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Grass roots action: Creating a romantic, poppy-filled 'wild' meadow isn't as simple as it looks

Weeds and grasses have a way of crowding out prettier plants

Personally, I blame Botticelli. Flowery meads are all very well in pictures where the grass never grows. Managing them on the ground is another matter. Driven by a kind of cosmic guilt, we wallow in visions of red poppies fluttering among feathery grass heads in our own back yards. It seems beguilingly simple. We have only to broadcast a few packets of seed, then put away the mower for ever. But there is a double misunderstanding at work here.

Poppies will leap up brightly in the first year if they are sown on a freshly prepared bare plot, but they are annuals, lasting only one year and favouring newly disturbed ground. This is why they like cornfields, where after a neck-and-neck race with the corn, they seed themselves, ready to bob up after the next round of ploughing. Where grass is permanently established, as it will be after the first year of a newly sown flowery mead, poppies die out. End of vision. Roadworks are the best places for poppies now. There are often searing displays when new by-passes are made.

The second misconception is that a flowering meadow is a labour-free way of gardening. Those who have them often find them the most difficult patches of all. Fertility is the chief problem. Wild flowers are opportunists, programmed to make the most of a wide range of less than ideal growing conditions. Most garden soil is too good for them. Weeds grow rampageously and squeeze them out.

In spring, a truce exists and primroses and wild violets followed by bluebells and moon daisies make the most of it. In late June and July, grass growth becomes rank. If there is rain, the whole waving spectacle collapses in a confusion of matted stems. Cultivated flowering meadows are lovely in spring, but so are the wild hedgerows, bursting with may and elder, with bluebells, red and white campion and billows of cow parsley.

The general instructions for making a flowering meadow seem simple enough. You must kill off existing grass (especially couch) together with bullies such as dock, stinging nettle and dandelion. You must then leave the plot fallow for a year, leaping on any weeds that reappear. The patch can finally be sown in late summer of the following year, with a mixture of grass seed laced with wild flowers.

The first spring the patch might be everything you had hoped for: poppies, moon daisies, ladies smock, clovers, meadow cranesbill, lady's bedstraw, with small unthreatening grasses waving about underneath. You will patiently wait until October before mowing the area and raking off the grass. You will wonder why people like me keep warning about the difficulties of meadow gardening. Confidently, you will expect a similar display the second year.

It is unlikely to happen. In the second season, the proportion of wild flowers to grass will decrease dramatically. The nettles and docks and hogweeds you thought you had got rid of will start creeping back. By the third season, you may find you have got the wrong sort of grass and only bullies such as moon daisies can compete with it.

To the uninitiated, grass is grass as long as it is green, but there are more than 150 kinds listed in Francis Rose's definitive Guide to Grasses, Sedges, Rushes and Ferns (Viking £35). If you are seeding a meadow garden from scratch, avoid rye grasses and other vigorous species such as cock's foot, tall fescue and Yorkshire fog (Holcus lanatus). Look out for the bents, Agrostis canina and Agrostis tenuis, crested dog's tail, quaking grass, sheep's fescue, meadow foxtail, wavy hair grass and meadow grasses such as Poa trivialis and Poa pratensis. In most pre-packaged meadow mixes, the dominant grasses are likely to be crested dog's tail, chewings fescue and red fescue, with grasses making up 80 per cent of the total.

In the remaining 20 per cent, you may find seed of meadow buttercup, musk mallow, ox-eye daisy, red and white campion, self heal and yarrow. Birdsfoot trefoil, cowslip, field scabious, lady's bedstraw, knapweed and yarrow may also be in the mix.

Even with the less vigorous grasses, over-fertility can still cause problems. Purists say you must strip the existing turf together with some of the topsoil and work with the less fertile earth underneath. But you need an army of slaves to go in for that sort of lark.

I take a lazier line and plant wild flower plugs directly into the turf. There's a grassy slope in our garden, facing south, where little used to grow except docks, nettles and hogweed. I dug up the nettles and killed off the rest with Roundup. We strimmed the bank regularly and when it was roughly under control, I started planting cowslips in it. They've been flowering since the middle of March and have now seeded themselves all over the place. Betony has brought itself in, as well as white violets and various vetches. If they hadn't, I could have bought them as plugs from Meadowmania (01249 819013).

At Sticky Wicket in Dorset, Pam Lewis made her meadow garden by collecting seed from ragged robin, trefoil, mignonette, knapweed, yellow rattle, meadow buttercup and dyer's greenweed. Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus crista-galli) proved a useful ally as it feeds on grass roots. We've used it in our orchard, another wildflower area, chucking fresh seed around in September.

At The Old Vicarage, East Ruston, Norfolk (01692 650432), Alan Gray and Graham Robeson have used a different technique. They ploughed the area to be sown, harrowed it and sowed seed of annual cornfield flowers: scarlet poppies, blue cornflowers, the yellow corn marigold (Chrysanthemum segetum) and white-flowered corn camomile. The whole crop is cut down in October, by which time the flowers have seeded. In November, any perennial weeds are treated with weedkiller and the field is ploughed again. Each year, Alan and Graham top up the self-set seed with fresh supplies, adjusting the balance between the different species at the same time. So this is not so much a meadow as a seasonal flush of annual wild flowers, a cornfield without the corn.

At The Old Rectory in Duntisbourne Rouse, Gloucestershire, Mary Keen has replaced her veg with what she calls a "Sheffield meadow" sown with one of the mixes developed by Dr Nigel Dunnett of the University of Sheffield and available from Pictorial Meadows (0114 267 7635). Dunnett describes these mixes as "impressionistic associations", quite different effect to a traditional meadow.

You can buy perennial mixes, green roof mixes (chives, oregano, white stonecrop, tunic flower) and a wide range of annual flower mixes, which might include Shirley poppy, Californian poppy, cornflower, fairy toadflax and larkspur. Annual mixes can be sown this month, but you must start with clean ground.

Other meadow gardens: Great Dixter, Northiam, Sussex, 01797 252878; Brockhampton Cottage, Brockhampton, Herefordshire, 07974 569037