Wildflower Maintenance: The management approach

Many wild flora mixtures soon degenerate into rough grassland within only a few years. This is often the result of poor initial site evaluation, but the most important factor is the lack of maintenance. To date, results from our current trials demonstrate that unmanaged plots achieved far lower percentage mean cover of each flora species compared with their managed counterparts. This is a clear indication that cutting the sward is a vital component in achieving good results.

For flower-rich habitats to survive and remain stable over a long term period, competition from grasses and problem weeds such as docks and thistles needs to be kept under control. This can be achieved by choosing sites of lower fertility. These support fewer weeds and do not encourage rapid growth of grasses. The stress induced upon grass by mowing will allow the broad leaved wild flora species to compete within a grassland.

Unlike standard amenity grassland, the management of wild flower mixtures is more complex due to the wider range of growth characteristics between species. Factors such as rate of growth and flowering date will all influence the maintenance programme. For example, a cut at the wrong time of the year may result in a plant not producing seed.

This would result in short lived perennial and biennial species being lost from the sward. The survival of certain species relies on a return of seed into the soil to form new plants.

Maintenance objectives

It is essential, particularly in the first twelve months to manage the sward to aid seedling development and maintain a balanced composition from one year to the next. Wild flowers in most cases require a lower maintenance input with a more flexible approach than our traditional amenity grasslands.

Mixtures which have been established during the autumn, for example, are unlikely to require cutting until the following spring. By this time there should be a sufficiently developed sward of companion grasses. This will be growing faster than the flora content of the mixture. To reduce the grass canopy and allow established broad leaved species to develop a cut will be required. The timing of the first cut will depend mainly on the rate of growth of companion grasses.

A rule to follow can be to cut the sward once the height exceeds 10cm (late March/early April) reducing the height to between 4-7cm according to evenness of the ground. The lower the cutting height, the slower the re-growth of grasses.

A second cut could be required if re-growth exceeds 10cm by the end of April/early May. This will be very much influenced by local growing conditions such as rainfall and ground temperatures. The greatest influence will be soil fertility. Subsoil may not require any more than one cut in comparison to a fertile site, which may need 3-4 cuts during the first year.

8 Stages of Wild Flora Meadow Establishment

1 Select Site
2 Analyse Soil
3 Select Mixture
4 Prepare Ground
5 Cultivate
6 Sow
7 Maintain
8 Enjoy!

 

Mixtures containing annual species (Autumn Sown)

Year one

1st cut                 Early July

Then every 2 – 4 weeks during August, September and early October

Cutting height 70-100mm

Thereafter

Cut from mid - July to early September. This can be done as one cut but preferably, and if the meadow is big enough, you will cut it in sections leaving a week to a fortnight between cuts. Ensure you collect the arisings.

If practical lightly mow the sward down to 70-100mm as required throughout the winter months until March and collect the clippings.

 

Mixtures containing annual species (Spring Sown)

Year one

1st cut                 Early September

Then again during October

Cutting height 70-100mm

Thereafter

Cut from mid-July to early September. This can be done as one cut but preferably, and if the meadow is big enough, you will cut it in sections leaving a week to a fortnight between cuts. Ensure you collect the arisings.

If practical lightly mow the sward down to 70-100mm as required throughout the winter months until March and collect the clippings.

 

Why the above?

Cutting dates

In the first year of establishment  you would cut as early as possible, to ensure maximum plant diversity (it helps new plants tiller out and become established) but this can’t be until early July if Autumn sown because you want time for the annual species to have gone through their life cycle in the first year. If Spring sown then you need that to be later for the same reason, i.e if sown in May it will take 80-100 days for the annuals to flower and seed which takes you to September.

Why the subsequent cutting in first year?

As with the early cut this is to maximise plant diversity, let them tiller out.

Why the long period of cutting in thereafter advice?

Essentially different cutting timers will give different flowers the opportunity to proliferate; if you always cut in early July then you would always benefit flowers that like that period and would generally get a spring flowering meadow. If late summer then you would favour later flowering plants, but if you always cut late you will get excessive grass growth that will go stalky and make a successful cut very difficult and you will lose biodiversity, so a change in timings year on year is no bad thing for biodiversity and staggered cuttings are even better.

Why mowing through the Autumn/Winter?

Known as the aftercut, the purpose is to stop the grass getting away and to allow perennial species to tiller out; you are essentially replicating winter grazing of sheep, rabbits, deer etc. This is optional based upon practicality.

 

Mixtures with only perennial species (Autumn Sown)

Year one

1st cut                 Early June

Then monthly during July, August, September, and October

Cutting height 70-100mm

Thereafter

Cut from mid-July to early September. This can be done as one cut but preferably, and if the meadow is big enough, you will cut it in sections leaving a week to a fortnight between cuts. Ensure you collect the arisings.

If possible lightly mow the sward down to 70-100mm as required throughout the winter months until March and collect the clippings.

 

Mixtures with only perennial species (Spring Sown)

Year one

1st cut                 Early August

Then monthly during September and October

Cutting height 70-100mm

Thereafter

Cut from mid-July to early September. This can be done as one cut but preferably, and if the meadow is big enough, you will cut it in sections leaving a week to a fortnight between cuts. Ensure you collect the arisings.

If practical lightly mow the sward down to 70-100mm as required throughout the winter months until March and collect the clippings.

 

Why the above?

Cutting dates

In the first year of establishment  you would cut as early as possible, to ensure maximum plant diversity (it helps new plants tiller out and become established) but this can’t be until early July if Autumn sown because you want time for the annual species to have gone through their life cycle in the first year. If Spring sown then you need that to be later for the same reason, i.e if sown in May it will take 80-100 days for the annuals to flower and seed which takes you to September.

Why the subsequent cutting in first year?

As with the early cut this is to maximise plant diversity, let them tiller out.

Why the long period of cutting in thereafter advice?

Essentially different cutting timers will give different flowers the opportunity to proliferate; if you always cut in early July then you would always benefit flowers that like that period and would generally get a spring flowering meadow. If late summer then you would favour later flowering plants, but if you always cut late you will get excessive grass growth that will go stalky and make a successful cut very difficult and you will lose biodiversity, so a change in timings year on year is no bad thing for biodiversity and staggered cuttings are even better.

Why mowing through the Autumn/Winter?

Known as the aftercut, the purpose is to stop the grass getting away and to allow perennial species to tiller out; you are essentially replicating winter grazing of sheep, rabbits, deer etc. This is optional based upon practicality.

 

Mixtures without grass (WF1, WF3 and WF19) - Autumn Sown

Cut down to 70-100mm from mid-July to early September. Remove arisings.

 

Mixtures without grass (WF1, WF3 and WF19) - Spring Sown

Cut down to 70-100mm from early September. Remove arisings.

If practical lightly mow the sward down to 70-100mm as required throughout the winter months until March.

 

Mixtures of Annuals (WF10 and WF17)

These require no maintenance although over-sowing may be required in the Spring each year until a sufficient seed bank has been built up.