First remove your soil; then plant some weeds

Creating a meadow is an upside-down way of gardening, but highly rewarding, writes Josie Barnard

In an area of Devon where nail-scissor-clipped lawns and candyfloss hydrangeas are amongst the most popular garden features, Katherine Westbrook decided to sow a meadow. Since 1945, 95 per cent of unimproved meadows have disappeared - and Katherine is an unwitting front-line fighter in the battle to reinstate them before it is too late. If you would like to join her quiet revolution, now is a good time: start "impoverishing" your soil and you'll be ready to join the autumn sowers.

"People in the village say, `Them growing weeds up there'," Katherine laughs. It was precisely the fact that she lives in the country, surrounded by "weeds", that persuaded her to raze what she describes as "a run-down version of a conventional suburban garden". "It looked ridiculous, dropped into the middle of a field. I decided to get the garden back to something that felt more natural."

In 1992 she had bought The National Trust Book of Wild Flower Gardening and found listed in the back a charitable organisation called Landlife, which campaigns, supplies wild flower and grass seeds and advises. Katherine took an enthusiastic, hit-and-miss approach.

"I was a complete novice. It was reinventing the wheel, as far as I was concerned." Choosing from 15 seed mixes listed in the back of the Landlife catalogue, she decided to plant half of her one-acre garden with three meadows (spring meadow, and short and tall summer meadows) and a cornfield, "a retrospective kind of cornfield," she explains, "except without the corn."

Because so many wild flowers are endangered species, the seeds don't come cheap. Katherine spent several hundred pounds, only to find that every penny might be wasted. "It kept raining and raining. I was told I had to keep them in the fridge until the weather conditions were right. I had just one still day before the sell-by date had passed. I sowed like mad."

The seeds' temperamental nature includes an aversion to good soil. The Landlife catalogue states: "Some of the very best wild flower gardens have been created on rubble, topped with crushed chalk, crushed concrete and even motorway scrapings - generally, the poorer the soil, the better." Indeed, Landlife advises meadow-sowers to remove the top soil entirely.

Katherine made do with stripping lawn and plants, Rotavating, putting down weedkiller, omitting to use fertiliser, and making sure always to rake off cuttings in order to avoid feeding her already dangerously rich soil. Against the odds, the seeds sprouted. Katherine dutifully mowed four times over the course of the meadows' first summer and early the next year she was tantalised by a sprinkling of colour in the spring meadow - cowslips, wild pansies, buttercups. Soon she was beaming. The tall summer meadow blossomed into a sheet of ox-eye daisies, then became a deep red blanket of greater knapweed. Meanwhile, the short summer meadow was a riot of purple selfheal, yellow rattle and harebells.

"The spring and summer meadows are easy to maintain," says Katherine. "You just mow them once a year, choosing your moment depending on which species you want to favour. The cornfield, however, is very labour intensive." The first year it was all cornflowers, which Katherine loves. But, "farmers had virtually eradicated corncockles, because they're bad news for cattle." So she rubbed corncockle seed pods until her fingers blistered. "The following year I had nothing but. I tried to barter corncockle seed pods, but Landlife didn't want them. In the cornfield it's a constant battle to balance the species. At the moment the corn marigolds are winning."

Another painful problem is weeding amongst the "woods" of the cornfield. Katherine is, at least, relieved that she decided early on which rogue weeds were unacceptable. She considers thistles "dramatic", but is committed to an anti-dock policy. "They're greedy and invasive and a nightmare to get out, because the roots are immensely long. It's like pulling out an arm, and you know a couple of fingers are hanging on in there ready to grow back." Does she, then, have regrets about the meadows? She says no, not even about the labour-intensive cornfield. Physical aches and strains are more than made up for, she stresses, by the psychological benefits.

"The meadows are a constant surprise, because ultimately you can't really manage them. Nature takes its own course. Different species are favoured by different climactic conditions." And the meadows attract hosts of insects.

A walk up the mown path towards the fairy-tale summer-house causes multicoloured clouds of butterflies to rise. Other wildlife that animates the meadows includes bumble and honey bees, crickets and glow-worms. It's the proliferation of insects that endows Katherine Westbrook's private joy with ultimately global implications.

"If you sow wild flowers," says Grant Luscombe, director of Landlife, "You're providing food sources not only for flying insects but also for insects at the larval stage. Those insects are eaten by birds, and so on. In effect, you're starting up a whole food chain. If we allow genetic species to die out," he warns, "a worst-case scenario is that we are threatening our own species."

Landlife Wildflowers is at the Old Police Station, Lark Lane, Liverpool, L17 8UU (0151 728 7011).

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