How to Grow Wildflowers

Published on June 16th 2019
A group of colorful flowers in a field
Driving around Wiltshire for work, I'm lucky to see areas of wildflowers providing a haven for our pollinators alongside verges, in rough patches of land and scrubby corners.
But in urban areas, these are few and far between, and you might have noticed in the last few weeks our councils have been cutting back roadside verges.
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This scheduled ground maintenance can be vital for road safety and is a cost-effective way of managing public spaces.
A group of  wildflowers in a field in an urban area
However, it has sparked plenty of debate online as to whether we should be changing our expectations of tidiness to help restore our local environments and wildlife.
As a result, more and more councils are investigating and trialling wildflower areas.
In Devon and Cornwall, areas of the A38 and A30 are currently providing a stunning wildflower display as part of a Biodiversity plan run by Highways England.
Wildflower verge of the A38
Photo from Wildflowers on the verge along the A38
And in North Devon, a pilot scheme called Life on the Verge designed to help communities manage their own areas, has been so successful it's been launched across the county.
But not every public space is suitable. due to the location (safe access), requirements of use (line of sight for road users) and underlying soil conditions (nutrient-rich).
We, as gardeners, can help by continuing to request councils for wildflower areas while also creating our own at home.
A red poppy in a wildflower meadow

What to do now.

Typically you would create wildflower areas in Spring (March and April) or Autumn (around September).
But for instant results, you can purchase wildflower turf which, like lawn turf, is pre-grown and can be laid at any time, as long as the ground isn't frozen or waterlogged. If you are happy to wait however, there are a few things you can do now in preparation for seed sowing.
  • Investigate your soil. Wildflower meadows thrive on poor soil. Most gardens have been enriched with organic matter and are too fertile for most perennial wildflowers but suit annuals. You may need to remove the topsoil altogether if your ground is very rich.
  • Research which seed mix you need for your area and time of year. A quick search online and you will find plenty of suppliers to choose from. Please be aware that some mixes may contain non-native plants which shouldn't be planted in environmentally sensitive areas or the countryside.
  • Remove vigorous perennial weeds such as nettles, docks and dandelions if they are dominant. If it's only a small area, you can cover with a weed suppressing membrane until Autumn, or you can apply a touch of weed killer to individual plants.
  • For large areas, wait until mid-July then remove all existing vegetation (either by digging it over or it spraying off), rotovate the soil and firm and rake to make a seedbed. Leave this for six weeks for the soil to settle. This will also allow any dormant seeds to germinate so they can be removed before sowing the wildflowers.
  • If you're planning to convert an area of your lawn, continue mowing and removing the cuttings throughout the year as this will help to reduce the fertility of the soil. Stop applying lawn treatments that include feed and weedkiller, and some species will start to establish without our assistance.
A picture of an overgrown grass are
Grass will dominant and crowded out all but the most vigorous wildflowers if not kept under control][

Caring for existing wildflower areas

If you created a patch earlier this year, then you will need to continue weeding out the vigorous perennials (thistle, nettle, bramble, etc.) to allow your new perennials to establish.
You can also buy additional plug plants to add into the area.
Newly sown meadows need cutting down to 5cm (2") every two months in their first year. This encourages good root development for future years.
Established meadows can be cut either once or several times a year, depending on how vigorous the growth is.

When to cut

  1. In Spring (before the end of April). This time is best for meadows that are predominantly grass as it helps to reduce the fertility of the soil (as long as you take away the clippings) and opens up the area for wildflowers to grow through.
  2. In Summer, cut between late June and the end of August. This traditional "hay cut" is left on site for a few days to allow the ripe seeds to fall to the ground before being baled and removed. It is done early or late, depending on which plants you want to encourage. A late cut will benefit knapweed, scabious and other summer flowers, while an early cut will allow bugle, fritillary and cowslips to germinate.
  3. The Autumn cutting is done between late August and November and can also be done throughout the winter, depending on growing conditions and how fertile the site is. This is also the time to sow Yellow Rattle,(Rhinanthus minor) the semi-parasitic annual wildflower that reduces grass vigour.
A mound of bramble growing in an abandoned field.
Bramble and other vigorous weeds will soon take over wildflower meadows if they are not managed.][

Tip: Cutting small areas is best done with a scythe, but take it steady and wear boots.

Standard mowers will struggle with the long grass, and strimmers cut the grass too finely, making it challenging to collect.
If you have a large area, then it should be possible to hire a motor scythe. You will still need to collect the clippings and arrange a way to dispose of them.
Having regularly helped out at "Hay cut" time, I'm no longer surprised by how much plant material comes off a meadow. Just don't add it all to the compost heap in one go. And have the makings of muscle relaxing bath ready, and no plans for the day after.
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