We often get asked why we don’t cut all the grass areas in the gardens, visitors sometimes think it looks a little unkempt. Well, there is a very good reason for it and this blog will explain why…
What is a meadow?
A meadow is an open area of land containing perennial grasses, weeds, wild flowers and other plants usually bordered by hedges, stone walls or woodland. They contain few or no trees and larger meadows are usually created by a particular pattern of mowing and grazing. Cattle graze in the winter, then, in spring, the plants are allowed to grow, flower and set seed. Wild flower meadows can be quite small and contain a wonderful mix of wild grasses and flowers such as knapweed, scabious and vetch. They are very versatile and small versions of these delightful spaces are starting to become popular in residential gardens across the country.
The UK’s remaining species-rich grasslands now cover a minute fraction of the area they once covered and over the last 60 years, most of our wildflower-rich meadows have been lost, mainly due to changes in farming practice. Many of these meadows have been converted to arable land or ‘improved grassland’ dominated by a few vigorous grass species and white clover. There were once natural wildflower meadows in every parish – today only 2% of the meadows that existed in the 1930’s remain.
Why are they important?
Meadows are an important part of the UK’s natural and cultural heritage and feature throughout folklore and history. Many artists have been inspired by meadow landscapes, the most famous being Constable and Shakespeare. Battles have been fought on these landscapes and village greens have always been the centre of rural community life. We have even coined phrases such as “off to pastures new" and "put out to pasture". A meadow can have been managed in the same way for hundreds of years so is a ‘historical place’ in its own right.
Meadows are a huge life support for a huge range of wildlife. Meadows offer a diverse, attractive and interesting habitat for young and old to explore. Spending time amongst meadows you may be lucky enough to spot wildflowers, fungi, bees, flies, beetles, spiders, moths, butterflies, reptiles, amphibians, small mammals, bats and birds. In a long-established meadow, there may be up to 30 different plant species in one square metre. Species-rich meadows can also provide other environmental benefits such as carbon storage, water retention to prevent natural flooding and habitat for pollinators.
Read about our rare find in the Rose Meadow
Wild flower meadows, in particular are extraordinarily beautiful and full of wildlife. These are not nature reserves but rather meadows created by sowing wild flowers, hand weeding and to be enjoyed for their sheer beauty.
The Meadows at Easton Walled Gardens, by Ursula Cholmeley
A lifelong, very amateur naturalist, I always intended that this should be a garden that works for humans and wildlife.
When we started restoring the gardens in 2001, there was one pair of nesting swallows. In order not to jeopardise their breeding, we cut holes in the doors of the sheds as we repaired the roof. A swallow’s migration is becoming increasingly precarious so we are proud that there are now six nesting pairs. (Nevertheless we wait anxiously every year for their return.)
The next challenge was to make the most of our terrible soil. It is a mystery why anyone built this garden: in a frost pocket, on limestone, with barely any topsoil, but it has turned out to be a blessing. It gives us an opportunity to grow some of the richest of all meadow flora including scabious, pasque flowers, knapweed, cowslips, rare clovers, wild marjoram, salvias and, of course, orchids.
We have created four meadow areas that increase in diversity every year. The Cedar Meadow is filled with spring bulbs from mid-January to early June and is the first to be cut. The terraces and rose meadows are rich with summer flowers. While the terraces are very steep and dry, there is more clay content and moisture in the rose meadows. Different areas suit different colonies of flowers. In one corner of the rose meadow, vetches have almost taken over, while in another, orchids have appeared. Finally we have two tiny meadows by the history room filled with crocuses and spring bulbs. They prove that even a small garden can have the magic that we see all summer.
The spin-off to all this is a marked increase in insect life. We still have some way to go to attract all the species that could thrive here (certain blue butterflies would appreciate the anthills for instance) but, as everything is connected, the increased insect activity means more food for birds and helps to stabilize our swallow population.
When you visit I urge you to take some time to really look at what is happening around your feet, on the terrace meadows and on the edge of paths. Those wild violets are left intentionally just as the nettles over the hedge are too. Pause and listen to the birdsong in the big trees or watch the intense concentration with which a bee feeds. I hope you find the peace and hope that the natural world gives to gardeners every day.
Find out more about wild gardens HERE
What can you do to help?
- Set aside some of your garden at home for a wildflower meadow. You can purchase a wild flower seed mix to sow yourself.
- Volunteer with your local conservation or wildlife trust.
- Celebrate National Meadows Day– a national day of meadow themed events.
- Visit a meadow near you.
- Spread the word to help raise awareness.
So next time you see an unruly area of grassland, why not step closer and take a look. It might just be a world of wonderful discoveries waiting to be explored…