are several approaches to creating a new wildflower meadow:

  • From existing grassland

Lawns or long grass areas can be converted into wildflower meadows. This works best where the plant species are already diverse and where coarse grasses such as ryegrass and cocksfoot are not prevalent.

To prepare your lawn or grassland, stop using fertilizers and herbicides and remove all grass cuttings for as long as possible prior to conversion to help reduce the soil’s fertility. It is important to reduce the fertility of the soil so that the growth of grasses will not out-compete that of wildflowers. For fertile sites, stripping off the topsoil as described in method two is much more effective at reducing fertility than removal of clippings.

The most reliable way to establish plants in grassland is to use pot-grown specimens or plug-plants, planted directly into holes in the turf. Many wildflower suppliers offer plug plants that are ideal for planting into an established lawn or long grass area (see useful contacts). Plant in either spring or early autumn and encourage good root growth by watering during dry spells in the first season. For a natural look, plant in small groups or drifts of the same plant.

You will find that some wild species will establish and thrive, while others will be less suited to your soil type or conditions.

  • On a cleared site

Any vegetation should be hoed repeatedly (or covered with a weed-suppressing membrane), leaving the site clear.

Perennial wildflowers prefer a poorer soil than annuals, so with very fertile soils the topsoil may need to be removed before sowing. As the topsoil depth will vary and some can be 30cm or more deep before the subsoil layer is reached (usually a paler colour), this is a big undertaking that will require machinery such as mini-diggers to achieve. Try to find a use for the removed topsoil locally, to fill raised beds, or create a new planting area, for example.

Wildflower seed suppliers offer mixtures of wildflowers and grasses suitable for various soil types and situations. A mixture of 85% grasses and 15% wildflower seeds is ideal. Many suppliers will offer spring or summer meadow mixes where the wildflower species favour a particular season. Choose one that suits your purposes and local conditions and sow at the rate of about 5g/sq metre. Where possible, obtain seed of British origin (see useful contacts). Plants should not be taken from the countryside.

Sow seeds during March and April or in September, depending on soil conditions. On lighter soils, autumn-sown seeds generally germinate and establish quickly, although some will not come up until the following spring. This delay makes it advisable to wait until March or April on heavy soils, as water-logging may cause the seed or seedlings to rot during winter.

Seeds should be broadcast and raked in lightly. Water thoroughly and leave them to grow naturally.

It is important not to add fertilizers; these will encourage excessive vigour in the grasses to the detriment of the wildflowers.