Elly West is finding inspiration in the world around her and aiding nature’s declining pollinators, to boot
Designing gardens is very much about putting the right plant in the right place, and it can be easy to lose sight of the overall picture and remember that some of the most beautiful flowering combinations occur when nature is left to do its own thing. Chelsea Flower Show, the pioneer of new trends in the world of horticulture – taking place this month from 23 to 27 May – has recently featured gardens that are recreations of the natural landscape, and for good reason. Where better to find inspiration than the world around us?
English meadows are synonymous with summer, and I would challenge anyone not to feel uplifted by the beauty of a field of flowers. But unfortunately it’s estimated that 97% of our wildflower-rich grasslands were lost in the last century.
Gardening is undeniably about taming nature and bending it to our will, but this doesn’t mean we can’t create our own area of meadow, whatever its size. Your own personal wildflower meadow, even if it’s just a small strip alongside an informal lawn, will look beautiful, benefit wildlife and, once established, be extremely low maintenance – simply needing an annual cut in autumn after flowering is over.
Wild meadow flowers can bring so much to a space, in terms of movement, colour, the sound of grasshoppers, and the sight of bees and butterflies going about their pollinating work. When not in flower, an area of meadow looks like rough grass and blends well with the existing lawn, and when in its full majestic glory, it truly brings the space to life.
A huge plus point when creating an area of meadow, as well as the aesthetic and practical qualities, is the very real benefit to wildlife. Pollinators and their habitats are under threat, and the statistics about the loss of bees are, quite frankly, terrifying. Because of pesticide use, bees – crucial pollinators of many of our food crops – have declined at an alarming rate. Quite simply, without bees, we could starve.
Avon Wildlife Trust is one of eight local organisations working in partnership on the Get Bristol Buzzing project (avonwildlifetrust.org.uk/getbristolbuzzing) to raise awareness of the need for pollinators. Communications manager for the trust, Naomi Fuller, describes the importance of Bristol as an urban centre, and the need to give wildlife enough space in the city by creating wildlife corridors to bring species in from the surrounding countryside. “Even a small window box can help,” she says. “It’s about raising awareness of the need for wildlife-friendly gardening, and extending the season for pollinators. We’re trying to encourage people to connect with nature in these urban pockets.”
If you want to help by creating a meadow at home, first choose a suitable spot. An open, sunny position is best, but there are plants that will cope with more shade. Meadows prefer poor soil, and the best way to reduce your soil’s fertility is to remove the top soil to a depth of around 10cm. Once you’ve got bare soil, raked to a fine tilth, the fun can start. Choose a wildflower seed mix and sow in autumn or, for more instant and reliable results, I’d recommend buying a ready-made meadow turf. Wildflower Turf (wildflowerturf.co.uk) has different turfs for different situations, including one for shade. It’s as easy to lay as a lawn and can be put down at any time of year, as long as the ground isn’t frozen. One of the many benefits to using turf is that it acts as a weed blanket, so you don’t need to worry about the less welcome weeds and grasses out-competing the meadow flowers.
If you’re turning an existing lawn area into a meadow, another way is to sow seeds of yellow-rattle (Rhinanthus minor) – a parasitic plant that discourages grass from growing so meadow plants can thrive – and simply stop mowing.
Managing a meadow couldn’t be easier. Simply leave it alone, and don’t mow between early April and August, or even September. Cut it a couple of times during autumn, and maybe once in early spring if it really needs it. Pull out any undesirables such as nettles, dock and thistles, then sit back and wait to see what becomes established. There’s no exact science. Some species may fare well one year, then others may start to take over. If you want to add more colour, scatter extra seeds that you’ve picked up on country walks, or bought. For a list of plants that are perfect for pollinators, visit rhs.org.uk and search ‘pollinators’.
To buy wildflowers locally, try the Feed Bristol nursery – run by the Feed Bristol community food-growing project in Stapleton. Open six days a week, it stocks more than 200 varieties grown from seed gathered across the region. For more information, visit avonwildlifetrust.org.uk/feedbristol.
How to help pollinating insects
Grow more nectar and pollen-rich flowers, shrubs and trees.
Create a meadow area or leave patches of land to grow wild. Undisturbed areas make good nesting sites for insects.
Put away the pesticides. They can harm bees and other beneficial insects.
Leave your mower in the shed. Cut grass less often to allow plants to flower.
Make a bee house. Drill holes in a log or bundle up lengths of bamboo to provide nesting sites for solitary bees.