A meadow filled with wild flowers - a haze of yellows, whites, magentas and blues - is a wonderful sight. sadly, this vision of loveliness has all but disappeared from the British countryside, and most people have never seen a truly glorious 'wildflower meadow'.
Creating a meadow – an area of flower-rich permanent grassland is possible, but is not always easy, and requires planning and patience.. Meadows are made up of perennials (poppies, being annuals, are not meadow plants!). The mix of species in your meadow depends on what you sow, but may then change depending on soil type etc. and will probably also change over time.
In small plots it is possible to take a ‘hands-on’ approach to watering and weeding etc. As the area gets bigger this become increasingly difficult and good preparation is more important. As wild flower seed is expensive (and seed of British origin very expensive), it makes sense to get it right first time.
Sowing wildflower seed directly into existing grass is unlikely to work. Instead, prepare the ground as if you were sowing grass seed. Strip all the existing vegetation and remove the roots of perennial weeds. Results will be best if there are low levels of nutrients (high levels encourage coarse grasses, docks and nettles). If the existing soil is rich, consider burying it (double-digging or subsoiling, or importing a mix of sand and gravel) or stripping it – good topsoil can sometimes be sold. Once sown, water the site if there is no rain, or the seedlings will die.
To help keep fertility low and prevent the build-up of a dense ‘thatch’, a meadow must be cut at least once a year and all the cut material raked-up and taken off. Do this before the grasses turn brown to remove as many of the nutrients as possible.
Yellow Rattle (scientific name Rhinanthus minor) is found in rough, unimproved grassland. It is one of a small number of native wild flowers that are semi-parasitic. It has green leaves and can photosynthesize, but it also attaches itself to the roots of other plants, especially grasses and members of the pea family, to extract nutrients. The effects are often obvious, as the vegetation where Yellow Rattle is abundant is often rather sparse.
Yellow Rattle is often recommended if you want to create a ‘wildflower meadow’, (it has even been christened 'the meadow maker', but this name is a very recent invention!). Yellow Rattle is useful as it will weaken the coarse grasses and make space for more delicate flowers, but it is not a 'silver bullet' and is not a substitute for careful preparation and diligent aftercare. Yellow Rattle is hard to grow in pots and it is best to sow seed directly into the ground. vUse fresh seed, available from August, if you can, although when kept in controlled conditions one-year-old seed is perfectly good. Prepare the ground by cutting the existing grass very short and then raking off the cuttings – do this briskly to scarify the ground. Sow the seed thinly, water it in and then wait – they will not germinate until the spring. Yellow Rattle is an annual, so allow them to set seed – if conditions are right they should then self seed from year to year.
As Yellow Rattle is a semi-parasite, it needs to have a host in order to flourish. It should be sown amongst grass, not onto bare ground.
Yellow Rattle seeds seldom germinate when sown into a dense sward of thick, long grass. They need to be in contact with the soil to germinate, and the young seedlings need light, and will be shaded out if the surrounding vegetation is too tall as they start growing in the spring.