Saturday, December 9, 2023
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Flowers for the future


Flower rich meadow, Withybed moorings


Mary Green explains why wildflower meadows are so important.

There was a wrong caption on one of my photos last month – I hope you all noticed it! The first picture above the title should have been labelled “wild flowers in an old quarry” – mostly red valerian and moon daisies.

Last month I wrote about somewhere I visited on holiday, so this month I will stay at home. There is a lot to delight in where we live. In late summer one of the pleasures is flower-rich grass meadows. Nationally, we have lost 97 per cent of our native meadows in my lifetime, more than our loss of woodland.

People often ask me about “creating a wildflower meadow” in their garden. A meadow is a complex organism that takes years to become sustainable. It is an odd environment, as it exists with human agriculture: the flowers and grasses need to be cut for hay or grazed by animals otherwise native woodland will eventually take over.

Meadow-like spaces probably existed before human agriculture, though, as there would then have been native grazing mammals keeping some land open.

A meadow is open, without tree cover, with a mixture of perennial native flowering plants (those which continue to come up year after year) and grasses. Varied grasses are necessary for the insect larvae as well as flowers for nectar.

What it isn’t is a piece of ground that has been stripped of its native vegetation and rotavated, and sown with “annual wildflower seeds.” Annual wildflowers grow where the land is disturbed, so have developed along with arable farming (cereal crops).

They are often showy and colourful (poppies, cornflowers, corn marigolds), but will not survive unless the ground is cultivated every year (which, as I covered in my article in July, is not good for the environment).

While they provide good nectar for butterflies and other insects, and are good temporary cover for bare ground, they don’t last long and are generally not good hosts for insect larvae. Unfortunately, modern farming means herbicides killing the wild flowers that used to grow on arable land, so they are rare now.

It is possible to start a “meadow patch” if you are careful to choose local perennials suiting your soil, choose a range of plants that like to live together and flower at different times, have patience while they get established, and don’t expect them to be showy.

One way to do it is to use hay from an established wildflower meadow which will include seeds of flowers and grass. Don’t be surprised if some of the wildflowers are things you have been told are weeds. Eades Meadow starts the year with dandelions! Or you can plant a few local species as plants in existing grass.

When land has to be broken up and left bare, because of building or other infrastructure work, you can start a meadow from scratch. For this you can use seeds but buy them from a specialist supplier and get a perennial mixture customised to your soil.

For example, a company called Naturescape do a perennial mixture for clay soils with six native grasses and 19 native wildflowers. They also do mowable lawn mixes with short-stemmed flowers like self-heal and trefoil. (Other companies are available!)

You can sow seed on existing grass as well – cut it right down, rake it and sow, then tread the seed in. No need to rotavate or, even worse, weed-kill! Cut it once a year when flowering is over and ideally leave the cuttings a few days then remove them for compost.

Starting from scratch has been done recently in Alvechurch. If you look around the new marina at Withybed Moorings, you may not realise at first what has been done there. The big swathe of sloping land around it, and the surrounding flat sections, were bare earth two years ago. Now they are full of perennial flowers and varied grasses.

The farmer, Adrian Bytom, has used a mixture including vetches, moon daisies, camomile, stitchwort, clovers, trefoils and musk mallow. It looks as if it’s been there for ages. There are also some arable plants like weld and poppy near the paths. The area will be grazed in winter and should go from strength to strength.

Adrian was the contractor who planted the trees along the railway, which unlike many newly planted trees have survived well, and new hedges through his own fields in Withybed. His pasture fields have over the last few years been gradually becoming meadows.

I wrote about these fields about 11 years ago, describing them then as being “old and neglected and rather sporadically grazed.” Now they are a wonderful mix of wild flowers including orchids, helped by a hay transplant from Eades Meadow and a proper grazing and mowing regimen.

They are so lush they are hard to walk through, and make wonderful hay. The fields used to have spectacular buttercups, but they are less prominent now. Buttercups, especially creeping ones, are not especially good for hay, and can be a marker of not-very-diverse fields. His English Longhorn cattle which graze these fields are also loaned out to nature reserves to graze and maintain the habitat.

It’s a good omen for the future that some farmers are taking the sustainability of their land seriously, making a habitat for wildlife, producing meat from grass-fed native breeds, and contributing to the leisure industry too.

Added to my recent visit to Fruitfields Orchard near Barnt Green, it makes me think we can have a good environment around the Village area, and that maybe the country’s farms may take a future direction that balances food production with ecology and wildlife. Producing good food and maintaining the local habitat are compatible – in fact are better if done in harmony – we don’t have to choose between them.

I felt encouraged again when I took a walk around the fields behind the new housing development on the corner of Old Rectory Lane in Alvechurch. Apart from the part immediately by the River Arrow, these were at one time rather unremarkable fields. Now they are looking really healthy.

The grasses are varied and lots of local native flowers have come back. I saw knapweed, self-heal, lesser stitchwort, trefoil, hogweed, agrimony, dove’s foot cranesbill, red campion, meadowsweet and lots more. There was even a sudden patch of pink centaury, a plant which normally grows near the sea!

The presence of yellow rattle, the key flower of meadows, was helping the others to get established. Yellow rattle is parasitic on grass and so lessens the competition from grass and allows other plants to flourish.

I don’t know if someone has been helping these fields along or if the flowers have come back by themselves. There are good footpaths through, and local people were using them.

It’s so good that we can see good practice in habitat management close to home. Both here and in Adrian’s fields there were butterflies, bees and other insects everywhere, including common blue, marbled white and painted ladies.

I have had some more holiday, and one of the things I saw was churchyards with amazing old wildflowers.  Churchyards are traditionally home to herbs and flowers – God’s Little Acre. They can have paths mowed through.

There’s even one on the North Yorkshire Moors which is grazed by sheep! Near here, Hanbury is a good example, where they now mow only once a year and have meadow flowers including ragged robin and lady’s bedstraw.

It’s such a shame our St Laurence church managers don’t take steps to allow wildlife to flourish but instead mow it to a green desert. There are lots of old flowers in the turf, and occasionally when they don’t mow they come up – pignut, goldilocks, sorrel, buttercups, speedwell, bistort.

But the tidiness brigade always wins. The church at the top of the hill would be a perfect place for wild flowers and their butterflies and bees.

Still, the Alvechurch allotments look wonderful. People have planted flowers as well as their veggies, which all helps maintain wildlife. The wild patch in the Wiggin Meadows is good again.

Someone in Bear Hill Drive has a gorgeous rim of wildflowers along the edge of their lawn which they let grow. The amazing old field by Scarfield Dingle on the Salt Way footpath is crammed with meadow flowers like agrimony and bedstraw. We’re not doing badly!

I wrote this poem a few years ago in the fields near here.

My legs ache with the effort
Of walking in the hayfield. Hay
Sounds gentle and soft, but these plants
Have grown long and strong this year.
Grasses of all kinds, clover, vetch
Lesser stitchwort and birds foot trefoil
Swathes of hay rattle, even the odd orchid.
Here is a patch where a deer slept
There the water-retaining pools
The field begins to have a story
The cattle love it and become beef
More flowers bloom every year
Meadow browns dance everywhere
The sun shines. We will all make hay.