Wild flowers - growing your own

PUBLISHED: 12:00 15 June 2011 | UPDATED: 19:33 20 February 2013

Wild flowers - growing your own

Wild flowers - growing your own

Denis Jackson of Gwent Wildlife Trust tells of his late-blossoming love for wildflowers and offers advice on growing your own

Those of you who have walked through carpets of orchids, and knapweeds, vetchlings, and hawkweeds will know that no words, not even those of the greatest literary minds, can capture the extent of the beauty they hold.

Ive only been working in wildlife conservation for about six years. Before that I had a varied career in the telecommunications sector. Ive had a life-long interest in birds, something I acquired from my father, and while I have always enjoyed being outside and appreciated the beauty of the natural world, I had never really taken the time to study other groups.

Plants in particular were always a bit of a mystery to me. Flowers were colourful enough but I did not know the names of anything other than the most common and as for trees, well, I regarded them as little more than things to hold birds off the ground when they werent flapping their wings.

Over the last few years, though, Ive learned that its the plants that really define what ecologists call a habitat. The bugs, birds, insects and reptiles to be found in different places can be predicted from the plants that grow there.

Having discovered this, I was just going to have to knuckle down and start getting my head around the 4,000-plus species of plants that grow in the UK. Fortunately, by this time, I was working for Gwent Wildlife Trust which hosts some of the most spectacular wildflower meadows in Britain at its Wye Valley nature reserves.

I had never seen a traditionally managed flower meadow until I came to work for the trust. If I had, no doubt, my interest in plants would have been awakened many decades ago. Visitors often ask why their own lawns or paddocks arent full of the same beautiful flowers. Some have even tried sowing the packets of wildflower mix that now seem both ubiquitous and mandatory at all garden centres. Unfortunately, these mixes fail to deliver their promise of instant, flower-rich, mini-hay-meadow satisfaction, no matter how carefully the instructions are followed. The problem is seldom with the seeds though. Its usually the soil.

Many of the beautiful plants at our nature reserves have a very specific requirement for soils that are nutrient-poor, just the opposite to whats needed for the finely manicured lawn that so many of us strive to create and maintain. Years of applied fertiliser even just letting grass cuttings rot down into the ground can raise the fertility of soils to a level that may well take years to reduce to the point where meadow flowers can grow.

Reducing the fertility, in order to create a hay meadow, can be done though and, on a small scale, you can do the same on your own plot at home as we do on the reserves.

If you think about it, every time a blade of grass grows an inch, it takes a little bit of nutrient out of the soil. Cut that blade of grass and take it away and the nutrients have been permanently removed from the soil its growing in. Let it grow to six inches and do the same and even more of the fertility is removed. Translating this into practical terms, whats needed for the potential hay meadow site is to stop using fertiliser, let the grass grow through the season then, in say late August, cut it down and remove the cuttings. Slowly, over a number of years, the soil fertility will be reduced to a point where some of the more nutrient-tolerant meadow plants can begin to establish. Doing this, together with a bit of light winter grazing if the site is big enough, is pretty much how we manage our meadows and its very possible to do the same thing at home if you have a little bit of space.

There are other tips that can help speed things along, including seeding plants like yellow rattle which helps suppress the vigorous grasses which can out-compete more delicate plants. Take a look at our Pentwyn Farm and New Grove Meadow reserves on our website (www.gwentwildlife.org). They are amazing at this time of year. We can provide information for anyone who would like to try and create their own flower-rich meadows at home or at their business or even their school. Drop me an email if you would like more details: djackson@gwentwildlife.org

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