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The Meadow Maker

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The meadow maker

Trevor Dines (© Richard Williams Photography)
Trevor Dines (© Richard Williams Photography)

Creating your own wildflower meadow? Spread a little bit of magic with yellow rattle, nature’s own lawnmower, says Plantlife’s botanical specialist, Dr Trevor Dines

Ever thought of establishing a wildflower meadow? It’s perhaps one of the most rewarding ways to bring native flora and other wildlife into your garden. What could be more attractive than a swathe of oxeye daisies, buttercups and knapweed swaying in the breeze on a warm summer evening?

But one of the biggest challenges is getting the grass under control, especially if you’re creating the meadow in an existing lawn or area of rough grass. If it’s too vigorous, it simply shoulders aside the flowers you want to encourage. Thankfully, though, nature has provided her own weapon for us to deploy.

Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) © Trevor Dines/Plantlife - One of the biggest challenges when creating a wildflower meadow is getting the grass under control. But yellow rattle suppresses its growth by about 60%, creating space so that other flowers have room to grow
Yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) © Trevor Dines/Plantlife - One of the biggest challenges when creating a wildflower meadow is getting the grass under control. But yellow rattle suppresses its growth by about 60%, creating space so that other flowers have room to grow

Most meadow flowers are perennials, growing fresh new shoots from their roots each year and spreading slowly through the sward. But yellow rattle (Rhinanthus minor) is different. It’s an annual plant, completing its entire life cycle in one year. It produces large quantities of seed, protected inside inflated seed pods that rattle when they ripen and dry in late summer, hence the name. In the olden days, this sound was used as a cue to the farmer that the hay was ready to cut.

During April and early May, the seeds germinate and grow quickly, with characteristic paired leaves that are attractively corrugated and toothed. But underground, something sinister is happening. As their roots grow, they seek the roots of grasses growing nearby. Once contact is made with the victim’s root, a fist-like structure grows around it (a haustorium) that penetrates the tissue. Hundreds of these connections are made, so the yellow rattle plant is tapped into almost all the grasses growing around it.

The effect of this can be astonishing. As the yellow rattle draws water and nutrients from the grasses, their growth is suppressed, sometimes by as much as 60%. This literally creates space in the surrounding vegetation so that other flowers have room to grow. In fact, there’s a direct correlation between the number of yellow rattle plants per square metre and the diversity of other flowers in a meadow.

Known as ‘the meadow maker’, yellow rattle does such a good job that I wouldn’t attempt to create a meadow without it.

Sowing the seed

"Yellow rattle does such a good job that I wouldn’t attempt to create a meadow without it."

Illustration by Andrew Evans
Illustration by Andrew Evans

Yellow rattle can be a little tricky to get established in the garden, but follow a few simple steps and you should be able to get it going. Once you have, it will appear each year and work its magic by itself.

  • Yellow rattle seeds are short lived (18 months to two years) and must be sown fresh. You can buy seed, but make sure it comes from a specialist supplier who can guarantee freshness. A better option – if you know someone who already has it in their meadow (maybe a local nature reserve or farmer’s meadow) – is to ask if you can collect some seed in June and July.
  • Collect it by taking the dried stems and shaking them into a paper bag. The seed falls out easily and you should be able to collect enough quite quickly. Allow about a handful of seed per square metre, but remember that you only need a few plants to grow in the first year and these will go on to produce lots of seed in the future.
  • Yellow rattle, illustration by Andrew Evans
  • To sow the seed, cut your meadow for the first time as normal between July and September and remove the clippings. Then use a rake or garden fork to scratch away any thatch – the layer of dead grass and moss that builds up on the soil surface – to expose some bare soil below. This scarification is really important – the seed should be able to reach the soil surface.
  • Sow by hand straightaway, scattering the seed on the surface of the exposed earth. This must be done before winter as the seeds need several weeks of winter cold (stratification) in order to germinate the following spring.
  • Press the seed into the soil either by walking over the meadow or by using a small roller.
  • Don’t be worried if only a few plants germinate in spring. They’ll grow and shed their own seed into the sward (you don’t need to scarify the soil each year) and numbers should increase year on year.
  • Alternatively, if you’re sowing an entirely new meadow in an area of specially prepared bare soil, sow the yellow rattle along with all the other seeds in the autumn.

These days, with our culture of quick-fix gardening makeovers, people often want instant results. But you can’t rush a real wildflower meadow and part of the joy of a meadow is seeing the gradual changes over time. As your yellow rattle gets established, you’ll see the grass become thinner and more open, and more flowers will be able to spread. It really is your best friend in the meadow.

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