JULY – Growing Wild

Catherine Thomas sings the praises of meadows and wildflowers.

When I drive around the Wiltshire countryside in summer I take care not to spend too long enjoying the roadside verges. I find them so inspiring that I’m in danger of not looking at the road ahead. So many garden plants are descendants of our native flora that the term ‘weed’ for any wildflower begins to sound ungrateful, if not downright insulting.

If dandelions or bindweed were rare (and like most gardeners I often wish they were!) we would treasure their striking blooms. We might buy them in garden centres to embellish our flowerbeds, or train up our pergolas. I’m joking, of course, but it is certainly true that in the past it was the very vigour of some of our native plants that caused them to be designated as weeds. Less troublesome wildflowers, such as meadow cranesbill, Geranium pratense, or wild daffodils, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, have been welcomed into our gardens and bred for their colour, long flowering and other desirable qualities.

Closer to nature

Nostalgia for the past has been one of the incentives for introducing wildflower communities into our gardens. There is a kind of timelessness about a meadow that takes us back to what we feel was a simpler, gentler lifestyle where people were closer to the natural world. In garden design terms we are hoping to conjure up that elusive spirit of the place, a sense of ‘belonging’ in the landscape. The atmosphere created by long grass and wildflowers is relaxed and can be used to contrast, and sometimes to emphasise, more formal features. A swathe of wildflower meadow can work well around the fringes of a country garden to blur the boundaries between the garden and pasture beyond. It can define shapes in a garden in the softest possible way and without all the work involved in a formal border. Meadows change through the summer, brimming with white ox-eye daisies and buttercups in May and June, and in late summer the pink flushed yarrow, purple knapweed and yellow of lady’s bedstraws or dyer’s greenweed. Even when the meadow has been cut, as it must be to prevent the vigorous grasses overwhelming the flowers, the shape remains.

Concern about loss of wildlife habitats is another reason for introducing communities of native plants into our gardens. Although it is true that many insects are equally happy with nectar from non-native flowers, many are more particular about food plants for their larvae. The Common Blue butterfly lays its eggs only on bird’s foot trefoil and the Marsh Fritillary must have plantain or devil’sbit scabious. Others are dependent on certain grasses and these contribute to the natural look of a meadow, resulting in that wonderful rippling in the wind. Wildflower seed mixes are usually supplied with a large proportion of grasses to flowers to create a natural community.

Try introducing the English bluebell in clearings under deciduous trees, particularly beech or hazel, together with foxgloves, wood spurge, wild garlic and red campion. The pale yellow of primroses can light up the early spring and woodland grasses, such as wavy hair grass, can weave the community together. Woodland plants are naturally at their best in spring before the tree canopy closes overhead, excluding light and drawing up the soil moisture.

All the plants I’ve mentioned so far are perennials and will continue interacting with their plant community for many years, changing in emphasis from year to year as one species dominates another or is favoured (or not) by the weather. However, some favourite wildflowers are annuals, or weeds of cultivation. The field poppy is the most spectacular, painting broad strokes of red around the margins of arable fields. To achieve a meadow of cornfield flowers the soil must be tilled to remove perennial plants and either left bare so the seeds in the soil can germinate, or seeded with a cornfield mix. This will include many flowers rarely seen nowadays, such as the corn marigold, purple corn cockle, blue cornflower and the wild pansy and field poppy. These plants grow fast, flower and seed themselves in one summer and make a brief but wonderful show. They are not particularly low maintenance but perfect for an almost instant effect.

Growing wildflowers is a way of connecting with the landscape, bringing the countryside into your garden and an invitation to wildlife. Why not start by leaving an area of lawn unmown to see what flowers may already be hiding there?