Adding a wildflower area to the garden can help turn it into a real wildlife magnet – not least because so many of our once-common native plants have almost entirely disappeared from UK fields and hedgerows.
According to some sources, around 95% of Britain’s wildflower meadows have been lost over the last 25 years. Aside of impoverishing the look of the countryside, such a major change has obvious implications for the bees, butterflies and other kinds of wildlife that depend on our native wild plants.
For the wildlife gardener, the appeal of growing wildflowers is pretty clear – but it’s certainly not the easiest project to undertake.
It’s not simply a question of buying a few packets of seeds, sowing them and then just standing back until they grow, largely because cultivating wildflowers needs a different approach to just about every other kind of ‘normal’ gardening.
The first place to start is with the soil – and the first thing to forget about is feeding it! Wildflowers do best in poor soils – one of the reasons for their demise in farmland is the rise in fertiliser use, which allows other plant species to out compete them – so if yours is a typically fertile garden, you may need to begin by removing that rich layer of topsoil.
The character of the soil almost entirely dictates the kind of wild plants that you can grow, so it’s worthwhile getting an idea of the nature of your ground before you get too far along the planning stage. There are plenty of cheaply available testing kits on sale at garden centres that can help you work out the what kind of soil you have, how fertile it is and its pH – all of which have a bearing on the variety of plants you can grow.
Although most wildflowers do best in relatively unfertile conditions, there are some kinds which will live happily in richer soils, so all is not lost, even if your chosen site turns out to be a bit more fertile than ideal.
What to Plant
There are general rules which will give you some help when it comes to deciding what to plant – poppies, for example, do well on thin, chalky soils, while vetches, which are better able to deal with competition from other plants, can be grown on more fertile loams. However, probably the best guide is to have a look around your local area and see for yourself what grows naturally – though given the large loss of natural wildflower habitat, in many parts of the country, this is not particularly easy.
Fortunately, if you do run into difficulties, your local wildlife trust should be able to help. The Natural History Museum also has a useful online search facility which lists the wildflowers native to a particular area – though since it’s postcode based, obviously not every species listed is guaranteed to suit every single garden in the locality!
Most wildflowers are sown as seeds, either in seed trays to be pricked out and planted later, or directly into a properly prepared seed bed where they are to grow; a smaller number of kinds are sold as bulbs, often to be planted ‘in the green’ – when they have already started to grow leaves.
Wildflowers for Wildlife
Whether you opt for seeds or bulbs, it’s important to pick the right mix of plants for your conditions – and your garden centre or seed merchants should be able to advise you on the most appropriate ones to choose. Some wildflowers seem to be particularly good at attracting wildlife – especially butterflies; amongst some of the best are:
- Autumn and Rough Hawkbits (Leontodon autumnalis and L. hispidus)
- Betony (Stachys officinalis)
- Black and Greater Knapweeds (Centaurea nigra and C. scabiosa)
- Cowslip (Primula veris)
- Devil’s Bit (Succisa pratensis)
- Field Scabious (Knautia arvensis)
- Musk Mallow (Malva moschata)
- Self-Heal (Prunella vulgaris)
Establishing wildflowers in a domestic garden isn’t a particularly straightforward job, and there’s no denying that there’s a lot of work involved in even trying, but if you are successful, the rewards for the amateur naturalist can be enormous. Creating your own wildflower area is a great way of helping replace some of Britain’s lost habitats – even if only in a small way – with the added bonus that you can get to see some of the country’s best wildlife without ever needing to go far from your own back door!