Saturday, 29 August 2009

I Know a Bank Where The Wild Thyme Grows.....

Was William Shakespeare sitting in our secret valley when he wrote these words? I doubt it, although we are less than 30 miles from his birthplace at Stradford-upon-Avon. But on the slopes above our little winding river (it's the photo of the title header) the thyme flowers year after year.
Wild flower meadows are quite easy to create whether on the big scale or in the garden. Of course, the species rich meadows of the Chilterns and Cotswolds have evolved over centuries and have a wealth of insect and plant life to show for it. In the garden you just have to be a little more realistic and be grateful for every bug and butterfly that comes along and colonises it. Hopefully wild orchids, like the Pyramidal orchids below, will arrive too.
The golden rule of all meadows is to reduce fertility. As soon as fertility rises, usually through feeding, the grass sward thickens and out competes the flowers. The photo below is of 'our' bank and shows, as a golden haze, the unimproved grassland - thin, tall and sparse and too steep for the tractors to get onto and spray. The brighter green grass above and below is where the tractors can reach, the grass has been fed and, consequently, there are few wild flowers.

Late summer wild flower meadows require a different maintenance regime to those which have an abundance of spring flowers and, as it is that time of year, I shall concentrate on the former. Now is the time to cut the 'hay' whether on the bigger scale such as in this orchard or, by hand, in the garden. It is important to get the timing right - you need to leave it late enough for the seeds to fall from their heads to increase more. Leave it too late and bad weather knocks the grass and plants flat to the ground when it becomes a devil of a job to cut. The difference is a task that is a joy to do or one that is totally hateful!
Once cut, I then mow the meadow regularly as a normal lawn, even topping it once or twice in the winter if the weather is mild enough. In spring I continue to mow quite regularly, gradually increasing the cutting height until I stop totally about early May. This way, it does not become too unruly later on in the year.


The golden rule is to pick up and remove all clippings - leave lying on the surface and the fertility of the soil will begin to increase again.

Hardheads, the local name I learnt for Knapweed in my Chiltern Hills childhood, is a favourite flower of mine. Although normally purply-mauve (above), I found this bi-coloured one and some pure white flowered ones growing in an old meadow - rarities, indeed. I live in hope that they might appear one day in the secret valley!
Neglect does not create a meadow. If you don't work at it all you will end up with is a sheet of docks, nettles and thistles as has happened in this garden here - not a pretty sight!
And finally - don't collect plants from the wild: they have enough problems with survival without you adding to them! Collecting seed is probably ok (check any bye-laws first and get permission from the landowner) or buy seed or plants from specialist nurseries or garden centres.


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6 comments:

  1. Wild thyme! I've only found that in North Devon...it's only when you come acros the (rare) proper meadow that you realise how sparse in species a normally farmed field is. There is a favourite one of ours which is brimming with grasses and flowers, and so much more interesting to walk through, insects everywhere!

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  2. I only know of it growing in two places in the secret valley and have never seen it anywhere else I've travelled. With 97% of the original wild flower meadows having been lost to modern farming practice, a 'real' meadow is a wonderful sight indeed.

    In the Chilterns, where I grew up, we were lucky as so many of the hills were too steep to work and the wild flowers survived. It was only when I moved away I realised just how lucky I had been! Johnson

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  3. I didn't realize a meadow was so sensitive to the amount of fertility-this was interesting.
    Over here in the states, we have the same problem-the few remaining areas of prairie are only there because someone had the foresight to protect it.
    Wouldn't it be wonderful to be able to go back in time to see things as they were originally........or perhaps that would be too depressing when we come back!

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  4. Thanks Sue and interesting that the same situation has arisen in the States. It would be good to return to a time of little noise and pollution, a slower pace of life, etc - provided we had 21st century medical treatment! Johnson

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  5. Thank you for all that info, its very helpful as I tried this year to start a wild flower place and it wasn't very successful. I have similar wild orchids popping up all over the garden, they are paler than the ones you show, and they seem to be finished for the moment. I was happy to see them, and rather surprised too.

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  6. How lucky you are, Heckety, to have orchids - whatever you are doing they obviously like it!

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