Now is probably the best time of year to go out looking for wildflower meadows – although you are as likely to find them in a garden or managed landscape as in the open countryside. By the year 2000 nearly all our heritage of wildflower hay meadows had disappeared – according to meadow expert Pam Lewis (note 1), over 98% were destroyed in the 60 years after WW2.
Hay meadows were man-made creations, dependent on traditional practices of grazing and stock management, and cutting hay for winter storage. Many took thousands of years to evolve their precious mixtures of wildflowers and native grasses, and are literally irreplaceable now they have been superseded by fields of coarse grass managed by machine and fertiliser.
However, some have survived and can act as seed stores for local restorations, and inspiration for garden and landscape imitations, and whilst they will never replace the delicate balance of flower and grass evolved over centuries, they will at least help sustain some of the insects and wild life which have suffered from loss of habitat. Many of the most beautiful meadows we have left are now under management by wildlife trusts and similar organisations.
Of course, hay meadows are not the only types of meadow we have in this country, or Europe. There are other meadow-like habitats – water meadows, such as the fritillary meadows in Oxfordshire; the ‘Machair’ coastal meadows of the Ireland and the Western Isles; the alpine meadows of Europe.
I’ve been designing gardens with wild flower meadows for six or seven years now. The first I ever worked with was at Barrack’s Lane Community Garden, where we incorporated a small wildflower meadow onto the roof of a timber shelter with solar panels. I’ve also incorporated wild flower ‘meadows’ into garden designs in quite urban or suburban settings, usually as part of a distinct wildlife area with a pond. I’ve never tried to create a meadow from seed but always used turf supplied by the Wildflower Turf Company (note 2), who supply a wonderful species rich turf with 33 species of flowers and grasses (note 3). They have recently introduced naturalizing bulb mixtures to scatter before the Wildflower turf is laid, and a meadow laid this Autumn with bulbs underneath has produced stunning results this Spring.
What I and my clients find entrancing about these meadows is the way that different species shine in different years, according to the climate and season – one year it will be Ragged Robin, the next year Wild Carrot, another year Sorrel and Yarrow. But always there is a glorious mix changing from month to month, and even the smallest area of meadow will bring a breath of the countryside to gardens, and a feast for insects and birds.
- Pam Lewis, Making Wildflower Meadows, Frances Lincoln, London 2005
- WFTurf Wildflower Turf Ltd Landscape spec v3 20.3.15