Stories from the Barn
A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands
Hoping for a Wildflower Meadow
To cut or not to cut?
Every year I find myself in a right old pickle. We grow a two acre field of grasses and meadow flowers, not for hay making but purely for the joy of watching the profusion of animals that visit it throughout the year. We wanted to establish as many native flowers as possible to create habitats for the widest range of butterflies and other pollinators.
It is old pasture and when we first arrived at the barn it was a field that was grazed by horses. Rich in nitrogen, we were growing a fabulous crop of dock, common hogweed, nettles and thistles. No problem with any of them but the grass had all but given up and there was no sign of any of the chalk loving plants we had been looking forward to.
With a limited budget but a lot of enthusiasm we began to hand cut the weeds, the idea was that without leaves to photosynthesize they would grow weaker and without being shaded out the grasses would begin to grow.
Paths in the flower meadows.
We cut paths and circles where the children could camp and hide away and slowly over the years, with a committed programme of cutting by hand, the grasses began to revive and dominate – too much. The paths were full of buttercup and clover and on early morning walks you could disturb a fine cloud of moths that would rise into the air before settling down unseen back amongst the long stems of Foxtail and Timothy grasses so we were making progress.
Then we missed a year of hand cutting, something to do with being exhausted. By early Summer the following year the common hogweed had taken over again. It all needed to be cut down and removed. Now a word of warning, we are repeatedly told about the dangers of coming into contact with Giant Hogweed which can leave you with nasty blisters. Common hogweed should not be cut without wearing protection, I had a rash of burns up my arms that took months to fade, so beware.
Learning by experience.
We then decided to mix up the cutting regime across the field to create a mosaic of different height grasses by cutting at different times of the year. That is we cut some parts right up until June and then let them grow on whilst others had there last cut in April and others were left to grow from the previous years late Summer cut.
Have we cracked the wild flower meadow?
In the Summer of 2019 we were rewarded with flowers, they appeared out of nowhere. Pure delight, we thought we had cracked it. I recorded it all, what flowered when, when the seed heads formed and feeling very happy, left the seeds to scatter and did a late Summer cut. This year I took my notebook out and followed the same regime, I did my last cut of the grass around the beginning of May. However the hot Spring meant the grasses had rushed away and put on long legs and I’m guessing the lower growing flowers just couldn’t compete and although we had a good show of flowers, it was nothing like 2019. I should have done another later cut but I was worried that I would chop off the heads from the emerging flower spikes.
It is so frustrating and although I’ve kept a good record of everything, next year I am going to use my gut instinct, be brave and cut later.
The up side was we had more later flowering scabious and the ox eye daisy clumps have spread themselves all over. We also had lots of Spring flowers on the field margins including common comfrey, yellow pimpernel, white and pink campion, vipers bugloss, selfheal, bluebells and geranium.
Flower meadows love poor soils.
The rougher and poorer the ground the better to establish a flower meadow but you’ve got to work with what you’ve got and ours is a clay loam to a depth of between 50cm – 100cm and then brick making clay mixed with angular flints, out of the chalk and then the chalk itself.
The field margins produce a different array of plants and we have left large areas of nettles and brambles and have created a very large compost heap as well which provides all the nutrients in the world to ensure we have the most fantastic nettle bed in all of southern England.
This Autumn will see us planting clumps of teasels and scraping back the soil around some of the scabious. We will bring you more news from the field and pond and keep experimenting to bring as many native flowering plants and insects back to the barn.