At the end of June I came back to Düsseldorf having been stuck in London during the coronavirus lockdown. For the first time in 16 weeks I walked through the big gate, past the bins and bicycles towards my garden. I was nervous. Ever since ripping out the old grass and sowing my wildflower meadow in spring last year, I had been worried that I might have done more harm than good.
The previous year, in its first summer, the meadow had looked underwhelming. I knew this was to be expected. The seed mix had intentionally contained very few quick-flowering annuals like cornflowers and poppies and it would take a while for the perennials to get established. The meadow would start properly in its second year. But what if it didn’t?
When I had left in early March for what I thought would be a short time away, the meadow had still been dormant. During my absence the neighbours had sent a few photographs. Every single one of them had looked disturbingly monotone and flower-less. As I was approaching the corner of the old brick wall from where I would get the first look at my meadow, I was trying to be prepared for the worst: the confirmation of my fear that I had reduced the biodiversity I had set out to enhance.
First, all I saw was a knee-high tangle of different grasses covering the entire middle part of the garden. But there were a few spikes rising from this sea of green: viper’s-bugloss (Echium vulgare), knapweed (Centaurea jacea) and the closed buds of wild carrot (Daucus carota). Maybe this wasn’t so bad. I carefully stepped further into the meadow and low on the ground hidden behind grasses there was what I had hoped to find: yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor). This semi-parasitic plant is very important for a perennial flower meadow because it weakens the grasses which would otherwise outcompete the more delicate flowering plants. Yellow rattle is an annual and its seeds need the cold of winter to germinate. Sowing the meadow in spring last year meant this year had been the first opportunity for it to grow here – and it had done so in great numbers, at least on the sunnier side of the meadow. I was slightly relieved, I had found some flowers in all this grass.
The following two weeks I was unwell and unable to go and see my garden. When I finally walked down the path beside the brick wall again, I expected the meadow to look the same as a fortnight before. I was completely unprepared for the change I found: The meadow had doubled in height. Various grasses were flowering and had expanded upward into this new storey, with gently curving seed-heads or more rigid stalks with fluffy tips. Inbetween, the tall spikes of viper’s-bugloss and numerous wild carrot plants were now in full bloom. It seemed the meadow had waited for my arrival to start growing properly.
I mowed the paths to give the garden a slightly more structured look and, after raking the clippings, I sat on my garden bench. For the first time I saw my vision was becoming reality. What had been a grass monoculture was now more diverse: a transparent yet complex jumble of colours, shapes and textures.
Over the next few weeks it got even better. Low on the ground, bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) began to flower. In the third week of July the sunny front part of the meadow had a layer of yellow below the blue of the viper’s-bugloss, the magenta of the knapweed and the white of the wild carrot. Here and there musk mallow (Malva moschata) was in full, pale-pink bloom. Viewed from a certain angle my wildflower meadow looked straight out of a picture book.
Meanwhile the whole meadow, but particularly the wild carrot, continued to grow even taller. Everybody who came to visit would immediately say something like ‘Wow, I had no idea it would be so high!’. I also hadn’t expected the meadow to reach almost up to my shoulders. But I loved the drama the height added and the way the sun illuminated the different storeys of the meadow was endlessly fascinating. The wild carrot created large yet delicate sculptures. I was mesmerised by the intricate detail of their wide flower heads. ‘Queen Anne’s lace’, the common name for wild carrot in north America, seemed perfectly descriptive.
Beyond the excitement my doubts remained. As beautiful as it was, wild carrot dominated the picture and most areas of the meadow, especially the shadier parts, weren’t particularly diverse. There was lots of grass and lots of wild carrot. Had I been blinded by beauty and lost sight of biodiversity?
One evening my environmental biologist friend came to visit. She had been the one to answer my wildflower meadow questions from the beginning. Now I was ready to discuss the meadow’s imperfections. But surprisingly, she rapidly identified several more genera that I had so far failed to name or even notice. She counted an unbelievable 18 different plants in the meadow and congratulated me on the success of the project. I was amazed. Most of the genera were a lot less showy and numerous than the wild carrot but they were there, like ribwort plantain (Plantago lanceolata) with its plain flowers and several grasses which I would need to learn to identify. I had actually managed to do what I had discussed with my friend two years ago, I had created more biodiversity in my garden.
August came and it was time to mow. In places the grass had already fallen flat on the ground. I had to cut the meadow before decomposing plant matter began releasing nutrients back into the soil. My perennial meadow is based on poor soil. This is what enables delicate flowering plants to compete with the stronger grasses.
Yet it felt wrong to destroy something so beautiful. My friend assured me it always felt sad to cut a wildflower meadow but it had to be done to sustain it. I knew she was right. Still, it took me days until I finally started the motor scythe and watched all those tall stems fall to the ground. I spared a small area, partly to give insects somewhere to retreat to, partly because I couldn’t bear to see it all gone at once.
After the work was finished I sat on the bench again. My meadow experiment hadn’t failed as I had feared it would. But the old question was still in the back of my mind: Could I have achieved a similar result without radically removing the old meadow and starting again from seed? I was now leaning towards answering the question with ‘yes’. I could have scarified the existing grass and sowed into the resulting gaps. This way I probably would have been able to establish some flowering plants. The meadow would have gained diversity but the result would have been different, definitely. It would have lacked the various elegant grasses that now dominated the meadow.
However, the huge advantage of this method would have been leaving the soil largely undisturbed. When, with the help of my friends, I tore out the old grass and removed the top layer of soil I hadn’t been fully aware of the complexity of life in the ground. In fact, I am still only beginning to learn about it. Apparently a spoonful of garden soil contains a billion organisms. The soil I removed with the grass plants had been undisturbed for at least 45 years. I hate to think how many tiny ecosystems I destroyed. Therefore, with hindsight, I think a less aggressive intervention would have been a better way to strengthen the existing ecosystem that is my garden.
But I cannot undo what I did. And there remains doubt that the old meadow would have ever allowed the delicate perennials to compete with the grasses. I will never know for sure if what I did was right. But at least I know that I have enhanced biodiversity, somehow. And I am now confident I will continue to do so over the next few years. Until then I will remember the last few weeks as special. In the morning I would come into the garden with a cup of tea and sit on the bench to watch the sun bathe an ever larger part of the meadow in sparkling light. In the evening I sat there with friends and marvelled at the wild carrot blooms glowing in the moonlight while bats quietly dashed above and a tawny owl (Strix aluco) called its mate in the distance.
My garden had always felt magical, from the moment I first saw it in the company of the estate agent. But on those warm nights in high summer, with the added intrigue of the unexpectedly tall meadow, my garden seemed otherworldly.