Growing native or long-naturalised wild flowers in your garden is a wonderful way to support pollinators and the other creatures who are part of the ecosystem, and add to Ireland’s biodiversity. Some wildflowers are edible, some can be used to make wine, some can be used to scent presses, and all are perfectly adapted to our climate.
You may have native plants in your soil that you don’t know about. Lawns are a sterile desert as far as wildlife is concerned, and by simply stopping mowing, you will do wonders for birds, bees, butterflies and other insects, hedgehogs, and other small mammals. And you may be amazed at what comes up – maybe even native orchids. Cut down the long grass and mow when the flowers go over, as late as early November if you can bear to leave it that long. To make your meadow look intentional and not neglected, mow paths through to a mown patch for sunbathing or picnics. The more delicate wildflowers prefer low-fertility soils, so if you’ve fertilised your lawn, wait a year before stopping mowing.
If you want to plant patches of wildflowers or start a wildflower garden, the first thing to think about is where you want to grow them and what kind of soil you have – native plants know where they want to grow!
If you have a patch of deciduous woodland with a damp, leafy, humus-rich soil, you might choose ramsons (wild garlic) with its edible leaves, ideal for a pesto; sweet woodruff with its little white flowers and delicious scent of new-mown hay; beautiful, scented sweet violets, delicate wood anemones, and violet-blue, scented, native bluebells, all of which flower early in the year, before the canopy closes over. Some of these can be quite invasive, notably bluebells, ramsons and sweet woodruff, but in woodland they are kept in check. Bluebells are best planted ‘in the green’ – when still in growth after the flowers have gone over.
At the woodland edge, try sweetly scented primroses for spring, and lofty foxgloves, red campion and dog roses for midsummer. Foxgloves are biennial, but seed about and renew themselves, and the dog roses will climb into the trees.
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) and winter aconites are good under specimen deciduous trees, and will naturalise in grass, perfect in an orchard (double snowdrops are probably better in a border). These bulbs establish much better if planted in the green.
If you have an open area of damp soil, it could be perfect for a damp meadow planting. You will need to remove the surface vegetation and roots of docks, nettles and coarse grasses, and you can then plant cowslips or oxlips and delicate lilac Lady’s smock for spring, tall meadow buttercup for midsummer, and fluffy, honey-scented meadow sweet and delicate pink ragged robin for late summer. Lady’s smock and ragged robin are food plants for the Orange Tip and Common Blue butterflies respectively. Beside the hedge, in sun or partial shade, plant wild strawberry, red campion and square-stalked St John’s wort.
An open, dry, very well-drained area is ideal for a dry meadow planting. If you clear the existing vegetation and till the soil, you can sow a dry meadow wildflower mix with up to 10% fine grasses, and have a glorious mixture of field poppies, corn marigolds and cornflowers in the first year. These are flowers of disturbed soil, and will not come back, but will be followed by more persistent perennial wildflowers, such as those below. It’s a good idea to also sow yellow rattle or bartsia, which are semi-parasitic on grass, and will stop grass taking over.
Alternatively, remove the surface vegetation and plant potted wildflowers. Early-flowering, damp-loving Lady’s smock will often cope quite well in a dry meadow, because the soil is still moist from winter rain, Cowslips will do well. As the soil dries out in summer, yarrow, ox-eye daisies, the lilac pincushion flowers of field scabious, purple, thistle-like greater knapweed, golden bird’s foot trefoil and delicate white wild carrot can take over. If the soil is limy, pretty blue meadow cranesbill and will thrive. Delicate harebells will flourish in a very open position, unshaded by grasses, and even on top of stone walls. The rich blue flowers of viper’s bugloss, a rare native, will flourish on limy or sandy soils, and is a food plant for the Painted Lady butterfly. Even the beautiful little burnet rose will grow where grass is short or absent. Be aware that ox-eye daisies are very tough; they will seed about, and may take over after a few years.
When choosing a site for any meadow wildflowers, remember that they not only do best in soil with low fertility, but are less likely to be out-competed by coarser weeds. If the soil is too fertile, scrape off the top few centimetres.
Some lovely wild plants will grow in bog gardens and even in water. Golden kingcups in spring, the purple spires of purple loosestrife in late summer, violet-purple devil’s bit scabious, water-mint and the tall, architectural angelica with its flat heads of pinky-white flowers will all thrive in reliably damp or wet soil. Yellow flag iris will grow in wet soils and even in shallow water, and the pretty blue flowers of brooklime will creep out over the water, keeping pools free of algae and providing cover for pond-life.
Some native plants can hold their heads up in a border of ‘civilised’ plants.
Snowdrops do well at the front of a partially shaded border or dotted between perennials, and are lovely with hellebores and evergreen ferns. Double snowdrops can really shine here, as can golden winter aconites The tall spires of foxgloves, and the grey-flannel leaves and towering golden flower-spires of great mullein add pizzazz to any border with well-drained soil; both are biennials. Foxgloves prefer neutral to acid soil, and great mullein will grow in the poorest soil. Tall angelica is good in a damper border, as is hemp agrimony. The starry blue flowers of borage (delicious with gin and tonic, and beautiful frozen into ice-cubes) are very attractive nearer the front of the border, and will seed about.
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