Everybody loves the romantic idea of a meadow – running freely through long grasses and waving cornfield flora, possibly wearing a loose shift of broderie anglaise, before throwing yourself down in a field and chewing on a grassy stem while watching grasshoppers hop and crickets chirp. Perhaps in the distance you can see the weary (though ruggedly handsome) farmhand plodding home with scythe on shoulder and empty cider flaggon bumping against his moleskinned hip. Sounds marvellous, doesn’t it? However, it is no simple matter to recreate a meadow – it’s a bit like an episode of Game of Thrones. There will be death, love, storms, betrayal, disappointment, triumph, surprise, accidents, reunions and a great deal of sex.
Soil. The first thing to understand is that good soil is your enemy: for millennia, mankind has been taught to improve the quality of the soil by heaping it with lovingly crafted compost and the combined manures of every available animal – from medieval night soil to mountains of Ecuadorian guano. For wildflowers, the opposite is the case as they thrive in horrible soil – ideally consisting of equal parts old rubble and dust. This is because your enemy is grass, which, given the slightest encouragement, will quickly dominate and smother all those delicate cornfield flowers and all of your dreams will come to nothing more than a tussocky paddock.
Size. The smaller the area, the easier it is to achieve your goal: if you are just thinking about converting a front garden, it may be sensible to invest in some wildflower turf, which saves a lot of time and effort.
Type. Not all meadows are wildflower meadows: there are damp fritillary meadows, orchid meadows, simple grassy meadows and surprise meadows – one of my client’s lawns miraculously revealed itself to be a cowslip meadow this spring. You can create an annual meadow very easily – sow the seed in April and by mid June you will have something spectacular that will carry on giving until the autumn.
Grasses and herbaceous plants. Another suggestion is to inject essence of meadow into your borders by upping the percentage of ornamental grasses and using herbaceous plants that emulate the wildflower – for example, foxgloves, verbascums, achilleas, veronicastrums, thalictrums or geraniums.
Use bulbs. A failsafe option, which may not carry the same poetic heft but will still look fabulous, is a spring meadow using bulbs – starting with crocuses and progressing steadily through narcissi, tulips, camassias and alliums. This will get you through from about February until the end of June, which is not bad. After that, you will have to put up with some scruffy grass for a while before knocking it all back in September and starting all over again.
Find a good seed supplier: Once the soil is prepared, find yourself a really good seed merchant and explain your situation exactly – the soil make-up, the pH measure, and the sunshine and moisture levels. A good supplier will advise you on what will actually grow and thrive rather than make you gnash your teeth in frustration. But remember, suppliers aren’t miracle workers; you will still have to do the weeding.
Places to visit
Cricklade North Meadow, north Wiltshire. This National Nature Reserve is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and boasts the largest population of snake’s head fritillaries in the UK.
Clattinger Farm Nature Reserve, Wiltshire. This lowland grassland, opened by Prince Charles in 1997, features meadow saffron, tubular water-dropwort, orchids and downy-fruited sedge. The hay is cut after the flowers have seeded.
Runnymede was the site of the signing of the Magna Carta. It is now run by the National Trust and the riverside meadows play host to a wide range of wildflowers.
Sowing Beauty by James Hitchmough (Timber Press, 2017).
Making a Wildflower Meadow by Pam Lewis (Frances Lincoln, 2015).
Meadows at Great Dixter and Beyond by Christopher Lloyd (Pimpernel Press, 2016).
RHS Companion to Wildlife Gardening by Chris Baines (Frances Lincoln, 2016).
Sowing your own
Words James Alexander-Sinclair is a garden designer, television garden presenter and RHS judge