We went to mow a meadow
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