We went to mow a meadow

Country Life Every Week - - In The Garden - Tom Cow­ard

ONE of the most fas­ci­nat­ing as­pects of the gar­den at Gravetye is our clutch of wild­flower mead­ows, which are a source of plea­sure all year round. They oc­cur in rep­e­ti­tion through­out the gar­den, con­trast­ing with the more for­mal ar­eas and sup­ply­ing homes for a won­der­ful di­ver­sity of wildlife.

These ar­eas are an­cient mead­ows, into which Wil­liam Robin­son first started in­tro­duc­ing bulbs and peren­ni­als in 1885. He recorded his ex­per­i­ments in later edi­tions of his in­flu­en­tial late-19th-cen­tury book The Wild Gar­den and it is fas­ci­nat­ing to read these ideas and see the re­sults of his ex­per­i­ments to­day here at Gravetye.

‘You have to be im­mersed in the meadow, to en­joy the wild­flow­ers, but­ter­flies and crick­ets up close

The dis­play re­ally starts in the very first days of spring, when snow­drops and cro­cuses pop their heads up, as a prom­ise of things to come. By the end of March, a colour scheme of blue and yel­low takes over, with hun­dreds of thou­sands of na­tive daf­fodils flow­er­ing through a car­pet of sky-blue Scilla.

The blue-and-yel­low scheme con­tin­ues as spring pro­gresses, with yel­low Tulipa sylvestris joined by blue­bells, these rapidly fol­lowed by sheets of but­ter­cups and the blue spires of Ca­mas­sia qua­mash. As spring turns into summer, the na­tive wild­flow­ers take over, the high­light of which are swathes of common spot­ted orchids, Dacty­lorhiza fuch­sii.

Through most of the year, our mead­ows de­mand rel­a­tively lit­tle labour de­spite their long sea­son of in­ter­est. Tak­ing care to keep well-mown paths snaking through the meadow in summer is very im­por­tant, so that vis­i­tors can be in­side, rather than view­ing it from a dis­tance. You have to be im­mersed in it, to en­joy the wild­flow­ers, but­ter­flies and crick­ets up close.

This year, we ex­per­i­mented with mow­ing a mar­gin strip be­side the path edge, putting the mower blades on their high­est set­ting. By do­ing this just once, in May, it worked a lit­tle like the ‘Chelsea chop’, cre­at­ing a late-flow­er­ing ‘but­ter­cup step’ run­ning along ei­ther side of the path in summer.

De­spite the wild­flower mead­ows needing rel­a­tively low main­te­nance, there are some in­ten­sive pe­ri­ods of hard work, which re­quire some fine tim­ing. One of the big­gest jobs is the mow­ing, which is usually started here in about mid Au­gust, although it can be done as late as Oc­to­ber, de­pend­ing on how wet the weather has been. Leav­ing the cut un­til early au­tumn can be ben­e­fi­cial for the meadow’s wild an­i­mals, as well as some very late wild­flow­ers, such as devil’sbit scabi­ous, Suc­cisa praten­sis.

If we wanted to make qual­ity hay, the grass would be cut much ear­lier, when it has the high­est nu­tri­tional value, but we don’t cut un­til all of the wild­flow­ers have set seed. This means that the hay we make is so poor we have to pay the farmer to take it away, but our pri­or­ity is in cul­ti­vat­ing wild­flow­ers, not feed­ing live­stock. We usually watch the common spot­ted orchids as an in­di­ca­tor for this. Once their seeds have ripened, we know that al­most ev­ery­thing else will have shed its seed, too.

For the health of the meadow, it’s very im­por­tant that all of the hay is re­moved. In our largest meadow, which is about six acres, we can get a farmer in with a big trac­tor to cut and bale, but, in the smaller, more in­tri­cate mead­ows, it’s a more fid­dly job. In the past, these ar­eas have been cut by hand with a me­chan­i­cal scythe, strim­mer and rake, but, re­cently, we’ve man­aged to in­vest in a ma­chine called a flail col­lec­tor, which can go on the back of our com­pact trac­tor. It can ac­cess nearly the en­tire gar­den and will cut and hoover up the long grass in one hit, sav­ing us vast amounts of labour.

Af­ter the ini­tial hay cut, it’s re­ally im­por­tant to do a sec­ond cut, with a col­lect­ing mower, just be­fore the winter sets in. In a mild winter, the grass hardly stops growing in Sus­sex, so, by get­ting it re­ally short, all of the bulbs stand out so much bet­ter in the fol­low­ing spring. It also helps re­duce the vigour of the grass yet fur­ther, al­low­ing the bulbs and wild­flow­ers more space to de­velop.

Tom Cow­ard is head gar­dener at Gravetye Manor, West Sus­sex (www.gravetye­manor.co.uk)

When in Italy

‘A source of plea­sure all year round’: our wild­flower mead­ows com­bine low main­te­nance with a long sea­son of in­ter­est

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