Barbara Hester reports: Continuing with the biodiversity theme from January, the Gardening Club talk by Jon Albutt at the WI Hall on 11th February was entitled Turning your Lawn into a Meadow.
Jon has had much experience over his working lifetime with lawns of all types from lawn tennis and bowling greens to meadows. Maintaining standards with a lawn requires time and energy and money and latterly he has become more interested in letting the "weeds" (wildflowers in the wrong place) grow. Jon was keen to dispel the myth that creating a meadow will take many, many years.
In Tatsfield we are lucky to live in a chalk downland area with its ability to support a rich diversity of flora and fauna and Jon referred to Surrey Wildlife Trust’s Hill Park Estate (off Chestnut Avenue) and how it has changed in the last 10-15 years since it has been under conservation management and now has sheep grazing it regularly.
Wildflowers love exactly the opposite conditions to that of lawns. Maintaining grass requires nitrogen in the soil, which is achieved by feeding a lawn in the spring but in order to achieve a meadow we need to impoverish the grass to stop it exercising control of the area and we do this by diminishing the amount of nitrogen present in
the soil and the first way to do that is to NOT FEED. In time the nitrogen washes out of the soil and within two years the course grass will go and finer grass (fescues) will appear naturally. This in turn gives space for wildflowers to grow; the seeds of many will already be in the soil profile just waiting for the right conditions to enable them to make an appearance.
Dependent on the season conditions, Jon advised STOPPING MOWING in mid-March (can’t say we’ve even begun that early in our garden!) and leaving the meadow until at least the end of July. And finally, water – grass hates drought but wildflowers love it, so NO WATERING. Once the meadow has set seed (around late July) it can be cut, either collecting the seed or allowing it to scatter. The hay should be raked up and removed (so as not to add nutrients to the soil) and then the meadow can be left or kept lightly strimmed until the following March.
How long the meadow will take to develop will depend on how rich the soil is to begin with. Many areas of Tatsfield have chalk at the surface: further down Ricketts Hill, Lusted Hall Lane and Kemsley Road for instance which is ideal for meadows. In the centre of Tatsfield is a cap of clay and here a meadow will take longer.
Lawns support zero species whereas a meadow will quickly support dozens if not hundreds of species. A meadow is important to pollinators, bees, caterpillars and later butterflies, moths and grasshoppers and birds of course and the understorey is a habitat for beetles, spiders, grass snakes, slow worms, voles and mice. Its importance to the chain of life cannot be over-emphasised. Wildflowers that we could look forward to in Tatsfield include orchids, wild violets, primroses, foxgloves, cowslips and of course buttercups and daisies. There are
some species that will try to dominate and will require control such as nettles and creeping thistles although all other thistles are a favourite with bees. Ragwort, which is a popular host to the Cinabar Moth caterpillar, must also be managed as it is a danger to grazing animals, especially when it is cut and left to become hay as it loses its bitter taste. If ragwort is growing adjacent to farmland, the grower has a responsibility to make sure it is not
allowed to set seed.
Jon also covered developing a meadow either by introducing seed (there are a number of companies that specialise in this area, including seed for specific soil types) or harvesting our own seed and sharing with neighbours or by the planting of plugs. When doing so a tile size square should be cut and a group of plugs
planted, but don’t add fertiliser - just a little water.
During the question and answer time the practice of sowing a meadowland with Yellowrattle was discussed because of its ability to suppress grass and nutrients. Jon also advised those of us with a woodland garden and the joys of a mossy lawn to consider introducing ferns to improve biodiversity. Jon recommended that we take a look at how our very own sledging field (at the end of Goatsfield Road) has changed over the past few years
since Whelan Farms have had it under meadow management – Jon sometimes goes and sits on the bank with his grandchildren and watches the wind rippling through the grass, listening and watching for bees, butterflies and grasshoppers and sometimes even a young fox or badger puts in an appearance. I’m very much looking forward to doing just that one summer’s evening later this year!