It might be slightly late in the year for an annual meadow review, but while the sky is grey and the leaves are coming down by the boat load it’s nice to be reminded of the colour that already seems a lifetime ago..
Back in April I decided to sow a stretch of annual meadow using a Pictorial Meadows seed mix. I’ve wanted to do this since arriving at the garden years ago, however the task never made it to the top of my things-to-do list quickly enough in Spring each year and so the opportunity was always missed. The length of ground I chose was roughly 16m x 2m and of the fairly free-draining, light soil indicative of this area of South West London.
Pictorial Meadows have built a reputation on providing high quality meadow seed and key advice services in a fairly new field of horticulture. Founded by leading naturalist garden designer and professor at Sheffield University, Nigel Dunnett, their client and project list is now extensive, including the stunning meadows commissioned for the London 2012 Olympic Park.
I chose a seed mix that would maximise colour and impact while providing a food source for insects in a fairly quiet and otherwise infrequently visited area of the garden. The mix was listed on the Pictorial Meadows website (www.pictorialmeadows.co.uk) as ‘Standard Annual’, which includes poppy, cornflower, toadflax, Atriplex and Coreopsis flowers.
The first step was to remove the top layer of grass and weed. As the garden houses probably the largest population of Alkanet residents I have ever encountered, there was some additional deep-root digging required in order to prepare the ground for rotorvation. Once rotorvated, I then trampled the soil and raked over.
The seed was then mixed with sand; this enables both a more even distribution when sowing, and a visible contrast with un-sown ground so as to indicate where you have scattered seed. I sowed my meadow in early June, which was far later than intended and consequently the strip only began to reach decent flowering around mid September. The ideal would be to sow around mid April, which I will be doing next year for certain. Regardless, however, the results were fantastic; nothing beats the sight of an annual meadow in sunshine. It draws you in and the colours absorb you to distraction. I think we must have some innate, deep-set connection with the cornflower meadow, perhaps reaching back to the cornfields of our ancestry. To stand and watch it seems to chime with something within; I would highly recommend having a go, even if you only have space for a meter or two.
This year I have to admit to up-scaling the mechanics of my meadow cutting process in a bid to save a bit of time and labour. I stretched to a power scythe (courtesy of the ever-frustrating eBay) which has made all the difference this year.
A power scythe or, ‘sickle mower’, cuts grass low at the base, pushing the sword through two crossing blades along a wide bar. The cut is very clean and surprisingly much less destructive to meadow dwellers (frogs, toads, nice etc) than other commonly used machines like strimmers and ride on mowers.
Although I was only able to get both the meadows cut by the time Autumn was settling in, we were lucky enough to have a few days sunshine to give the impression of a late Summer afternoon as I finished off the stacks.
Collecting seed from the last standing burdock stems along the wood edges. Sealed inside the needle-spurred oval cases there are usually still a few viable seeds this late on in the season; having a go at sowing a few for the first time in the hope of increasing the numbers for next year.
Photo by Roo Lewis – http://www.roolewis.com
A month or so ago I spotted a patch of meadowsweet that had crept up unnoticed at the back end of the top meadow. It must have been growing there for some while as the scattered stalks were well into flowering. It’s not a plant I see in this garden very often, other than the cultivated variety we have in the long border (Filipendula rubra), as the soil conditions are generally too dry and free draining. However, there is one area in that top meadow that was once the site of a small pond. Having been dug up and re-landscaped some time before I started at the garden, you wouldn’t know it had ever been there, save for the particular plant species that show up from time to time. Among these have been the usual indicators of damp ground; docs, nettles, various lamium and now the newest arrival, meadowsweet.
Meadowsweet thrives in the damp and fertile areas of British grassland. It’s a Summer fixture up and down the West-Welsh lanes that surround the family home in the Towy valley, which is the ideal perma-sodden ground it loves. If you crush one of the flower heads in your fingers there comes a distinctive sweet smell followed by an unmistakeable waft of antiseptic – the reason for its notoriety as ‘one of the most sacred of the druid’s herbs’. In fact it’s herbal and medicinal uses are widely listed, and great in number. According to Julie and Matthew Seal, co-authors of the informative and super-handy, ‘Hedgerow Medicine’, meadowsweet helps sooth arthritis and rheumatism, dispel uric and oxalic acid, is used to tackle gout, mouth ulcers and bleeding gums and aids pain relief, forming the synthesised basis for aspirin. Also listed in the book are traditional methods of using the herb, including a pretty simple tea intended to settle the stomach and help you feel ‘Summer’s heat and brightness return’. Sounded pretty hippy to me but I did want to see what it tasted like.
The process of converting the plant into tea is really just drying, which is simple enough, but does take quite a long time. I cut a bunch from the meadow, quite close to the ground so as to keep the longish stalks, cleaned away any dirt and dead leaves, and hung them with an elastic band in the shed. I’ve learned through experience that an elastic band is always more favourable than string when hanging plants to dry. As the moisture departs, the stems often shrink, slipping loose from the tie and dropping over the floor.
Once the bunch has had a long while drying -mine were at least a month- they can be cut down and then crumbled (all parts, minus the stems) into a container.
Tea dried and prepared, I brewed a spoon-full through a strainer and enjoyed a mug at home. It’s not too bad at all. The flavour is distinct and you can definitely taste the Summer. It does feel like it ought to be doing you some good too. Certainly no bleeding gums anyhow, Summer’s heat and brightness, possibly..
It’s much later in the season than I had intended to cut the lower meadows. The relentless rain meant having to push the cutting process back further and further, and with Autumn just around the corner the stems had thickened up and become tall and tough. The colours had also changed; dulling down to a wash of softer tones, equally as attractive as their earlier, more-vibrant form. Knapweeds, scabious’ and wild carrots now made up the primary structure of the plants, a welcome result of the postponed cut.
The lack of steady, regular sunlight this year has made the shoots grow very tall, falling over each other and forming a densely packed sward. So dense in fact that the strimmer is of no use, struggling to cut through the thick grass. So instead I went ‘old school’ this year and brought out the hand scythes. A scythe enables you to make a much cleaner and closer cut down at ground level. Great bundles of grass can be lifted at a time, resulting in little need of raking and and much easier stacking. A strimmer, on the other hand, will churn up the grass, separating it into smaller pieces much harder to remove entirely from the ground. As the key to successful meadow making is in the annual depletion of nutrients (nitrogen most importantly), it is essential that nothing is allowed to rot back into the ground, adding back fertility. For this reason the scythe is the ideal tool.
Old friend Andy came to lend a hand, taking it in turns to cut, lay and stack the bundles. This time with much longer, lateral bunches, the hay stack grew fast and tall.
Another benefit in using a scythe is the far lower impact it has on the nature living within the grass. A florally-diverse meadow literally hums with activity in the sunlight; awash with bees, hover-flies and butterflies. Beneath the surface, however, is a whole world of creatures; from enormous toads to tiny beetles. The damp habitat encourages slugs, which in turn attract toads. Grasshoppers and crickets thrive among the long, vertical stems, attracting lots of frogs. Last year I stopped counting frogs at 200, placing them in buckets as I cut the grass, and emptying them out into the borders, wood and pond. Because a scythe moves slowly and in one direction, the destruction of nature is brought down to a bare minimum, if any at all.
The other great thing about using a scythe is that is brings you down into the grass and into their world, enabling you to see it from another perspective. A strimmer has you stood up in the familiar position, detached from the motion of the machine, with a constant deafening noise. Without it you can move quietly through the grass, much more aware of the ecology that surrounds you.
Of the three lower stretches of grass I decided to leave the middle meadow to flower and seed for a few more weeks. Neatening the edges and cleaning up the paths on either side meant that it became a bit of a spectacle, which I like. It reminded me of Piet Oudolf’s rectangular strip of prairie planting at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde park; allowing you to view the enclosed contents and it’s purposes from all sides.
Concluding with some celebratory ciders (as is tradition..) the annual cycle can now begin again, with the hay stacked and drying for next year’s use, and the grass shooting up once more in Spring.
Although a job somewhat overdue, the short stretch of sunshine a few weeks ago meant that I was able to finally collect up last year’s hay and store it away. Removing the outer exposed layer, I was really pleased to see how well aired the contents of the stack had been, enabling the cut to dry out and soften in the mound. It’s amazing actually, considering just how wet the preceding months had been. I believe there is more of a traditional art to stacking hay in this way that, through strategic rather than haphazard layering, further enables it to dry out without soaking in rain water. I’m happy enough with this year’s lot for now though.
I was fortunate to have the kind assistance of Lucy Scott of Lost in London Magazine (a must for all country-at-heart Londoners: www.lostinlondonmagazine.com) for the afternoon. And so together we filtered the best of the grass into the smaller shed, where it will remain over the coming Autumn and Winter, gradually being put to use as chicken coop bedding.
Once the stack was empty I thought it was only fair to let the hens come down to have a scratch around the remaining base for any last hangers-on, before finally mowing it clean. However, the ground won’t remain bare for long; the cycle begins all over again this month as the meadows are cut once more and are stacked to dry out for next year’s hay.