From lawn to wildflower garden

Rewilding is not just for vast tracts of land. Peter Vojak, from Leahurst Gardening and Meadows, looks at ways everyone can enjoy the benefits of wildflowers along with the diversity of nature that comes with them. Photographs by Colin Tracy

“…Almost everybody over the age of about fifty years old can remember a time when any long-distance drive in summer resulted in a windscreen so splattered with dead insects that it was necessary to stop occasionally to scrub them off. Driving country lanes at night in high summer would reveal a blizzard of moths in the headlights. Today, drivers in Western Europe and North America are freed from the chore of washing their windscreen”. (Prof Dave Goulson).

We all love to see butterflies and bees in our gardens. Unfortunately a number of factors in recent decades have reduced the number and diversity of these insects. These include habitat loss, urbanisation, land use intensification and intensive use of fertilisers and pesticides. Of the 2430 British insect species assessed by Natural England, 55 have gone extinct and 286 (11%) are threatened (UK Parliament PostNoteNumber 619 March 2020).
Lawns may look like attractive green spaces to our eyes but from the viewpoint of a butterfly or bee they are a relative desert, even more so if they contain few flowering plants. But any gardener can convert all or just a modest part of a lawn to make it more insect friendly. With an estimated 24 million gardens in the UK this could have a significant impact for our beneficial insects. Beneficial insects include not only pollinators but insect predators like hoverflies and ladybirds which eat garden pests such as aphids.
The key change to make is to ensure soil fertility is reduced and the soil surface disturbed to allow wild-flower seeds to get a foothold in direct contact with the soil.
Bare soil is the easiest surface to seed as wildflowers have the best chance of germinating there provided the soil has not recently been enriched with fertilisers. Such enriched soil should be left fallow for the year before seeding. All vegetation appearing will need to be cut regularly and all cuttings removed promptly to reduce fertility.
A lawn, not recently improved and given fertilisers, can be scarified or rotavated or even have the surface turf removed altogether to give the necessary open areas for wildflowers to colonise.
Take care that the seed mix you choose is suited to the soil conditions and local environment. Wildflowers suited for thin soil over chalk will differ from those that grow well in a damp low lying area. If there are existing vigorous grasses in place then include Yellow Rattle seeds in the mix you use to re-seed. This is an annual plant which is able to parasitize vigorous grasses. The following season it will weaken them and again help to give the less vigorous wild-flower species a foothold.
To plant a perennial wild-flower area it is best to seed your prepared area in September/October when rain is expected. Tread or roll the seeds in after scattering them to ensure good contact with the soil. If grasses and pernicious weeds continue to grow in the same area cut them short or better still uproot them and remove all cuttings so that a blanketing of grass thatch does not cover the wild-flower seeds. A nurse crop of annual wildflowers can be sown alongside the perennial seed mix to give a fast burst of colour the following season. This could include Cornflowers, Corn Poppy, Corn Marigold and Corn Cockle. The seeded area should be kept short until the following early spring. In traditional meadows this would have been done by grazing cattle over the winter. In the absence of a herd of cattle a gardener must do their own regular cutting and removal of vegetation.
From early spring the wildflower area is allowed to grow, flower and set seed. To make a more striking display of the newly wilded area you can choose to keep the areas adjacent to flower borders cut short, as well as a path through the longer vegetation so that you can get up close and personal with the new range of wildlife. The remainder should be cut around mid-July and all cuttings removed. In a farming system this would be used as hay for the animals. As the vegetation will be quite long an ordinary mower may not cope. A hedge trimmer or shears could be used over a small area. A larger area may need a scythe. The Scythe Association of Britain and Ireland ( ), often working with Wild-Life Trusts, run courses on scythe use or can put gardeners in touch with experienced local scythers. If motorised cutting machinery is used all cuttings must be removed. Keep the wild flower area short until the next spring.
Even a small area of lawn can be turned over to wildflowers to make a new area of interest and a home for useful insects. If more gardens had such areas then they could form the stepping stones in pathways for pollinators linking nearby plots. You would be supporting a greater diversity of beneficial insects. And you would be helping mitigate, at a local level, some of the key drivers of the loss of beneficial insects.

Summary of the first year of development of a wildflower area.

Remove, pernicious weeds like docks or nettles. Remove all cuttings in season before sowing.
Prepare the soil surface by late summer.
Choose a suitable type and quantity of seeds. Emorsgate Seeds is a reputable supplier with many years of experience but other sources of seed do exist.
In autumn sow your chosen seed mixture. Hand sowing can be done even over large areas pretty quickly.
Cut down and remove any rank growth of competing weeds in autumn and up to the early part of following spring.
Do not cut the main area again from March until after around mid-July and enjoy the resulting display. Once flowers have gone to seed, cut and remove all top growth after letting seed fall.
You will see a significant increase in plant and insect diversity in the first season after planting. This will also include birds. For example if Teazle heads are left to stand in the winter Goldfinches may well visit them to find seeds.