Thursday, 9 February 2012

Using Wild Flowers in Garden Design

Sarah Raven's excellent TV program on wild flowers and pollinators last night was an inspiration.  But how can we bring more wild flowers into the garden and still have it looking good all year round?

 Maxine Tricker is a garden designer based in Hertfordshire who has a passion for wild flowers.  Read on to discover how she incorporates wild flowers into her designs.

One of Maxine's wild flower areas
It’s not so much... ‘I suppose we could stick some wild-flowers in this spare piece of ground in your garden’, but more... ‘where can we squeeze some wildflowers in to compliment or enhance the overall design’ !
I’ve noticed an increase in requests for a ‘wild area’ in design for about the past year or so... or perhaps it’s my influence as I ‘plant the seed’ early on in discussions ! I do like to squeeze a few wild-flowers in where I can !!
For the past few years I have experimented with wild-flowers, in different forms, in my own garden and have been fortunate to have had clients keen to include wild-flowers in their garden too –  a different choice of product depending on the area and their budget.
If cost is not an issue, my preference is wild-flower matting (Meadowmat) enhanced with wild-flower plugs.  Meadowmat is a great product – you need to clear the area of perennial weeds, level the soil a bit... then just bung it down ! OK maybe take a little more finesse than that.. but as long as there are no major air-gaps it will root through the membrame and do it’s stuff and cover the ground and that means NO WEEDS !! Excellent ! 
But... it is mainly grasses (which do look great !) and in the first year or so the ‘flowers’ can be few or far between... so adding a few extra flowers of your choice just gives it that bit of an extra ‘wow’ ...  and a personal touch too ! 
Saying that... I have the tiniest piece of meadowmat (my sample) .. and I was blown away by the wild carrot that appeared. It was so impressive !! Wildflowers and grasses are effected by soil fertility – the grasses love the good stuff.. but the wild-flowers need poor soil. So treat it mean ... and no feeding !!

So how or where could you use wild-flowers in your garden ?
If you have a separate area of your garden as a designated ‘wild’ area that’s great.. you can add a log pile and surround it with berry bearing shrubs ... for a wild-life haven !
Or you can ‘sneak’ some wild-flowers in....
meadowmat just before flowering
I like to use Meadowmat at the bottom of a lawned garden... the smooth lawn ending with the rough grass  - looks great ! And easier to cut too... just mow along the edge, no trimming required ! If your lawn goes all the way to the fence or a hedge.. this is a great way of softening the gap and can be a more cost-effective option than shrubs etc. It also looks good around the edge of a lawn.. filling the gap between the grass and the planted border.. so just mow round the edge and no trimming !!
I have also used Meadowmat on a slope where the soil is not stable enough for planting... you need a few pegs to hold it in place (although it’s a heavy product, so won’t move too far !) This will hold back the soil perfectly and it’s interesting to see how the grass grows upright and some of the wild-flowers hang down the bank.. so again gives a different look.  
Wild thyme growing naturally in Thetford forest
The  wild-flower  I use most of all is ‘Wild Thyme’ –  this is creeping thyme so not the woody type you generally buy as a herb for cooking. I buy this by the tray of 100 plugs... and always have a few around, just incase !
It’s great as a lawn edging, to fill the gap between grass and gravel, as an in-fill between stepping stones or slabs.... or even as a small ‘Thyme Lawn’ ! I do like creeping thyme J
So what about wild-flower seeds ? I’ve had some good and not-so-good (bordering on a bit scarey) experiences with seeds. I would suggest that you are cautious in your exuberance of scattering seeds – do stick to the recommended quantity you need for a measured area as they tend to germinate very well ! (they’re not called wild-flowers for nothing !!) So don’t double up, or triple-up on the qty even though they are cheap ! And do mix sand with the smaller seeds to help with an even spread.
plug plants and seeds mixed
I had a fairly large area (6m x 10m approx) which I planted with about 200 plugs and then added a mixed annual seed to give it a bit of ‘umph’ in the first year ! Well it certainly did that... as I also used a much larger quantity than recommended (as requested by my clients) ... then I started to panic as the wildflower plugs were slowly swamped by the annuals ! Eek !! It looked fantastic for a while... but it took me hours (or more like days) to remove the monster plants before they self-seeded.. and so much plant waste to dispose of ! I won’t be making that mistake again !

Cost is a major input when choosing which wild-flowers I select.. .. Meadowmat, plants, plugs or seed..    but I also take into account the preparation time and maintenance to keep the area looking good.  

Here’s my thoughts on the different options I use :
Meadowmat – Cost is quite high, but soil preparation and maintenance is fairly low. Needs one or two trims in the autumn depending on the growth rate of the grasses. Has a reasonable selection of wild-flowers, but it’s a bit pot-luck !
Plants – many wild-flowers are available as small plants (1 litre pots or larger) . Great for using in a mixed border where plugs are too small, but cost is high compared to plugs.
Plugs – Wild-flower plugs are great !! Cost effective and a huge choice of wild-flowers... specific to soil type, sun or shade and even rabbit-proof ones !  There is perhaps too much choice and can be quite daunting to choose.... but you can get mixed trays like a ‘Butterfly’ mix or all blue flowers. Lots of choice ! J
Cost is OK – I think very good value, but soil does need to be prepared well, and if planting more than 100 plugs can be quite tedious (although there are special planting tools you can hire !) – and of course you will need to keep on top of weeding. If you let the weeds grow up too big, then weeding can be a big multi-choice question paper ! You know when you have the answer wrong... when you pull up a plug ! Ooops !! ... Yes I have got a few wrong answers !
If you plant the plugs in groups, then this gives you a better chance of working out which is plant and which is weed before you get it wrong. With 30 or 40 plugs it should be easy enough... but when you have 200 or so it can be quite confusing! Plugs in Meadowmat... means no weeding J
Seeds – Of course, these are by far the cheapest to buy and again a huge selection of plants to choose from, and ready mixed packs also available. You need good soil preparation again, as for the plugs, and lots of weeding ! And unless you know what each seedling looks like... then weeding can be a challenge.  For a larger area, say over 50m2 – it would be not be practical to weed, so some of the more vigorous plants would be a better choice, as they are likely to outgrow the weeds.
Either collect seeds or allow them to self-seed before trimming back in the autumn, or leave the plants to die down over winter. It depends on the area and what it’s used for.
I hope this gives you a few ideas for your own garden, and perhaps using my experience to help you choose the right product for you.
Visit Maxine's website at
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