This summer is the second year we’ve encouraged wildflowers to grow in our front garden – an endeavour that rewarded us with an evolving, visual display of tall bright flowers, and the soothing, audio backdrop of humming and buzzing every time we passed. And we’re pretty sure the beautiful family of goldfinches that arrived this summer were drawn by the abundance of thistle and dandelion seeds they discovered on our little patch.
Now the wildflowers have faded along with summer, what are the next steps to manage our mini meadow this autumn?
I spoke with Donna Cox, Co-founder of Moor Meadows – a community initiative to conserve, restore, and create flower-rich grasslands across Dartmoor and Devon – to ask her for advice from her experience creating larger meadows that could apply to our little meadow, with the hope it could help others managing mini meadows in their gardens and community spaces too.
1. Do we leave our meadow grass long or cut it back for winter? And if we cut it back, what’s the best tool? And what do you recommend doing with the cuttings?
When you cut the grass back generally depends on what you are managing your meadow for. If it’s for more wildflowers next year, to support pollinators, then you can cut it back after the flowers have finished flowering. It’s a good idea in some years to let them to set seed first, which is usually around 4-6 weeks after blooming, depending on the weather.
The size of the area to be cut will determine what tools to use. A small space could be cut back with a pair of shears for example (long-handled ones will save your back!), or a scythe. String lines on strimmers tend to pulverise wildlife, so better to use a blade attachment which cuts the grass at the base without mulching it.
Ideally leave the cuttings for a day or two to dry out as it’s much easier to rake up and it allows time for insects to creep away. After that gather up and put them on the compost, or else they will act like a compost on the lawn i.e. increasing the nitrogen content of the soil, which you don’t want as lower soil fertility benefits wildflowers.
If your compost area is heaped outside (not in a plastic bin) it will be a habitat in its own right, potentially attracting wildlife like slow worms.
You could opt to leave meadow grass uncut until the next spring which is a very valuable wildlife habitat and provides much needed shelter over winter. Leaving grass uncut though does tend to make it courser and tussocky. Good for insects but not so good for wildflowers that have to contend with thick grass and generally get outcompeted by it.
So if you are trying to maintain a mini meadow, cut it back now and then keep it short until the grass stops growing leading up to winter. You have the option of planting early flowering bulbs for spring in your meadow area (best to plant in September) – crocus species like Tommasinianus are very good for naturalising in grass, or snowdrops. Peter Nyssen sell chemically untreated bulbs, with no nasty neonics.
If you can, leave areas elsewhere in the garden as overwintering habitat for insects and other creatures like hedgehogs. Hedgehogs like edge habitat like hedges, hence their name, somewhere with a ready supply of moss and leaves as bedding.
2. I’ve heard that Yellow Rattle seeds are important for establishing a native wildflower meadow as they help to overcome the vigorous grass species. When’s the best time to sow yellow rattle seeds?
Yellow Rattle needs certain conditions to germinate – periods of cold followed by a frost. September is a great time to sow it into any bare patches of ground. Like any seed, it needs to come into contact with bare earth. You don’t need to cover the seeds with soil but I usually scuff the ground up a bit. You will know if this beautiful native wildflower takes or not, as it will flower next year (because it’s an annual; most wildflowers are perennial). If it does establish, it will feed off the roots of your lawn grasses and diminish their vigour (it doesn’t kill them). Let it set seed to increase the number of plants for the following year.
In addition to Yellow Rattle, to speed up the establishment of your meadow, you could introduce plug plants suitable for most garden soils like Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgar) and Black Knapweed (Centaurea nigra). Best to plant these in September/October so they get established, once the grass has been mown short.
3. We have brambles growing along our garden borders, with sparrows living in them, but the branches are now growing quite unwieldly. What’s the most wildlife-friendly way of cutting back brambles?
Brambles provide important food sources to many species. The flowers are an important nectar source for Bumblebees and Honey Bees as well as butterflies, including Gatekeeper, Orange-tip, Ringlet, and the leaves are food for many caterpillars.The fruit are also an important food source for many mammals and birds. As well as small mammals like Wood Mouse and Dormouse, blackberries are eaten by larger mammals such as Badgers and Foxes.
Bramble patches are best managed by simply cutting back by a metre once a year, in autumn, outside of the bird-nesting season which is February until August.
4. What do you recommend for keeping on top of nettles?
Nettles are often seen as troublesome plants needing to be strimmed back, sprayed with chemicals or dug out. But they are actually one our great British native plants and are valuable for people and wildlife.
Nettles support more than 40 kinds of insect, for whom the sting can form a protective shield against grazing animals. Many nettle patches hold overwintering insects, like aphids, that swarm around fresh spring nettles and provide early food for ladybirds. Aphids are eaten by blue tits and other woodland birds that dart around the stems.
In late summer the huge quantity of seeds produced are food for many seed-eating birds, such as house sparrows, chaffinches, and bullfinches. Nettles are also a magnet for other insect-eaters like hedgehogs, shrews, frogs and toads, at all times of year.
Certain moths like nettles, as do many butterflies, such as Peacock Butterflies and the Small Tortoiseshell. Their larvae feed in large groups in silken tents at the top of the nettle stems.
A wildlife helpful nettle patch needs to be in sunny areas, not shade, to attract insects and encourage butterflies to lay their eggs on them. Nettles are easily managed by trimming in autumn and the clippings are a wonderful nitrogen addition to the compost heap.
5. Do you have any further reading recommendations to find out more about wildlife friendly gardening?
Our biggest challenge as gardeners is to overcome our cultural fixation with having everything neat and tidy. I always recommend Dave Goulson’s inspiring book ‘The Garden Jungle’ where he explores the environmental harm inadvertently done by gardeners.
I also love this informative hedgehog website that advocates talking to your neighbours and allowing access holes in fences to allow hedgehogs to freely roam through your neighbourhood.
You can find out more about Moor Meadows and their work here: wwwmoormeadows.org.uk.