Midsummer meadows for bee-friendly beauty

(c) Bevis Watts

Meadows in summer are rich and wild. Grasses punctuated with splashes of colour are growing fast in the long, light days. In turn bees, butterflies and other pollinators abound, feeding on nectar-rich wildflowers. This brings in bats, birds and small mammals, attracted by a living larder of insects and plants, sheltered by the long grasses.

Britain used to be a nation of wildflower meadows. However, post-war changes in farming led to a decline of land growing grasses for hay - with a knock-on effect for wildlife. Now councils are encouraged to cut grass on roundabouts and verges both less and later, allowing the bee-friendly wildflowers to bloom.

Summer flowering meadows are usually cut at this time of year. The timing of a cut is important. It is more wildlife-friendly to wait for the flowers to have bloomed, their blossom pollinated, and seeds produced. If cut too early, the flowers may have not completed this growing cycle, which means less food for insect-pollinators, fewer insects to feed the small mammals, and fewer wildflowers the following year. Why cut at all? Because it is important to keep the more vigorous grasses from pushing out the rest and dominating the delicate wildflowers like yellow rattle, ox-eye daisies and scabious. The cut grass will be stored dry to feed livestock in winter.

In some of the meadows we manage, and with the help of volunteers, we use scythes, cutting the meadow grass by hand with a special curved blade, instead of with a mechanised mower. Powered mowers tend to crush and damage cut grass, and are a danger to small creatures. Scything keeps the full-length of the tall grasses intact. Scything is non-polluting, and, with its swish-swishing sound, quiet. You feel part of nature as you work. Our volunteers report the slow, repetitive and careful movements needed for scything are relaxing and meditative.

After cutting the grass, it is important to remove the green debris. Grass cuttings are rich with nitrogen, the element absorbed naturally from the air by plants to be transformed (thanks to too-small-to-see-without-a-microscope soil creatures) into plant food. Although a vital fertiliser, too much nitrogen will boost the growth of tougher grasses, which will thrive at the expense of next year’s more delicate plants, hence why grass cuttings are removed. They are ideally added to a compost heap, where their nutrients will be re-used when the enriched compost is added to the soil.

If you have a garden, consider turning a patch into a mini-meadow for the birds and bees. The best time to start is the autumn so start planning now. If possible, choose an area next to a hedge or pond, where insects and small mammals may hang out. Unproductive soil is best otherwise hardy grasses will get the better of fragile flowers. Cut the grass and rake the ground to break up the soil. Scatter your wildflower seeds over the area and sprinkle soil on top. Gently water and keep watering if it does not rain.

You can get more advice, as well as wildflowers grown from locally-collected seed, from our Wildflower Nursery at Feed Bristol (10am-4pm weekdays and the first Saturday of the month April to October. Do visit our nature reserves for inspiration including the grassland meadows at our Dolebury Warren and Folly Farm.