|Planting a meadow is not something that can be achieved
in a year, in the way that lawn can.
The essence of all meadowscape is that it contains not only annual plants but creeping perennial plants and biennials, grasses and deeply-rooted specimen plants which live in a natural balance.
In its natural state, meadow gets a regular 'mowing' from grazing animals which you have to duplicate from soon after sowing; meadow is not maintenance-free.
Open meadow must be on a free-draining site. Any stoniness will help secure rootlets and prevent excessive erosion when the meadow is freshly-planted. The land chosen must have been free of manuring or fertiliser for a few years.
You would do well to follow the contour of the land near your proposed site and attempt to find areas of meadow, if possible, so that you can list the plants which survive in your local climate. This will have the added advantage that you will become familiar with meadow plants and be able to distinguish them from weeds.
Alternatively, contact your local Wildlife Trust about locally-native species. There will almost certainly be research available, or you may be able to contact a botanist working in this field.
Before planting can begin, the area must be cleared of all existing vegetation. This begins in spring with ploughing and tilling the soil to remove, not bury, existing weeds. Leaving them in the soil may create too much nutrient. Spray any newly-grown seedlings which emerge later with a glyphosate weedkiller such as Roundup. This must be repeated throughout the year until few weeds remain. Cover the soil with horticultural fabric if wind-blown weeds are a nuisance. If you do not want to use hormone weedkiller, you can substitute repeated tilling. The aim is to eliminate as many of the existing weeds as possible, avoiding at all costs any of them coming into flower.
This is your head start for the meadow planting, which must overwhelm persistent weeds if it is to be successful.
Overwintering your tilled soil is useful in eradicating any remaining weeds, and is followed in spring by your meadow planting.
The planting itself is of wildflower seeds, but cornfield annuals provide a brisk start to smother remaining weeds. Your perennial planting can be used to 'top up' the meadow as in the autumn. Use broadcast sowing, best done by machine using a mix of sand and seed - the sand helping spread the seed and bury it to give it a head start. Immediately after sowing, the ground needs to be harrowed to bury a small proportion; merely the surface centimetre of the soil is disturbed, because the tiny seeds must root and gather light within days of planting. The final preparation is rolling the soil, praying for rain, and trying as many bird control methods as possible to avoid losing too much seed.
Some meadow plants are hard to establish, and it may be wise to retain samples of all the seed you planted - of non-grass plants - so that you can establish seedlings in the greenhouse or some sheltered spot. These can be transplanted later to permanent positions.
In the meantime, you need to mow, with the cutter set at around three inches. This will help control any remaining weeds by preventing them seeding, and because your small plants will need all their energy to produce root systems, will benefit them greatly.
In the second year, you should mow more selectively, targeting patches of remaining weeds and leaving well-established meadow plants. Two mowings are usual, one in spring, the second in late summer or autumn, after flowering.
It may be wise to raise more meadow seedlings each spring. These are invaluable for planting where you have removed deeply-rooted, undesirable weeds, so that the exposed soil gets a desirable cover of leaves straight away.
By year three, your meadow should be fairly established, though as with any garden, weeds will need to be controlled from time to time. It is essential that you collect seed each year to re-sow where the invaders have come back, and perhaps to supply other like-minded gardeners.
We have used compiled several resources for this information, and we will report back on its effectiveness as we try to create an ancient meadow in the UK. We hope it brings the wildlife back, too.
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