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28/09/2021

Go wild in the garden this summer with wildflowers

In her Gardening Conundrums column, Lynn O’Keeffe explores the journey to establishing your wildflower patch

wildflowers

Wild poppies and other flowers

So what’s the story with these ‘Wildflower Meadows’? To sow or not? ‘Wildflower Meadows’ are all the rage with packets of ‘wildflower’ seeds for sale everywhere, seed bombs coming your way and even free seeds available from companies looking to be good to pollinators. But what’s actually involved in establishing and minding a wildflower meadow and is it the right decision for your garden?

When is a ‘wildflower’ wild?

Some are native flowery plants that were once weeds of the cornfield. These fields of wheat, barley or oats are ploughed up every year, and the ‘weeds’, which herbicide use has pretty much eliminated, were poppies, corn cockle and cornflowers etc. If you want these in your garden you too need to plough and sow every year.

Then there are the native flowers of established meadows like hay meadows. These have mostly disappeared due to the change over from hay to silage, and herbicide use. These are perennial plants that can’t cope with ploughing and take a few years from seed to flowering. These include oxe eye daisies, knapweed, meadowsweet, cowslips, primroses and even orchids.

Then there are the weeds of every field, that are just not considered pretty, but are great for biodiversity like buttercups, dandelions, docks, and nettles, and they’re definitely wild!

And finally there are the super flowery mixes of ornamental annuals, garden plants like sunflowers, cosmos and calendula, which look fantastic and are loved by pollinators, but not so much by all the other biodiversity like butterfly caterpillars and insects, and aren’t native, and definitely aren’t wild.

Basically ‘Wildflower’ on the label is a bit like ‘farm fresh’, a bit vague.

So why would you want a wildflower meadow?

All these wildflowers were once common and supported so many species, not just the pollinators that feed off the flowers, but the birds that ate the seeds and the caterpillars that ate the leaves, the aphids that sucked the sap and the ladybirds that ate the aphids. It’s a whole ecosystem! So with those hay meadows and corn fields of yore almost completely gone, with them have gone our abundance of farm birds, our bees and butterflies, our moths and insects. So the best reason to have a wildflower meadow is to give some space over to nature.

And also they can look amazing and be low maintenance.

So are you the type who wants dig every year or mow less often?

For the pretty colourful mixes you see sold in garden centres the ground needs preparation as you would for a new lawn, every spring, i.e. remove all growth and dig out perennial weeds, rotavate or fork over, rake, and sow, in late spring in a showery spell of weather. Then step back and leave it grow and flower all summer long.

You can choose an ornamental flowery mix or better still try to find a native Irish seed mix, as this will help even more creatures. Leave the stems till autumn for the seeds to feed the birds, and leave them all winter if you can as various insects like ladybirds will overwinter tucked up inside thick dry stems. Then repeat the whole process next spring. This works well on small patches, like a strip at a school, or a bed in your garden, as it’s quite expensive on a larger scale.

For the hay meadow habitat, you’ve two options.

You can a) just stop mowing and see what comes up

Or b) buy in a perennial seed mix and sow it as per above and then strim it once or twice a year. You can buy native Irish seed mixes specific for the type of soil you have, be that damp and acidic or dry and limey. Different wildflowers grow on each soil type. It’ll take a few years to establish and the flowers in it should really kick off from the 4th year as the perennials start to flower. This option works best on a new site where you’ve fresh ground.

Lazy gardening

My preferred option is the laziest, just stop mowing and see what comes up! This is great if you’re not sure about the whole #nomow thing, or have reluctant family members or trouble convincing your resident’s association, because you can run it as a trial, it costs nothing, and if it isn’t popular you can then just go back to mowing. Choose an area that doesn’t get much footfall, there’s no point doing it on the way down to the washing line or on the area where the kids kick ball. Mark out the edges by clear mowing, with a fence or some signage, so everyone knows what’s going on. You can maintain paths down through it, and even mow a secret area in the middle of the hay meadow for picnics and the likes. Young kids love hiding in the long grass.

What can go wrong?

Well, you could just end up with lots of long grass and no ‘flowers’. Which can be lovely and the birds will eat the grass seeds and the insects will thrive, and I quite like the look of a grassy hay meadow waving in the breeze of a warm summer's day. But if that’s not your idea of a wildflower meadow, you might then have to consider reseeding with a more flowery mix.

Also be sure to cut the meadow once a year or brambles and trees will move in unless of course, you want to re-wild completely!

Top Tip

If you do go ahead buying seed make sure to source native Irish seed – particularly in the light of recent contamination with black grass seed in some mixes.

Lynn O’Keeffe, DSc Horticulture, Craft gardener with the OPW at Portumna Castle Co. Galway and Horticulture tutor with the GRETB.

This series is supported by the Heritage Offices of Laois, Offaly and Westmeath County Councils with funding from the National Parks and Wildlife Service of the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage under the National Biodiversity Action Plan.

For gardeners interested in becoming more wildlife-friendly, more tips and projects are available at pollinators.ie

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