Into the long grass: Alive with insects and bursting with colour - a meadow in flower is a spectacular sight

 

I've just come back in from fighting hogweed in Foxpatch. The battle has been going on since we arrived here and first started to let the grass grow long in this half-acre plot. Each summer for the past seven years, we've cut off the hogweed flower heads to prevent it seeding. Every week, from early June onwards, I take off more than 200 of the wretched things. And each year the hogweeds come back. This is the reality of trying to manage a "meadow". The bullies are always trying to muscle in.

Poppies and cornflowers have nothing to do with meadows. They are opportunistic annuals, flowers of ploughed land, where each year they race with the corn so that they can flower and set seed before they are overpowered by the surrounding crop. They grow only where the ground is regularly disturbed, the antithesis of a meadow.

You can get pretty effects in a garden by sowing mixes of these annuals in spring, but you'll still find weeds trying to take over. And the show, spectacular in the first half of summer, will be over in the second half as the plants settle to the (to them) more important business of ripening their seed.

I saw some spectacular meadows in June, but none had been started from seed. They had all grown up from areas that had previously been lawn. That is not to say that all lawns will produce good meadows. New lawns are unlikely to be made of the right kind of grass. And they will perhaps have been fed and weed-killed. The best meadows rise up from rather thin ground.

To most of us, grass is grass, but there are actually more than 150 different kinds and since most proper meadows will be 80 per cent grass and 20 per cent flowers, it matters to have the right kinds. You want various kinds of bents (Agrostis canina or Agrostis tenuis), crested dog's tail, sheep's fescue, meadow foxtail. You do not want rye or cock's foot.

If the matrix is of the right kind of grasses, all sorts of other stuff will start appearing: f purple knapweed, yellow hawkweed (Hieraceum), vetches both red and magenta, beautiful rusty-coloured sorrel, low-growing bird's foot trefoil, red and white clover. The clover gives a good indication of the stage the meadow is at. White clover (Trifolium repens) thrives on a regime of close mowing – as lawn fanatics know to their cost. But as grass grows longer, the red clover (Trifolium pratense) starts to take over. The clue lies in their names. Repens describes creeping plants. Pratense describes plants most likely to be found in a meadow.

At Great Dixter, the late Christopher Lloyd's garden in Sussex, the topiary lawn below the house, once close mown, is now a most beautiful meadow. Christopher and Fergus Garrett, the brilliant head gardener, just decided to let the grass grow and see what happened. That was more than 10 years ago and it looks spectacular, the feathery, bronze-mauve flowering heads of the various grasses, waving in a soft veil around the dark, sculptural clipped yews.

It's now richly colonised by orchids, mostly the pale pink cylinders of the common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii), which Christopher supposed must have blown in from other parts of the garden. But the life cycle of wild orchids is mysterious. They do not come up in the same places each year, yet they are not annuals. What are they doing while they are underground? What conditions do they need to flourish?

The topiary meadow at Dixter started with several advantages. The soil was poor and it was an old-established lawn. Christopher adopted the regime he used for the rest of the Dixter meadows: a first cut in September and a last cut in February. This enables the spring flowers to display themselves against quite a tight turf, but also allows time for the summer flowers and grasses to seed themselves about.

In his Gloucestershire garden, John Sales, who for nearly 30 years was Head of Gardens at the National Trust, gave himself a meadow by taking in part of the neighbouring field. A close-mown path divides the area into two, one half managed roughly on the Dixter mowing regime, the other half mown until mid-May before the grass is allowed to grow long. This keeps it looking tidier through the second half of summer and encourages a slightly different cast of characters. Although it has obvious advantages that regime wouldn't suit Foxpatch. The orchids that grow there are the southern marsh type (Dactylorhiza praetermissa); we'd be mowing them down just as they were coming into full growth.

But what do you do if you want a "meadow", but don't have the kind of lawn you can just allow to grow into one? Purists say you must strip the existing turf together with some of the topsoil and seed the less fertile earth underneath. If you can marshal an army of slaves to help, that might be possible, because in a typical garden setting all that labour will have to be done by hand.

Then you need to choose a seed mixture which most closely matches your conditions (and your dreams): clay soil, dry soil, acid soil, chalk soil, spring flowering, summer flowering, hedgerow, water's edge. Mixes are made up to suit a wide variety of possibilities. Is this what I'd do? No. If I was meadow-gardening on a small scale, I'd work with what grass I'd got and plug in plants such as meadow cranesbill, cowslips, monkshood, camassia. Purists may sneer, and the end result may not be a true meadow. But the bees would be just as happy. And you will have saved yourself a lot of hard labour.

For tailored seed mixtures of wildflowers, go to Emorsgate Seeds, Limes Farm, Tilney All Saints, King's Lynn, Norfolk PE34 4RT, tel: 01553 829028, email: enquiries@emorsgateseeds.com; wildseed.co.uk

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
News
Pro-Russia rebels guard a train containing the bodies of victims of the Malaysia Airlines flight MH 17 crash in Torez, Ukraine
i100
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
theatre
News
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Damon Albarn is starting work on a new West End musical
artsStar's 'leftfield experimental opera' is turning mainstream
Life and Style
Paul and his father
artsPaul Carter wants to play his own father in the film of his memoirs
Sport
Ben Stokes trudges off after his latest batting failure for England as Ishant Sharma celebrates one of his seven wickets
cricket
Arts and Entertainment
Members of the public are invited to submit their 'sexcapades' to Russell T Davies' new series Tofu
tv
News
Sky's Colin Brazier rummages through an MH17 victim's belongings live on air
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game
arts + ents'The Imitation Game' stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley
Extras
indybest
News
i100... and no one notices
Arts and Entertainment
Friends reunited: Julian Ovenden, Richard Cant and Matt Bardock in rehearsals for the Donmar revival of 'My Night
with Reg'
theatrePoignancy of Kevin Elyot's play being revived just after his death
Property search
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5/6 Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The successful applicant w...

Year 5/6 Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: The JobThe successful ...

Business Analyst (Systems/ Incident Analyst)

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Business Analyst r...

SAP GRC Architect / Consultant

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: I am currently looking for a PERMANENT S...

Day In a Page

Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor