Friday, 11 May 2012

Preparing the ground for wild flowers

A common question for the Meadowmat team is "how do I prepare the soil for wild flower matting?"

There are books and websites out there offering all sorts of conflicting advice, especially on making sure that the topsoil has a low nutrient content. One lady suggests digging the topsoil up and taking it away, somebody else advises growing a greedy vegetable crop before trying to establish wild flowers. 

So what is the right way to get ready to start a wild flower meadow?

Well, the whole idea of Meadowmat is that it's low maintenance.  I installed some Meadowmat this time last year on to a piece of garden that had been used to grow vegetables (runner beans actually) the summer before. In its first summer, there were a few flowers, but the most successful plant species was by far grass.

grass is important in a wildflower meadow
but don't let it overpower the flowers
Grass is the rough diamond in a wild flower meadow.  It's essential for providing food and shelter for many creatures, but it needs to be kept in check otherwise it will bully all the flowering plants out of existance.  In other words, it's a good thing provided it's kept under control. 

How do you stop grass getting too rampant? A combination of three ways; restricting food supply, cutting it back if it gets too strong; and growing yellow rattle in the meadow.

In my own meadow-ette (it's very tiny), I did have a few yellow rattle plants last year, so I harvested the seeds and sowed them back into the sward in the autumn.  This year I have lots of young yellow rattle plants and much less grass than last year.  I also made a point of keeping the sward quite closely mown from the time I took a hay cut (late July) all through the summer, autumn and winter; only letting it grow again from the end of march onwards.  That probably meant I sacrificed a few flowers last summer, but it also means I'll have a much better floral display this year.

So how to prepare the soil then?  Unless it's really high in nutrients, you can take a reasonably relaxed approach.  Take away all existing vegetation - roots and all - so that it can't rot down to make more plant food and consider taking away a layer of topsoil if you can.  Avoid fertiliser at all costs and once your meadow is growing strongly, use careful management, and a lot of patience, to keep the grasses from getting too vigorous.  Make the most of yellow rattle, which is a parasite of grass and helps to suppress it's growth.  Gather seed in the summer, keep it cool and dry and in autumn, mow the sward as short as 5cm, so that you can press the yellow rattle seed onto the soil ready for it to grow again next year.

Oh- and watch our installation video to see how to get a good tilth to install your Meadowmat on to.
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