01 Oct 2022

Wild Flower Failure

The idea of growing wild flowers has a strange sort of effect on us. It turns the toughest gardener into an old romantic. We go all soft focus with visions of the Edwardian Lady and her diary wafting about, all gauzy and wistful on a soft sunny evening. We become mushy, dreaming of all those beautiful old fashioned flowers – deep blue cornflowers and vivid red poppies, buttery primroses and blue flax, purple betony and whipped cream achillea, yellow rattle and sharp white ragged robin, pink loose strife and red campion, white daisies, golden buttercups and dandelions, purple violets, and orchids in all sorts of shades, lacy coloured cow parsley and pink, white and purple clover. Thoughts of these wild flowers have an effect on us that cultivated flowers rarely have.

Colm Mangan of the Castle Park gave an inspirational talk in the last April, where he showed his audience the Castle Park wild flower area as it was being developed. Afterwards, the inspirational OPW gardener offered packets of wild flower seed to the participants of the walk and talk to bring home with them. The poor man was almost mobbed by enthusiastic novice wild flower gardeners, delighted to get their hands on free seed.

I would be delighted to hear from the Kilkenny people who brought those gift seeds home, because since then, I have spent a summer meeting people whose misery at the hands of their wild flower gardens knows no bounds.

Everywhere I have come across gardeners whose adventure with wild flower growing has ended up in frustration and annoyance as they look at large swathes of scruffy, rough growth that is very light on actual flowers. Many of these are people who started wild flower growing two years ago.

The general consensus is that their first years’ growth was wonderful and the flowers were plentiful. The second year however, brought lots of growth, very few flowers and great buckets of disappointment.

I can sympathise because I have had a similar experience. Last year, for the first time, we made a point of not mowing the ox-eye daisies that have always tried to grow in what might laughingly be called the lawn. The result was magnificent. – great runs of tall, elegant waving daisies in the grass. I let them go to seed and expected the same show this year. These best laid plans led to a dull, rather half-hearted display this year, so much so that if I were around to do a decent amount of work in the garden this year, I probably would have ended up spiking it with some dot planting of hardy geraniums and cosmos as an emergency measure. (Cheating on the wild flower theme is no sin.)

But not having time this summer to see to my own area, I spent it visiting other peoples’ experiments and really, the successes have not been great. Some of the gardeners are even thinking of forgetting about the whole business and going back to smart neat grass again.

But the reasons for the lack of success are usually fairly straight forward. They often relate to fertility and in particular, too much fertility. Most people who have gardened for a number of years have been spent that time improving the fertility of their garden. Wild flowers do not do well in fertile ground. They thrive in poor, rough ground. Plant a wild flower meadow where you once had a lawn and the result will be grass. Grasses grow faster and stronger than wild flowers and they colonise the ground before the wild flowers can take hold. Once the grass has filled out, the wild flower seed will simply lie in the ground and never germinate.

If you planted a wild flower meadow and have had no success perhaps you need to start again. If the soil is too rich, you might need to scrape the top layer off, going down to poorer sub-soil, which is nutrient poor and perfect for wild flowers.

If the ground is fairly poor to start with, sow yellow rattle, a wild flower that is partially parasitic on the roots of grass. It weakens the grass, giving the wild flowers the chance to grow.

If you had an unsuccessful wild flower lawn this year, chop it down now. Actually it would have been better to have done this in the last few weeks so move quickly. You will probably need to cut it a few times. The final cut should almost scalp the ground and the result should look bare and awful. You then rake up all the cut grass. Leaving it in place allows it to rot down and feed the ground. You do not want to feed the ground. Next, rake and loosen the soil. Sprinkle the seed and let it grow. The result will be a poorer crop of grass and a slightly more friendly spot for the wild flower seed that have been lying dormant. Good luck.

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