How & when to cut a wildflower meadow
Wildflower meadows are making a comeback even to the smallest of UK gardens. The ability to reduce garden maintenance, offer stunning summer flowers and offer a rich habitat for struggling garden wildlife means they are becoming more and more popular.
Whether you have created a wildflower section in your garden by using readily grown wildflower turf rolls, sowing seeds onto bare earth or growing herbaceous perennial wildflowers from seed as plug plants (as I’ve done in my meadow) the maintenance for them is the same.
It involves three timely cuts to the meadow each year and that’s it. It’s really important you do this the right way and with the right approach.
- When to cut a wildflower meadow?
- Why do we cut back meadows?
- Cutting a meadow with a scythe
- Strimming a meadow
- Mowing a meadow with a lawnmower/ride on mower
- Why you need to remove the cuttings from a meadow
When to cut a wildflower meadow
Knowing when to cut your meadow is key to a successful wildlife garden. Failing to do it at the right time can lead to a loss of flowers or excess in competing grass growth.
In the UK there are 3 prime times when your wildflowers and meadows will need to be cut back.
Cut 1: Early Spring / March
The first is in March just as spring emerges. This is when your meadow is in need of easy access to light and water.
By removing any growth early doors, you’re mainly cutting back grass and any weeds that may already be in their growing season. it’s providing an equal playing field as it were for all of your wildflower seedlings!
Cut 2: The Hay Cut / August
The second cut is also sometimes referred to as the ‘hay cut’. The hay cut is when grass meadows are cut for optimal nutrition and protein when used to feed livestock. The exact date can vary from June – August in the UK but it terms of an ornamental meadow, August is the prime time in my experience.
This is because wildflowers will usually have set and dropped their seed, meaning you can cut them back again to keep the competing grass under control. You’ve also had a great show of flowers by this time too.
Cut 3: Autumn Cut / September – October
This is the last cut of the season and usually the lowest. You can pretty much cut as close to the ground as possible for this cut. It sets up your meadow for overwintering and enables light to get to some seedlings that will germinate before the winter months. Yellow rattle, in particular, tend to do better when sown the Autumn before it flowers. As its an annual.
Why do you need to cut your wildflower meadow?
Whilst a wildflower meadow is relatively low maintenance once established it does require cutting to help keep grasses and weeds at bay. The reason for this is that native grasses and other perennial weeds are far faster growing than both annual and perennial wildflower mixes.
If your meadow or wildflower turf is left to compete naturally with grasses and weeds it will soon be smothered and could potentially die out. Wildflowers mainly germinate and frow back later in the season, ie April to May and if the meadow is not mown early spring then the grasses will already be far further ahead in their growth cycle.
If this is allowed to occur access to both light and water for wildflowers will be reduced making it far harder for them to survive.
By cutting your meadow at strategic times of the year you help reduce the vigour of grasses and weeds giving your wildflower meadow the best chance of success.
Cutting a meadow using a scythe
A scythe is the most traditional, carbon-neutral and kindest to nature. It’s also the most laborious given its done by hand. It’d a real skill and great if you have the time and energy. Scything is great for smaller meadows but I simply don’t have the time to use this method on my own. As much as I’d love to.
Scything involves a very particular twist/sweep action from the hips as you bring the curved blade across the method. It’s a full upper body and core workout!
You then collect up all the cuttings, usually with a hayfork and then take them to be composted away from the meadow.
Using a strimmer for cut a meadow
The next and quicker method is to use a powered garden strimmer to cut back your meadow. Far faster than a scythe but you still need to pick up all of the clippings. You’re wanting to strim at different heights for each cut. March and October are the lowest cuts and the August cut is slightly higher.
This is a great method for smaller meadows or mini meadow strips in urban gardens. It also affords you far more control than each other method. Meaning you can strim around trees or shrubs that may be present in your meadow area.
Always wear the necessary safety gear when cutting a meadow with any powered equipment including safety shoes. There’s nothing worst than a stray piece of strim line slicing through your feet!
Mowing a meadow with a lawnmower / ride on mower
Now, this may not be the most authentic or subtle of methods but it does hold two distinct advantages over the above two methods of mowing a wildflower meadow.
Firstly a ride on mower is far faster than the other two methods, offering precise cutting heights. Secondly, you can collect all of your clippings so they don’t simply fall back onto the meadow. This is a vital requirement when cutting any meadow as mulching it can prove surprisingly detrimental!
Take your time with any ride on mowers as this will help the machine collect the cuttings more effectively. I start with the highest setting then make multiple passes over the meadow until it’s at the required level.
It is also worth noting that I cut my meadow in three separate sweeps. One week apart each. This allows nature to move from one area to the next and also allows the meadow a bit of breathing space before it is all gone. I also leave some of the edges intentionally messy so any overwintering bugs that haven’t made it to my bug hotel have somewhere to rest up!
Why remove the cuttings from a meadow?
When cutting your meadow it is important to always remove as many of the clippings as possible. This is because wildflowers prefer poor nutrient lacking soil both for germination and also their growing season. By increasing the fertility seedlings can struggle to germinate and competing grasses grow far too quickly for them to compete.
Collect up all the green clippings from your meadow and compost them. They will quite happily break down in a compost heap over a year or so.
Meadows that are mulched or left with their clippings on them will often yield fewer and fewer wildflowers over the years. As the seedlings conditions become too challenging your wildflower diversity may recede as weeds, docks, nettles and grasses completely smother the meadow. By removing them you’re encouraging your wildflowers to come back year after year and keeping more vigorous species at bay!
This shouldbn’t put you off creating your own wild life friendly meadow. it just means that any waste should idealy be removed to keep the fertility low. If you imagine all those wild flowers you see on abandoned buildings or waste lands you can see how they have adapted perfectly for such harsh conditions!
Again it must be stressed not to feed or fertilise your meadow at any point. It simply does not need it!
A wildflower meadow or ‘messy’ part of a lawn is a great way to help encourage more wildlife to your garden. It helps insects feed and cross-pollinate our plants which in turn means more fruit and flowers in the garden. It also reduces maintenance giving everyone a little bit more breathing space during the garden year. You’ll be amazed at what flowers pop up and also what wildlife takes up residence in your garden.
Being a considerate gardener benefits not only our flowers, insects and mammals but also ourselves. By being a little bit slower, calmer and relaxed in our garden practices!
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