It's hard to imagine British literature, art, poetry and music without references to wildflowers, and the works of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Wordsworth, D. H. Lawrence, William Morris, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and many others would be seriously diminished without the richness of our native flora for inspiration. Shakespeare alone mentions over 100 native wildflowers and plants in his plays and sonnets.

Whenever I picture a perfect image of the British countryside, I see rolling meadows filled with colourful wildflowers, but sadly, in reality, the number of wildflower meadows has been seriously declining since the 1930s, and only scattered fragments remain. Wildflower meadows and grasslands are our most diverse habitats, rich in wildlife, beauty, history and folklore. Species as diverse as cowslips, purple orchids, skylarks, barn owls, brown hares and bumble bees, to name but a few, depend on wildflower meadows and grasslands for their survival. These magical places are an important part of our heritage.

How to make your own wildflower meadow

You don’t need rolling acres of land to make your own wildflower meadow. A patch of lawn in an open, sunny position can be transformed into a mini-meadow, rich in wildflowers, providing cover and food for wildlife. The maintenance of a wildflower meadow is much easier than a traditional lawn and it will provide colour and interest from spring until the last dying days of summer.

The most successful meadows occur on nutrient-poor soils which prevent vigorous grasses from taking over. Before planting your flower species, stop using fertilizers and weed-killers, and keep the grass very short, removing all the clippings to prevent nutrients from returning to the soil.

I find the best way of introducing wildflowers into an established lawn is to plant small plug-plants in autumn, and for a naturalistic appearance, I plant in small drifts across the lawn. Make a small hole for each plant and add a little compost to the bottom of the hole to help the plant establish quickly. After watering well, I usually add some leaf-mould around each plant to deter competition. Don’t cut the grass until the end of summer to allow the wildflowers to set for the following year.

Use wildflower turf or seeds

If you want to create a meadow on a bare patch of ground you can ‘cheat’ and lay wildflower turf, which is naturally low in nutrients. It is supplied in rolls and can be laid exactly like regular turf, and usually contains 50% grasses and 50% native wildflowers, including bugle, yarrow, ox-eye daisy, birds- foot trefoil and yellow rattle. It can be bought from a number of specialist suppliers.

Alternatively, you can sow a wildflower meadow mix of seeds direct in autumn or early spring – if you have a heavy clay soil I would advise sowing in spring. You can buy a seed mix to suit your soil type or conditions and sow at a rate of 4 grams per square metre. Traditional hay meadow mixes contain both native grasses and wildflowers, but pictorial meadow mixes are 100% wildflower seed, and can be both native and non-native, with a range of colour schemes, heights and flowering periods. Before sowing, fork over the soil and rake it, and then scatter the seed throughout. Lightly firm the soil with the back of the rake and keep an eye on the watering until germination has taken place.

Shirley’s pick of wildflowers

My favourite British wildflowers include the cowslip, with its deep yellow blooms held on tall stems in spring; bugle, which sends up a ring of tall, bright purple flowers; ragged robin, producing delicate pink blooms; sorrel, with its spikes of reddish flowers and crimson leaves in summer, and of course, the simple but perfect white ox-eye daisy.

Plantlife wildflower campaign

Plantlife is leading a campaign to save the UK’s remaining wildflower-rich meadows and grasslands through the ‘Saving Our Magnificent Meadows’ project. For more information go to the Plantlife website.

– Shirley Walker, plant specialist, Eden Project