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How to sow, establish and care for your wildflower area.

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James Kilkelly
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PostPosted: Fri Aug 03, 2007 6:19 pm    Post subject: How to sow, establish and care for your wildflower area. Reply with quote

How to sow, establish and care for your wildflower area.
by GPI

Imagine a "lawn" that benefits from mowing just a few times a season and thrives when you deny it a high nitrogen fertiliser. The "lawn" then turns around and repays your neglect with an increase in the amount butterflies, bees, birds plus the flower colour and coverage that attracted them in the first place.

This particular "lawn" I have in mind also suffers little from the perennial problems of moss and weeds, which the common lawn owner has ongoing pitched battles with. Has your interest peaked yet?

The "lawn" with all these advantages is the wildflower lawn also known as the wildflower meadow. Think of a wild area populated by wild seeding plants such as Yarrow, Ox-eye Daisy, Cowslip, Poppy, Cornflower etc. and you are on the right track. Although the unkempt and loose look of a wildflower meadow is not to everybody's taste, to me personally, a sizable area full of grasses and wildflowers waving gently in the summer breeze is hard to beat for its natural beauty.

A native Irish wildflower known as the Ox-eye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare), photo / pic / image.

For all its wildness and despite what some people will have you believe, the wildflower area within a garden can be one of the most difficult plant projects to initially succeed with. I could not begin to count the amount of wildflower woe tales which have been told to me by disappointed gardeners. The common problem situation was one where the gardener who after a brilliant first years blooming, waited and waited for their second years crop of wildflowers, only to be disappointed by a miserably poor display full of unwanted vigorous grasses.

To help you avoid these all too common "flash in the pan" wildflower phenomenons , I have decided that I will show you how to successfully create, establish and care for your very own wildflower area. To begin lets look at a suitable location for your piece of wild.


A humorous tip I often supply to those looking for pointers on wildflower location is to disregard any advice that blonde haired country and western singers try to offer you through their lyrics. Take for example these words from the song Wildflowers by Dolly Parton,

"Took my dreams and I took to the road
When a flower grows wild, it can always survive
Wildflowers don't care where they grow"

I'm sorry Dolly, but a wide variety of wildflowers do care where they grow, preferring a poor unfertilised soil with a PH between 5.5 and 6.5. That's not to say that wildflowers will not grow in fertile soil, it just means that if you sow into a rich soil you will have to cut and clear the grass more often. Good drainage and 6 to 8 hours of sun are also required for any sun-loving wildflowers within your seed mix such as such as poppies, yarrow etc.

Another native Irish wildflower known as the Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), photo / pic / image.

As I mentioned last week, establishing a wildflower area within your garden may seem like an easy task, "sure what are they only a heap of quick growin' weeds" as one old man recently said to me. However, many gardeners have found out the hard way, that when you want one type of plant to grow, the exact opposite and unwanted type flourishes, swamping your prize specimens.

If you desire an area in your garden full of wildflowers, you will have to prepare the soil well in advance of seeding. Unlike most of the work you will do in your garden, for example adding fertilisers and organic matter to improve your soil, a wildflower area requires none of these amendments, instead preferring lean and impoverished soil. The simple explanation for their soil needs is that the vast majority of wildflowers require poor soils to allow them succeed over the more rampant fertile soil plants, such as grass or docks.

If you are blessed with fertile soil, growing good crops of grass, shrubs or vegetables, then you should make it less fertile. There are three ways you can go about this, strip, plough or mow.

With the first method, you strip off any grass or weeds present, as well as scraping off 10cm (4 inches) of topsoil. Then refill up your levels again with poor soil or subsoil, the type of soil usually found 6 to 10 inches below the topsoil on most sites. This is a dual-purpose method, as it will remove the grass and weed seeds, which so often result in unwanted growth that crowds out your wildflowers.

The second method is called deep ploughing, literally ploughing the existing soil to a depth of 15 to 20 cm (6 to 8 inches). This will go a long way to help the burial of existing growth plus weed seeds, whilst turning less fertile soil up to the surface.

The final method is the one in which the existing grass and weeds are continually cut very short with all mowings taken away. This must be carried out for about a year or two to gradually reduce the soils fertility before ploughing, rotavating or digging. Although a slow process with a possibility of plentiful weed seeds, I believe this method really allows you to get down and dirty with nature, especially if all mowing is carried out by scythe.

Mowing the grass with a scythe, photo / pic / image.

Whichever of these methods you choose to lower soil fertility, your next concern after that must be weed and unwanted grass control before sowing. Your choice will depend on two main factors, the size of the area and your like or dislike of chemical weed killers.

Weed control.

On one hand you can opt to till the soil by digging over with a fork or rotavating, leave it fallow for a week or two, and then spray off the emerging weeds with a herbicide such as roundup. Or if you are more organically minded, (in a small area) you can hoe off the newly emerged weeds as they appear.

Ensuring you have weed free soil, ready to accept your sowings of wildflower seed is vitally important in the creation of a wildflower area, in fact it is critical. Herbicide spraying or hoeing methods of weed control followed by digging the area over with a fork or rotavating should ideally be carried out over three or four occasions before your soil preparation can move onto its next stage. All this weed removal may seem excessive, but it is nothing compared to the methods adopted by many professional wildflower growers, who are know to leave the ground fallow for a whole year allowing the complete eradication of weeds before sowing their wildflowers for seed harvesting purposes.

Seedbed Preparation.

Preparing the seedbed with a rotovator or rototiller, photo / pic / image.

In late summer/early autumn, and once your soil is free of weeds you can set about sowing your seeds into a finely prepared seed bed. To create a fine seedbed, you should lightly, and I mean lightly cultivate the soil to a depth of not more than 1 inch (2.5cm). Cultivate by shallowly forking the soil over or offering it one pass with a small rotovator/rototiller set on its highest notch, either of these two methods will loosen the soil for you prior to raking or harrowing.

For a small area of wildflowers, you can use a rake to get the soil crumbly whilst you roughly level by eye. Or if you are undertaking a larger area, you should instead use a trailed harrow to crumb up and lightly level the soil. You should endeavour at this stage to remove all surface debris down to the size of a 1-euro coin including any stones, weed stems and roots

So, we now have a firm 'seed bed' with a crumbly top across the surface. This structure will be ideal for new seedlings as they will be able to break the soils surface whilst sending out fresh young roots seeking feed and moisture. You will not be adding any manure or fertiliser to the seedbed, as high fertility only encourages vigorous grasses to the detriment of the wildflowers.

All of the prep work mentioned (weed removal, cultivation and raking) should be timed to allow you sow your wild flower seed sometime between the large seeding window of mid March to late September. However, truth be told, the seed can be sown right throughout the winter given good soil conditions and an immediacy to the warming influence of the coast.

Seeding your wildflower area.

Sawdust, a handy addition to your wildflower seed, photo / pic / image.

Be aware that some of the seeds within wildflower seed selections are tiny, so to avoid casting them all out unevenly in one go, I suggest you create a 1 to 4 mixture of seed to sand, or sawdust. The incorporation of sand/sawdust will also aid distribution by helping you to see where you've already seeded.

Divide your wildflower seed/sand mix into 2 lots and under calm conditions you can evenly shake out one half the seed, whilst walking up and down the growing area, with the other half being spread perpendicular to the first.
Straight away after sowing, rake the surface very lightly and firm it with a small roller, allowing good seed/soil contact. Ensure that you don't bury your wildflower seeds, as deep sown seeds will rarely germinate.

Sample wildflowers

Ok, so I have covered the tough work of soil preparation and seeding, so now let us take a breather and have a look at a few fine varieties of wildflowers that you should consider sowing as part of your seed mix. Here we go with four of my personal favourites.

Meadow Buttercup wildflower, photo / pic / image.
1. Meadow Buttercup (Ranunculus acris).
Meadow Buttercup also known as Tall Field Buttercup is a great choice for wildflower meadows, bearing glossy yellow flowers all of about 1 inch wide. Whilst in bloom during April, May, and June, it can stand anything from 1 to 2ft high including its many glowing flowers. An adaptable wildflower, it will grow extremely easy in most soils as long as it has access to full daytime sunlight.
For.Highly tolerant of cutting or grazing.
Against. It is of low value to wildlife.

Lesser Knapweed wildflower, photo / pic / image.
2. Lesser Knapweed (Centaurea nigra).
Known to many farmers as Black Heads, a tough unpalatable weed of hay meadows, this is one of the easiest wildflowers to grow in a wide variety of situations. The Black Heads that the plant produces are in fact the closed flower heads, which gradually open out to pinkish-purple during July, August and September
For. This nectar filled wildflower will attract a host of wildlife into your garden including Finches, butterflies, bees and hoverflies.
Against. It may look a bit too much like a weed to those of us who have saved hay in our time.

Cornflower wildflower, photo / pic / image.
3. Cornflower (Centaurea cyanus)
Also know as Basket flower, this is one of our native Irish species which are quite close to extinction, this is due the widespread application of herbicides used to keep hay meadows weed free. Cornflowers 1 inch across flowers are an intense blue, a colour that I would love to see more often within garden colour schemes.
For. You will attract loads of birds and bees to your garden with this wildflower, whilst ensuring it continued existence on this isle
Against. It can be quite difficult to establish.

Musk mallow wildflower, photo / pic / image.
4. Musk mallow (Malva moschata)
This is a very easy to grow wild flower plant as it copes with most soils and thankfully self-seeds quite freely, thus ensuring its reappearance the following year. Its common name comes from the musk-like scent emitted from its leaves whenever crushed or thread upon. Very impressive whilst in flower from July to August, the five petalled pink blooms are spread liberally right throughout the plants 2-foot height.
For. Establishes and reseeds well, plus sways gently in the breeze whilst attracting wildlife.
Against. Has a tendency to contract rust, a fungal disease that shows up as red growth on the leaves.

Many gardeners who delight in the brilliant first year blooming from their wildflower crop are often disappointed by what appears the following season, an all too common lacklustre display full of unwanted vigorous grasses dotted with a few flowers. A display so disappointing, in fact, that a few upset wild flower enthusiasts have told me how they rushed to the local garden centre in the hope of finding a pack of flower seed quick growing enough to supplement the poor showing.

I will be quite blunt, the process of creating a successful wildflower patch within your garden will require at least a few years of careful nurturing and tending. Until you eventually reach the stage where flowers are a plenty and the mowing programme is reduced to a fraction of that required for an average grass lawn.

The build-up of wildflowers takes a while as certain wildflower varieties can require a long time to flower, whereas others may not germinate at all until later years when weather conditions such as winter freezes break their inbuilt dormancy. However, the initial care that you provide to your new meadow will be one of the main determining factors in its eventual success or failure. That initial care includes a wildflower specific mowing programme.

First season mowing.
When your wildflower seeds initially germinate and the growth reaches a height of about 4 inches (10cm), the area should be mown to a height of about 2 inches. This helps cut out any unwanted weeds such as chickweed.

Chickweed, photo / pic / image.

Remove the cuttings, and as you go, dig out any perennial weeds such as thistles or docks. Mow the area at least twice more during the first year also to a height of about 5cm, followed by removing all cuttings to keep fertility low.

Second season mowing.
In the second and subsequent years, cut once in spring (late March to early April) and once again in autumn (late August to late September). The spring cut (optional), is helpful as it weakens any of the over-wintered perennial weeds and strong grasses.

The autumn cut should be timed to take place only after your meadow flowers have all set seed, seeds which will become some of next years wildflowers. After mowing, the clippings are left on the ground for a few days to allow seed to fall and disperse, before the mowings are then removed, to the compost heap if you wish. If you feel the wildflower area looks a bit unkempt again after a few weeks, it will do it no harm to carry out another mowing just to keep it tidy.

So that's it, a lawn-like area that you will only have to mow a maximum of three times a season. But it gets better; you don't even need a wallet busting 20 horsepower ride-on mower to undertake the cutting. On a small area, a scythe or a strimmers can be used, whilst on a large meadow, simply enlist the services of a tractor with a finger-bar mower for the twice or thrice yearly mowing.

Any queries or comments on How to sow, establish and care for your wildflower area., please post below.

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Last edited by James Kilkelly on Mon Jul 07, 2008 4:16 pm; edited 2 times in total
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PostPosted: Tue May 06, 2008 4:11 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I want to turn an exisiting area of lawn into a wildflower meadow and have read this post with interest.

The problem is that I have not done any ground preparation yet and it is too late to follow the described gound preparation method as the wild meadow flower seed mix (without leguminous seeds) that I have is supposed to be sown between mid-April and late May.

I note that this post recommends sowing in late Summer / early Autumn - would the seed mix that I have be alright being sown then?
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PostPosted: Wed May 07, 2008 2:47 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Follow the directions on the box, I would imagine that planting last autumn would mean that they remain dormant over the winter, but some seeds need cold conditions to awaken them so to speak.
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PostPosted: Mon May 19, 2008 9:08 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Still in a quandry about this! I've got a tub of wild meadow flower seed mix (without leguminous seeds) which is supposed to be sown between mid-April and late May. I haven't done any ground preparation and when I do, I want to do it without weedkiller by rotavating and then weeding a few times.

f I did that now I'm sure it would be late summer / early autumn before the weeds are are all eradicated. Would that be too late to sow the seed mix I have i.e. it states on the packet to be sown by mid April to late May.

I did also consider rotavating it now and leaving it until next April/May to sow OR doing nothing until next march, say.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
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PostPosted: Mon May 19, 2008 9:14 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Yorky if I was you I would solarise the soil now, leaving it till next April for sowing. There is an article on this practise on the site
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