Wildflower meadows offer a diverse, and typically exceptionally attractive, habitat for the pleasure of young and old alike. The twentieth century saw a sharp decrease in the variety of wildflowers in the UK countryside. This was due to changes in agricultural policy and practice, particularly increased field drainage and herbicide use, and the growth of urban sprawl.
Over the past two decades, renewed interest in wildflower habitats has grown with concerns for biodiversity protection and augmentation. Coupled with this concern has been increasing interest in the restoration of old, mismanaged wildflower meadows and the creation of new meadows through, for example, agricultural set-aside programmes and other countryside stewardship schemes. Allowing open habitats such as wildflower meadows in urban settings for the provision of native or naturalised grasses, wildflowers and flowering plants offers several advantages:
- Plant diversity attracts insects and other invertebrates (including butterflies, bees, spiders and millipedes), birds and mammals
- Flowering species add a changing palate of colour to the urban environment throughout the seasons
- Active involvement of the local community in managing the site encourages ownership values to be fostered – activities may range from mowing to the collection of seeds for use at a new location or for sale.
- Opportunities for education and recreation abound (ranging from nature studies to art lessons).
- Even small plots of wildflower planting can change the feel of a setting, so that the creation of a wildflower meadow as part of an urban greenspace can bring a little piece of countryside into the town.
Autumn is a great time to start planning a wildflower patch at your museum. Neatly mown lawns may look green but are poor in biodiversity. By planting native wildflowers, you can immediately increase the numbers of bees, butterflies and hoverflies by offering nectar-rich flowers and food for caterpillars. The whole process is excellent material for public engagement too! So what do you need to do?
- Mow the grass on your wildflower patch really short and rake it over to create bare patches. This will allow wildflower seeds to make good contact with the soil.
- Scatter a hay meadow seed mix and water using a watering can with a rose, to avoid displacing the seeds.
- Water occasionally if there is no rain. Keep the soil just moist.
- September/October is also the perfect time to plant yellow rattle plugs. These plants weaken the grass, allowing more space for the wildflowers to thrive.
- Some seeds will emerge in autumn and some will appear in spring.
- Leave the patch to grow until late summer next year to allow the plants to self-seed, then cut and clear, ready for the following year.
Want to keep your grass short? These plants will cope with shorter grass (approx. 15cm high): yarrow, selfheal, red clover, white clover, bugle and cowslip.
No grass at your museum? These native plants can be sown in pots or gravel: cornflowers, poppies, scabious, teasel (in gravel), sea holly and thrift.
Too damp or shady? There’s native pollinator plants for every space. Red campion, common mallow, stitchwort, tufted vetch and cuckoo flower will all cope with dappled shade.
As well as the fun of planting the seeds and watching them grow, creating a wildflower patch provides learning opportunities around folklore, local and national identity, entomology, medicine, and foraging.