3 Apr 2020

Make Your Lawn More Friendly for Wildlife

Kevin McGinn

Mown lawns can be an important part of gardens but, if you have space, why not give an area of your lawn over to nature, turning it into your own mini native wildflower meadow?

Imagine a mix of meadow grasses and colourful wildflowers swaying in the summer breeze, providing a display for many weeks and a space to watch wildlife on your doorstep. Meadows are a haven for insects, like bees and butterflies, also for birds and small mammals. If you provide the right habitats in your garden, the wildlife will move in.

Meadows can also be made into effective garden features by mowing select areas like winding paths, spirals or edges, giving them an intentional look.

Although developing a meadow can take some patience and experimentation, you will be rewarded over time.

Getting started

The first step is to choose an area of your lawn that gives you the best starting point. If possible, choose a sunny part of your lawn with poor soil that already has wildflowers or ‘lawn weeds’.

The aim of meadow development is to reach a balance between grass and a high richness of wildflowers. The ‘good’ grasses for a meadow are the finer, less bulky, species like crested dog’s tail and sweet vernal grass. Coming in all shapes and sizes, the flower heads of wild grasses have an underrated beauty.

If your lawn has been cut regularly for many years, clippings collected up, and not fertilised, the chances are you’ve got a perfect starting point to create your own meadow.

Success is a lot to do with soil fertility – wildflowers thrive on nutrient poor soils.

Repeated mowing and removal of the clippings gradually reduces soil fertility. This makes grasses less vigorous, allowing wildflowers to compete.

If you’re unsure what plants you already have in your lawn, why not experiment and let it grow? You may discover that wildflowers have always been there, gone unnoticed due to regular mowing. See if you can identify the flowers that appear, joining in with Wildflower Hour on Facebook or Twitter.

You might discover plants like selfheal, plantain, white clover, cat’s ear, yarrow and buttercups. If you’re lucky, you may have plants like ox-eye daisy, red clover, bird’s-foot trefoil and lady’s bedstraw. I have even known a southern marsh orchid to pop up in an uncut lawn!

It’s important not to use fertiliser nor ‘feed and weed’ on meadows. I’m no fan of these, even for a well-kept lawn – they are expensive and simply make the grass grow quicker, meaning more frequent cuts. ‘Feed and weed’ kills plants that are not grass, looking terrible as they die off. Even in a well-kept lawn, I think a few flowers like daisies are a welcome sight, and they certainly are to pollinating insects which feed on their pollen and nectar.

If your starting point for a meadow is a lawn with few flowers and a lot of coarse vigorous grasses like tough ryegrass, try mowing your lawn regularly for the first year, collecting up the clippings, to gradually weaken the grasses and reduce soil fertility. A drastic but more instant option is to strip off the turf and topsoil and sow meadow seed into the nutrient-poor subsoil.

Speeding things up

To speed up meadow creation, a range of native meadow seed mixtures can be purchased from seed suppliers. Buy a seed mix harvested sustainably from natural hay meadows, as local as possible, containing species suited to your soil type and site. You could also collect a few seeds yourself, if you have the landowner’s permission.

A native meadow seed mix can be sown in autumn or early winter on bare soil or into an existing lawn. If sowing into an existing lawn, cut it low and scarify (scratch) the surface with a rake to expose patches of soil first.

Plug planting is a great way to add charismatic native wildflower species into a developing meadow. Plug plants can be bought-in or raised yourself from seed and are best transplanted in late summer or autumn. Choose species that suit your mowing regime and site. For dry sunny lawns, field scabious, betony, meadow cranesbill, ox-eye daisy, yarrow, bird’s-foot trefoil and common knapweed are good options. For damp lawns, lady’s smock, ragged robin, great burnet and meadow buttercup are great – if used in combination, they will give an extended flowering season.

You could even add native spring bulbs that will grow amongst grass, like native daffodils or snake’s head fritillaries.

When sourcing native plants and seeds for your garden, find a reputable supplier of British-origin material, as local as possible. Local provenance plants are more likely to be adapted to your garden conditions and successfully establish. Some seed and plants on the market are produced further afield and may be different subspecies than our natives – introducing them may interfere with the ecology of our natives in the wild.

Wyndrush Wild sells Welsh meadow seed mix sustainably harvested from farm meadows in Pembrokeshire and Welsh native plug plants can be purchased from The Wildflower Nursery and Celtic Wildflowers.

A key to success: yellow rattle

Yellow rattle can really speed up meadow development, so much so that it is known as the ‘meadow maker’. It is also known as a ‘vampire plant’ because it is semi-parasitic, feeding on and weakening grasses. The result is more space and light for other wildflowers to establish and thrive.

The best way to introduce yellow rattle to your lawn is by seed. The seed is short lived, so for good results, it is vital that the seed is less than six months old. Sow in a closely mown lawn with patches of bare soil exposed, in late summer to early winter. Any good native meadow seed mix will contain yellow rattle seed.

The ripe seed capsules, when shaken, are like maracas – hence the name yellow rattle. The species is an annual, so to allow it to return year on year, it’s important to let the seeds drop before cutting your meadow. More information on growing yellow rattle can be found on Plantlife’s website.

Meadow management

To manage your mini meadow, think of a traditional hay meadow, cutting in summer and removing the hay. This doesn’t mean getting a scythe out, unless you want to! A regular mower or strimmer is fine. If using a mower, make multiple passes, the first with the blade set high then gradually lowering it.

So that wildflowers can multiply, cut your meadow after their seed has set. Leave the ‘hay’ on the surface of your meadow for a day or so to dry and allow any remaining seeds to drop to the ground, before removing it.

Ideally, delay cutting until as late as September to maximise the number of species able to set seed. However, if you want to have a shorter lawn for the summer holidays, you can cut from early July. Cutting earlier will miss the seeding of a few late-flowering wildflowers like knapweed and great burnet, but the species composition will adapt to your cutting regime over time.

Over the winter, your wildflower meadow will look like a regular short cut lawn.

With time, the resulting garden feature and habitat will get better year on year, rewarding you and your local wildlife.

Are there other ways to make a lawn more wildlife friendly?

Simply mowing less often and embracing lawn flowers will provide resources for pollinating insects. Setting your mower blade higher can allow lawn flowers like selfheal, daisies, dandelions and clovers to bloom to provide nectar- and pollen-rich food sources for pollinators.

If you want a lawn for most of the year, you could just take a break from cutting during May, or hold off your first cut until the end of June.

Annual ‘meadow’ seed mixes: an important distinction

You may have seen dramatic displays of sown colourful ‘meadow’ flowers in some parks and on council road verges. These are usually annual seed mixes, providing a one-off show for bare ground – at home, they are best used in flower borders. Although they are sometimes marketed as ‘pictorial meadows’, they are not true perennial meadows that continue from year to year.

Native annual cornfield seed mixes containing wildflowers like poppy, corn marigold, corncockle and cornflower are available – these species are adapted to growing in arable fields, needing disturbed bare soil to grow.

Many annual seed mixes contain non-native ornamentals from elsewhere in the world, like cosmos and coreopsis, which are not wildflowers. Nevertheless, when sown in the right place, these mixes provide pollinators with a great food source. Botanic Garden PhD student, Lucy Witter, is researching which of these annual mixes is best pollinators.

Meadows at the Botanic Garden

If you want to see what an actual wildflower-rich hay meadow looks like, they can be seen at the Botanic Garden’s Waun Las National Nature Reserve. Cae Trawscoed, less than a five minute walk from the Stable Block, is a spectacular sight during May and June when hundreds of greater butterfly orchid spikes appear, and in July and August, it turns purple as plants like common knapweed and betony come into flower.

New orchid-rich meadows have also been created on Waun Las by transplanting green hay from one field to another – read Bruce Langridge’s blog here. We’ve now started to use our green hay on species-poor meadows in Carmarthenshire.

Areas of grass within the Botanic Garden, like the slopes below the Great Glasshouse, are also managed as meadows for biodiversity, with neatly mown edges and winding paths.

We’d love to see how your mini meadows develop. Send us photos over the next few years – we’d love to share them to inspire others: kevin.mcginn@gardenofwales.org.uk

This blog was written by Dr Kevin McGinn, Science Officer for the Growing the Future project.

This project has received funding through the Welsh Government Rural Communities – Rural Development Programme 2014-2020, which is funded by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and the Welsh Government.