Recently our UK weather patterns appear to have been changing. Last years winter was a case in point with the arrival of snow in early November and summers for the past two years have been hot and dry through April to June. All this is great for wildflower meadows but also means that the flowering season is prolific through the early, dry part of the season before it has rained later in the summer. The wild flowers are long and lush at this time and going to seed but everything can fall over with the weight of the rain this prevent the later flowering plants such as Betony, Lady’s Bedstraw, Yarrow and Wild Carrot from being able to flower. So what can be done?
Previously we have asserted that one of the benefits of a wildflower meadow is the low maintenance regime, and that hasn’t changed. However, as with all things plant related, an open mind and the ability to be flexible is all important. While the thatch of wild flowers and grasses provides perfect cover and habitat for slow worms, field mice and voles, vital food for Barn, Tawney & Little Owls, and with seeds providing food for various Finches and Titmice, these benefits can be lost if everything becomes sodden with heavy rains which may flatten the meadow. This applies where soil is more fertile.
What can be done if this happens to your wildflower meadow? Do you leave it and hope it will spring back up once it dries, or cut it back early? If you make the cut early will you still need to cut it again in autumn?
There is no disputing that traditionally, wildflower meadows are cut in late September when the flowers and grasses have gone to seed and begun to dry out. But what if the wild flowers and grasses have seeded by the end of June and the threat of rain is forecast, should the meadow be cut down to preserve its viability?
Ashley Manor, in Stockbridge, Hampshire – a project that we have showcased on our website – is an estate where the gardens were remodelled around four years ago. Surrounding the new croquet lawn are fairly steep banks which were laid out with WILD FLOWER TURF in September 2008. Year on year the banks have flowered well, with each season, as expected, looking slightly different, some flowers seeming to be more prominent whilst others less so. Last year, Head Gardener Olly Samways decided that as the wild flowers and grasses had flowered and gone to seed, he would include an additional cut in his maintenance regime of the banks. Aesthetic reasons were initially the justification for this decision, but as with all experienced gardeners his judgement was key. By removing all the cut arisings from the banks, he thus enabled the later wild flowers to regenerate such as Yarrow and Wild Carrot, which then flower towards then of summer albeit as shorter stock. When autumn came the banks were again cut back.
This year Olly plans to follow the same regime, as this spring and early summer has more or less mirrored conditions of last year. He also plans to cut again in September. The results of this regime for these particular weather conditions, are clear from the photo’s below. Whether he will attain the same results next year, only time will tell.
It is important however, to note that the early snowfall last winter will also have played an important role in defining which wild flowers became prolific this year e.g. Yellow Rattle and Salad Burnet and which less so e.g. Ragged Robin and is some areas, Vetch.
The message here is reasonably clear: Being prescriptive with the date that a wildflower meadow should be cut is unnecessary and can be tailored to individual circumstances.
There are clear pro’s and cons however, to this regime:
- Cutting in late June/early July because the meadow appears too wild and messy, can give some plants a kick-start to grow and flower a second time.
- It can also give later flowering varieties a chance to flower and set seed successfully.
- Cutting in late June/early July can also give the plants that has already set seed a chance to germinate, thus better enabling the young plants to survive the winter months.
- Cutting back mid-season is an additional task.
- It could prevent some varieties from thriving if there is little rain after cutting in which case irrigation may well be necessary on a daily basis to enable regeneration.
- Removing the plant material removes habitat for small mammals and amphibians.
Here are a few important points that should not be ignored if cutting appears to be necessary:
- The arisings, must be removed to enable the meadow to regenerate enough to flower again in late summer, (this helps deplete the soils fertility which suits the nature of a wildflower meadow and will increase plant diversity).
- We wouldn’t recommend cutting the meadow if the soil is very dry after a drought unless you can irrigate it afterwards.