Meadows have been a feature of the British landscape for centuries. A complex mix of flowering plants and grasses, they contribute significantly to our natural environment, providing a haven for wildlife above and below ground. Meadows can be both perennial (permanent) and annual (lasting for one growing season), for example where a field lies fallow, allowing scarlet poppies, yellow corn marigolds and azure cornflowers to spring up in great swathes. Whether they’re ancient or modern, in it for the long haul or just for a brief blaze of glory, flower meadows evoke wonderful feelings of freedom, simplicity and nostalgic romance.
Planting an annual flower meadow is a quick, easy and fun way to fill a garden with colour. It’s the perfect solution if you’ve just moved into a new home and haven’t made long-term plans, or if you have a lot of space to fill with colour quickly. Rather than leave the ground bare and invite weeds to move in, sow a flower mix in spring and spend the next six months enjoying a carpet of bright flowers and textural foliage. What’s more, you’ll be helping to provide food for a host of pollinating insects, including bees and butterflies, and later seeds for garden birds.
For Dan Cooper Garden I have chosen seed mixes from Pictorial Meadows, a company I have long admired. Each meadow mixture is easy to establish, reliable and will thrive in all types of soil provided it's weed-free to start with and preferably in an open, sunny spot.
After you plant an annual flower meadow you can expect constantly changing colour combinations from late spring to early autumn as more and more flowers emerge. Pictorial Meadows’ mixes are formulated to create impressionistic visual impacts, whilst being a magnet for all sorts of pollinators. Not all of the flowers included are native species, but each one will be beautiful and beneficial.
Annual meadow mixes provide a cost-effective solution for any scale of landscaping project. They have been successfully sown along roadside verges, but are equally at home in parks and gardens. The packets we offer will be enough to sow 2 square metres of bare earth.
When and Where to Sow
Sowing during the months of March, April or May gives the most reliable results. Successful meadows can still be achieved by sowing before the summer solstice but you should expect a later flowering season and the seeds are likely to need watering to help them establish. An autumn sowing in September or October can achieve early flowering the following year, however, survival over winter is unreliable and so you are generally better to hold off until spring.
An open, sunny location that is not overshadowed by trees or buildings is best for most annual flowers. If sown in shade, growth will occur but can be patchy; flowers will be smaller and plants will grow taller. Annual flowers will happily grow in average, free-draining garden soil and do not generally need lots of feeding, watering and cosseting.
Whatever scale you are working on, it is essential to create a clean seedbed before sowing. This means removing all visible weeds and weed roots, especially grass and perennial weeds such as ground elder, bindweed and couch grass. It is a waste of time scattering annual flower meadow seeds into existing grass or other vegetation as the seedlings won’t be able to compete. Once the ground is weed-free, the soil needs cultivating to create a seed bed. Rake the surface of the soil, removing large stones and breaking up clods of earth until you get a surface texture that is level and looks a bit like breadcrumbs. Bare soil is a magnet for weed seeds so make sure you get your annual meadow seeds sown without further ado. If the soil feels warm and moist in your bare hands, then it’s perfect for sowing.
Sowing Your Seeds
Unless you have a huge area to cover, most flower meadows can be sown successfully by hand. Pictorial Meadows’ mixes should be sown at a rate of 3g per square metre, which is equivalent to half a packet.
For hand sowing, it is a good idea to mix your seed thoroughly with a dry material such as pale, clean sand and then divide the whole amount into two or three separate containers. Take one portion of the mixed seed and scatter it as evenly as you can over the whole area. Then take the next portion and repeat the process, walking in a different direction. This helps to ensure the seeds are evenly distributed. If this is the first time you have sown an annual meadow mix then the last portion will allow you to fill any obvious gaps.
It is important that the seed is firmed into the seedbed so that there is close contact with the soil. Do not rake the seed into the ground as this will stop species that require light from germinating. Instead, use a roller, the back of a spade or the end of your rake to gently firm the seeds into the soil.
If you are sowing in the spring, the seeds should not need watering in but if it’s late May, early June or there is a prolonged dry period just after sowing, then a couple of thorough soakings might be needed. Water gently using a watering can with a rose or a hose with a fine spray attachment. Avoid blasting the soil surface with a jet of water or allowing puddles to form as this may bunch seed together and leave patches bare. A long, gentle watering that gets deep into the ground is best.
In normal spring weather you should expect to see the first signs of germination within 7-10 days. Growth can be very rapid after that and flowers may start appearing as soon as 6 weeks later.
If ground preparation was good, weeding should not be required. Annual meadow mixes are specifically designed to throw up taller and taller flowering stems as the year progresses, thereby ‘masking’ weeds that do invade. If you do spy any obvious interlopers, then it’s easy to pull them out by hand, avoiding the seedlings you’ve carefully sown.
Annual meadows should perform well in all weathers, although they’ll be more floriferous if the weather is fine. Should the summer months be especially hot and dry, the annuals might be triggered into completing their lifecycle early, producing flowers and setting seed before dying. If your meadow starts to look a little tired then go over it with a pair of shears, cutting the stems about half way from the ground. There’s no need to collect up the cuttings unless you want to gather some for indoors. Water thoroughly and within a few weeks you should have fresh flush of foliage and flowers.
Most of the time you can sit back and enjoy successive waves of colour, sometimes until December if the weather is mild. Once flowering has ceased the wildlife benefits of your annual meadow will continue. Any seed heads will provide a welcome food source for garden birds. Insects love to nest in dead stems so if you don’t mind the area looking untidy for a few months then leave the plants alone for as long as possible.
Early the following year, your final task will be to cut down the remains of your annual meadow. There is no need to collect and rake off the material as you would with a perennial meadow; the dry flower stems will be very fine and they’ll return goodness back into the soil as they break down.
Although you may find that some of the flowers seed themselves and regrow the following year, some will not. To achieve a similar display with a balance of flowers you should clean and prepare the ground again and resow with fresh seeds.
Annual Meadow Top Tips
Check the measurements of the space you’re sowing before ordering your seed so that there’s no waste or shortfall. A 6g packet of seeds will be enough to cover 2 square metres.
Sow when the ground has been warmed by the sun and is nicely moist - not when bone dry, waterlogged or if inclement weather is forecast soon afterwards. If in doubt, wait a few days.
Don’t be surprised to find that your ‘clean’ soil is full of weed seeds. Common weeds are common because they are extremely successful in surviving in the ground for many years. If possible, only disturb the surface of the soil when sowing to avoid unearthing dormant weed seeds.
Buy yourself a wildlife identification field guide and spend the summer noting down all the species of insects that visit your garden. You’ll be amazed just how many different ones you attract.