"Developing a wild flower and native orchid meadow from existing grassland:...”
Before embarking on such a project you must firstly realise the basic
requirements of the wild flowers and orchids you wish to establish.
All of these species have a number of basic requirements that enable
them to thrive.
They do not like rich soils, preferring starved impoverished soils. Hence
developing an existing agricultural field may take some time if fertilizers
have been regularly used in the past.
Because of their nature of growth many cannot survive and thrive if the
competition from more dominant species is too great. This is particularly so
in swards of modern ryegrasses.
Some species are rather short lived and rely on self seeding for
regeneration thus making cutting times important.
The first step in developing a meadow is to examine the soil and the
existing sward and find out the previous use of the area. When developing
wildflower meadows in urban parks was the vogue the late 1980’s many local
authorities followed the advice that the only way to develop such site was
to completely strip off the top soil and sow into the underlying subsoil.
This was a time consuming and expensive process and in most instances is now
not carried out. The existing sward will often reveal much about the area
and the likelihood of success for the project and particularly some of the
species you might wish to grow.
The main problem is that good fertility means the grasses and fast growing
wild flower species will dominate. If this is the case and you want to use
the existing sward it may take a year or two of regular cutting to use up
the residual nutrients and weaken the existing sward.
Alternatively, the whole area can be cultivated and re-sown.
Initial Preparation for a complete reseed
To remove the existing sward the most effective method is to spray with
glyphosate. This will kill all the grasses and the “weeds” such as nettles
and docks which you most probably will not want in your meadow as they are
invasive. This weedkiller becomes inactive once it hits the soil and is safe
The area should then be cultivated to produce a fine tilth. If possible
leave the soil to allow the dormant seeds to germinate than cultivate again.
This reduces the number of unwanted weed seeds which would otherwise provide
competition for the new seedlings.
If both grasses and flower seeds are to be used then sowing should take
place in either the spring, as the soil warms up or in September, to allow
some establishment before winter sets in.
It must be noted that sowing orchid seed is unlikely to achieve a population
of any consequence. This is because the orchid seed has no food reserve and
requires to achieve a symbiotic relationship with a specific mycorrhiza
which provides its food needs until a green leaf develops. With orchids in
the wild the period from germination to flowering may be between 4 and 10
years depending on the species and habitat.
Autumn planting after grass seed sowing is particularly useful for
establishing wintergreen orchid species. As they have low rosettes the
surrounding grass will protect the orchids during the winter but will not
swamp them. This can allow younger plants to be grown rather than having to
use mature tubers.
Wildflower and grass seeds can be sown in the early spring once the soil has
begun to warm up. However, it is unlikely many of the species will flower in
the first summer. Alternatively, the grass seed can be sown at that time and
plugs of each wildflower planted. This will give the wildflowers an
opportunity to establish before the grasses become to long and start shading
out the young plants.
Planting plugs or plants into existing meadows
Wildflowers and orchids can be planted into existing meadows with limited
preparation. With a large area it is sensible to use wildflower plugs
in order to maximize plants within a reasonable budget. If they are
planted in the spring they usually establish well. The basic preparation is
the tight mowing of the area and the removal of as much of the residue as
possible. The sowing of yellow rattle seed could be helpful as the plant is
a parasite of grass and helps reduce growth.
Again wintergreen orchid species should be planted in late September or
early October whilst the tubers are still dormant. A circle of 15 cm
diameter should be cut out of the turf and the soil loosened to a depth of
10 cm into which the tuber should be planted at a depth of 5 cm. Many of the
winter dormant orchid species have fairly large finger like tubers and will
require more depth when being planted. They can be planted in October or
Whilst mature orchids are rather expensive it is more cost effective to
plant out mature plants of one year from flowering rather than younger
plants that have a much higher mortality rate.
Choice of plants
The choice of wildflower and orchid species depends on a number of factors.
Firstly, the pH of the soil will determine which group of plants will grow.
There are specific plants for alkaline and acid conditions. Similarly,
whether the land is wet or dry influences choice as does the amount of sun
received; especially in the winter.
Lists of suitable wildflowers for specific areas are listed by most of the
wildflower seed or plug suppliers.
Birds Foot Trefoil, Burnet, Common Knapweed, Cowslip, Dropwort, Field
scabious, hoary plantain, kidney vetch, meadow buttercup, oxeye daisy.
Betony, birds foot trefoil, common knapweed, common sorrel, cowslip, meadow
buttercup, meadow vetch, oxeye daisy, ragged robin, ribwort plantain, self
heal, red clover, yellow rattle
The following orchids can be grown in specified meadow sites.
Ophrys apifera (Bee Orchid), Ophrys sphegodes (Early Spider, Ophrys
fuciflora (Late Spider), Ophrys insectifera (Fly), Orchis mascula
(Early Purple), Anacamptis pyramidalis (Pyramid), Orchis militaris
(Military), Gymnadenia conopsea (Fragrant), Himantoglossum hircinum
Dactylorhiza incarnata (Early Marsh), Dactylorhiza fuchsii (Common Spotted),
Dactylorhiza praetermissa (Southern Marsh), Anacamptis morio (Green Winged)
Platanthera bifolia (Lesser Butterfly), Platanthera chlorantha
(Greater Butterfly), Dactylorhiza maculata (Heath Spotted),
Dactylorhiza purpurella (Northern Marsh)
The meadow should not be mown before July in order to let the wildflowers
seed and the orchids to die back. Mowing should be at 7cm and the “hay
cleared”. A further mowing may be done in the autumn or early March at a
height of 10 cm to avoid any orchid rosettes.
Further reading on how to begin Growing beautiful hardy orchids in your garden or meadow .....