How to restore a meadow, part one – introduction

It was not until November 2019 that we first jumped over the old, raggedy wire fence that marked the perimeter of what had once been a meadow in our local park.

The meadow at the end of April 2020

Six months later, as rain fell after a record-breaking dry April, cornflowers, poppies and yellow rattle are about to romp into growth surrounded by a number of perennials.

What did a handful of volunteers and I do to restore the meadow such that it looks set both to blossom towards a peak in June and to become, potentially, a seed bank for other meadows in the area?

This six-part blog post will take you through the steps we took and give you practical tips on how you can turn your overgrown lawn into a meadow.

  • introduction and history
  • clearing the debris
  • existing perennials
  • to seed or not to seed
  • pigeon control
  • continuing management

History

The meadow in 2016 – photo courtesy of Camden Council

My mother and I often walked along the path through the meadow in our local park during the summer of 2016.

We marvelled at the resilience of the blooming oxeye daisies in a small London park constantly in use by parents with children and people with dogs.

The meadow had been planted by Camden Council in 2015 on a plot measuring seven big steps at one end and 12 the other and around 18 steps long.

Note the path through the meadow which we were able to restore if somewhat narrower

2017 looked all set to be another amazing year in the meadow. One day in May, the subcontractor, employed to cut the grass in the park, rode his machine over the meadow just as many of the plants were coming into bloom.

To prevent a repeat, Camden fenced the area off with a wire. The barrier deterred subcontractors cutting the meadow by mistake but it also meant the meadow was never cut again.

I walked past the meadow year after year. Finally, I approached the park’s keeper who suggested I contact the Friends of the Park, its Horticultural Advisor, Camden’s park department and its subcontractor.

First sit visit with the Friends of the Park and the Horticultural Advisor – November 2019

It was new for me to identify and work with key stakeholders – as a guerrilla gardener, I’m used to working without asking permission. But everyone was onboard and lined up within a couple of weeks.

We were ready to go.

First secret to a wildflower meadow

As we entered the meadow that November, three years of grass-fall, plus two years of leaf fall from the adjacent red maple, lay flattened over its surface. It appeared that only the very toughest of the original wildflower plants survived under this thick and flattened layer of grass.  

We found three years of grass- and two of leaf-fall covered the meadow on the first day we entered it

Key to a wildflower meadow is to cut it in July or August after it has bloomed and the flowers set seed. The cut is left to dry out in situ with seeds, now ripe, dropping to the ground and is then gathered up and removed as hay in August or September.

The hay is rich in nutrients – that’s why farmers feed it to animals – so if it were to be left on the meadow to rot, it would feed the soil, encouraging, in particular, the growth of thick grasses that compete with the flowers.

It was exactly this management that had been stopped by the erection of the wire fence. If we were to restore the meadow, the first thing we would need to do was to remove the layers of debris built up year after year.

What you can do…

If you know of a grassed area in which you would like to encourage wildflowers and pollinators, establish what is the management regime for the cutting and see if you can influence its frequency.

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