One of the best ways to encourage wildflowers in your garden is to leave a patch of lawn to its own devices during spring and summer.
The chances are that at least some wildflowers will appear if you leave the lawnmower alone. What comes up in your no-mow patch depends very much on what you start with. If, like me, your lawn is old, rather weedy, and probably hasn’t encountered weedkillers or fertilisers for years, a bit more conscious neglect could transform it into a thriving mini-meadow.
This is because the average lawn is usually home to what many would describe as weeds. Shift your perspective slightly and, like a botanical version of the ugly duckling story, many of these so-called weeds will grow into lovely wildflowers.
Left alone, a modest expectation from your turf would be pretty little plants such as daisies, speedwell, self-heal, buttercups and clovers. But oxeye daisies, cowslips and even orchids might appear too. Just as in wildflower meadows across Britain, each with their own regional character and identity, your soil type will determine which flowers will grow.
Chances are you’ll get meadow buttercup, oxeye daisy and bird’s-foot trefoil on neutral or limey soils. On the latter, maybe you’ll get cowslips, that rarity clustered bellflower or the beautiful blue pincushions of field scabious in late summer.
A no-mow lawn should produce pretty little plants such as daisies, speedwell, self-heal, buttercups and clovers. Photograph: Trevor Dines
Gardening on acid soil? In wildflower meadows on acid soil in Wales and Scotland you’ll find harebell, tormentil and devil’s-bit scabious, among others. So there is no reason why you shouldn’t expect these at home, too.
But don’t let technical talk of soil types put you off. You never quite know what to expect from your no-mow patch, which is a large part of the pleasure for me.
Maintaining a mini-meadow
Once the grass and flowers have been allowed to grow, the key to maintaining your mini-meadow is through your diary of mowing.
Try to resist cutting until at least the middle of July – or even into early September if you can. This gives the wildflowers a chance to complete their cycle of growing, flowering and setting seed. The exact timing of the first cut depends on the year and the weather, but a later cut will help species like knapweed and orchids to spread, while earlier cuts can help control competitive species, such as common hogweed. If you get more invasive plants like nettle or dock, it’s best to pull these up by hand.
Aim to cut the grass down hard to a few centimetres in height. Having said that, it’s also good to leave some strips or edges uncut as refuges for insects. You may need a scythe or a strimmer for the first cut, but after that a standard mower will be fine. If it’s a small enough patch you might even get by with a pair of garden shears.
Try cutting different areas at different times and see how your wildflowers respond.
A friend In Dorset mows part of their lawn up to mid-April, which encourages pyramidal orchids to grow. Other areas they leave totally neglected after a winter cut in December and are rewarded with carpets of primroses in March and April, followed by cowslips in May.
As for the size and shape of your no-mow patch, it’s entirely up to you. If you have a small lawn, try a 1 metre-square micro-meadow.
At the other extreme, why not leave most of the lawn unmown with just a few paths meandering through?
Grass on limey soils may throw up a cowslip or two. Photograph: Trevor Dines/Plantlife
At Plantlife, we’ve laid down the no-mow challenge to our supporters, asking them to share pictures on Instagram and Twitter with the hashtag #SayNoMow.
So if you’re looking for inspiration, why not start here?
The first mow
After you’ve cut the grass in late summer, it’s extremely important to remove all the cuttings. If you don’t do this, any rotting debris will fertilise the ground, encouraging tough grasses to take over at the expense of the wildflowers you’re trying to encourage.
The other reason is that the grass clippings could smother germinating wildflower seeds that are trying to get a foothold during late summer and autumn. Avoid putting cuttings in the compost unless you want wildflowers appearing in every part of the garden.
It’s best to mow your mini-meadow a few times more until around Christmas, removing the clippings each time. Then leave it alone and enjoy the flowers through spring and the following summer. This basic regime of cutting the grass from late summer to the end of the year mimics the traditional pattern of hay-cutting followed by grazing, to which many meadow flowers are adapted.
Gardens, of course, cannot substitute ancient meadows in the wild. But these days, thriving wildflower meadows are an increasingly rare sight – more than 97% of them have been destroyed since the 1930s, disappearing under the plough or being converted to silage fields.
At Plantlife we’ve created and restored 15,800 acres of wildflower meadows, but on a different scale, your own #SayNoMow patch has a vital part to play. Not only will it attract wildlife into your garden, but it will look lovely too – a powerful reminder that we should value what’s left and support all efforts to restore wildflower meadows.