Q: We have a small field (2.5 acres) which has been used for grazing cattle but which we, as the new owners, plan to rewild. I’d love to see native wild flowers in this field. There is already clover, ragwort and thistles, plus bluebells, snowdrops and lords and ladies in the shaded areas, but how can I encourage a more diverse and pollinator-friendly range? Should I start some yellow rattle and let it slowly make space for others? Should I dig up a few sections and plant native seed collections? Should I just leave it alone entirely? KC, Co Tipperary
A: Lucky you and lucky wildlife, what a wonderful project you’ve taken on. The good news is that every soil contains its own natural species-rich seed bank, which has built up over time and is representative of the complex community of wild plants that are particularly suited to its growing conditions, so sowing seed is not necessary nor is it generally advised. All your meadow-to-be needs is the opportunity to express itself fully, a process that you can help to kick-start by reducing the overall fertility of the soil over time (traditional wildflower meadows do best on poor or moderately fertile soils).
To do this, you’ll need to remove all of the clippings off-site when you cut it back hard to the ground every September. If the soil is very fertile you might also need to do this in July for the first few years to speed the process along. But just make sure to leave the clippings lying on the ground for a few days before collection to help with the dispersal of their ripe seeds.
Until your natural wildflower meadow starts to find its own true equilibrium (a process that will take at least several years), you’ll also need to manage any very vigorous, fast-growing species such as thistles, ragwort and dock by spot-strimming or digging them out to prevent them from taking over at the expense of other more delicate species. By next year, you’ll start to see the emergence of an increasing variety of wildflower species, at which point it’s a great idea to sow yellow rattle into your meadow, ideally using fresh, ripe seed that’s been locally sourced.
Yellow rattle typically ripens between July and August so keep an eye out for its short yellow flowers in late spring (it may possibly it is already growing in parts of your garden) and make a mental note of its location. This hardy native annual is what’s known as a hemiparasite that beneath the ground forms strange, root-like organs known as haustoria that steal water and nutrients from host plants – typically coarse, vigorous grasses such as Yorkshire Fog- thus reducing their vigour. When it naturally dies back in late autumn, it usefully leaves behind bare patches of soil that can then be colonised by other wildflower species as well as by yet more new yellow rattle plants the following spring. The result, over time, is a species-rich wild meadow alive with pollinating insects and birds.
As your wildflower meadow develops, make sure to keep an annual record of the different wildflower plants that start to appear in it (see wildflowersofireland.net). As time goes on, you should start to see a dramatic increase, with some established species-rich wildflower meadows home to as many as 150-200 different species of plants. For further inspiration, try to pay a visit to the OPW-managed gardens of Kilmacurragh in Wicklow (botanicgardens.ie), where head gardener Seamus O’Brien has overseen the restoration of its glorious wildflower meadows over the past 16 years. For more information, see biodiversityireland.com and get your hands on a copy of Meadows: At Great Dixter and Beyond by Christopher Lloyd & Fergus Garrett (Pimpernel Press), long regarded as a classic guide.