On to pastures new

Dandelion with Ground Ivy

Dandelion with Ground Ivy

I have to make a confession before starting this post, and that is I am addicted to wildflowers. I honestly can’t get enough of them; the colours, forms, the complex or simple nature, the ancient lore and stories, the excitement of hunting and finding, checking if it’s common, rare or just another one to add to the diary, not to mention the ecological benefits to our landscape, gardens and homes. Though most will agree that some are not the most exciting of plants, it is when they become part of a community such as a floral rich grassland, boasting and parading a vast diversity of plants, birds and insects, that they are truly breath-taking. Much like a single ant is never noteworthy or special, when there are a 1000 ants they become a whole different animal. So never was there a bigger smile on my face than when I was given the task to improve our grasslands inside and out of the garden.

The first objective on our list was to increase the diversity of plants within the orchard meadow, at present a high yielding fodder crop perfect for any farmer or animal owner. Because of this success however, it isn’t florally diverse. I’m pretty sure everyone has heard the simple preaching by many garden experts, (especially after the recent popularity of wildflowers) of the almost gospel doctrines of “Low fertility” and “Yellow rattle” that claim everyone can have the perfect meadow, even when dealing with high fertility soils containing weeds such as docks and nettles. But I find this advice a bit misleading. There are also the issues of soil type, history of the site and location, not to mention the strict management plan that must be followed for years to come. The orchard is a classic example.  With problems such as leached nutrients, non-traditional cutting regimes, fertilizer feeding of the grass paths and the sheer mass of daffodils, traditional meadow management has not been possible. A new management plan is clearly required which will hopefully be implemented by end of this year, and I’m sure I’ll cover this in a different post.

So, returning to the orchard.  I tried a few methods this year, firstly starting with the most floral part found at the bottom of the meadow. Though it’s not particularly species rich, it still puts on a good show mainly due to the yellow rattle sowed the year before (I won’t harp on about yellow rattle as most people know what it does by now). I always wondered what effect a good scarify to this area would do – so the thatch was removed in November, about the time the grass began to dominate again. We scarified it hard; removing a lot of thatch and really opening up the soil which will now allow light and water to help break the dormancy of the seeds and give them the freedom to grow. Traditionally this would be carried out by grazing by animals and I would love to see this at Sissinghurst but I think the risk is too great at the moment – my biggest fear would be popping to the Cottage Garden to find a sheep instead of a dahlia! So for now it will have to be manually controlled.

In other parts, I started to mark areas of grassland that I could visually see were of weak growth and low fertility. I then decided to use a method, told to me by Graham, a gardener from Great Dixter, which was to hover the rotavator blade over the grass and really open it up. This was followed by a sowing of yellow rattle which will keep the already less fertile grass at bay, and then allow the yellow rattle seeds to spread from there. I’ll keep you posted on the results of this experiment.

An area once inhabited by a rose, became a potential ideal area to sow, if not for the docks. Reading an American report, I tried a method in which I cut all the pernicious weeds to the ground and then sowed my floral mix, which will eventually outgrow the weeds and kill them. The whole point is to lessen the effect of cultivation because cultivation can allow unwanted weed seeds to germinate like many arable weeds. It may work, it may not, but whatever the outcome I’m sure I’ll share it.

Outside of the garden we’ve begun to improve our once plain grasslands. If anyone has visited lately they’ll see the new areas in development. The first area is behind the shop. This was created using a low fertile sub soil brought in from an area being developed in the veg garden. After allowing it to settle for a while, I rotavated it to bring up any unwanted plants. Here I will tell you a golden rule. Whenever starting afresh with wild flowers, once the soil has been disturbed, always allow time for any unwanted weed seeds to germinate and grow – then go about disposing of them. I used a herbicide to quickly remove them and went about digging the second flush of growth out. I then marked out an area, sowed at a rate of 4g per square metre with a mix of wildflower seeds, which was simply knapweed, ox eye daisy and native grasses allowing it to be in keeping with our local flora.

The Oast lawn had a different and more aggressive approach which involved scraping the top soil to lower the ground fertility. It was then cultivated to allow the aggressive weeds to germinate (we have a real problem with fat hen) so that we could remove them. This is the point we’re at now, waiting for the weeds to germinate so I can make sure they won’t be a problem. I will them follow with a sowing in March. This will be done by sowing onto the ground using a fertilizer spreader and then trampling it in so the seed has maximum contact with the soil.

The reason for all this outside improvement is to allow the property to link up with the farm that Vita loved so much, adding extra patches to the patchwork of fields we already have. On the topic of scraping and the “should we or shouldn’t we”, I say a semi-natural or even semi-improved grassland shouldn’t be fully scraped. However, the Oast lawn wasn’t naturally occurring as it was created for an aesthetic look and being such a small area, I find there’s no problem. However, with the larger more naturally occurring fields, I would only ever strip sow with locally sourced seed from a nearby floral meadow using green hay or, if applicable, allow for natural regeneration. Another issue when buying seed from distributors is that you can end up with a floral composition based on Dorset or Norfolk or wherever, and not of your local county, but then this sparks a debate for us gardeners, who want the most pleasing and maybe not the most ecological factor. Hopefully, with new areas I get and depending on location I will only ever source local seed and use the methods of green or hay strewing. Unfortunately, our abandoned farmed fields won’t naturally regenerate to former glories.

This has been a very brief look into some of the changes that have taken place and I will keep you updated on our progress throughout the year, so please watch out for my future posts. For those who are able to visit, I hope you enjoy the new meadows as much as I have when creating them.

Josh, Gardener

5 thoughts on “On to pastures new

  1. This is a really interesting post, thank you for sharing your work Josh. It is good to see how meadows can unify the garden and its peripheral, more rural setting. Do you think it might be worth giving some consideration to altering the ground profiles of what is currently referred to as Oast Lawn? A more undulating profile is likely to be visually pleasing when compared to a slope of even gradient between interconnecting paths and would remove any trace of its previous, perhaps misguided, classification as lawn.

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    • Due to the nature of a blog, I wasn’t able to write everything I wanted to,so I will try to answer these questions now.

      Like you, I feel that meadows only become established once they’ve developed their own individual character by either plant type, location, formation or other factors. In time they become truly special and create a lasting impression.

      You asked whether we left areas uneven and in a more natural state deliberately, and behind the shop we have purposefully allowed rain and other elements to compact the soil and create a very uneven surface. Observing this over the past months, these dips collect and hold water and at some points overflow, creating small streams. I have no doubt that this will affect the plant density proportions, creating a more interesting and varied grassland than a typical lawn might have.

      I have decided with the Oast lawn to do something different – we have softened the gradient and with the cultivation of the ground and removal of the trees, it has become more undulated. Here, I wish to mimic the fantastic northern hay meadows and the floral grasslands of the Downs, in which the plants create a uniformly, tiered effect, much like spectators in an ancient amphitheatre.

      In Summer, after the hay has been removed I plan to build hay cocks and racks to introduce the romance of the old ways of hay management. This will also act as a visual divide between lawn and meadow.

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