The Eco-garden in Early July and the Problem with Clay Soils.

David Beeson

Note: a garden meadow is a garden feature. It is designed as part of a garden and not as a wildlife reserve. The wildlife that comes with the garden meadow is a bonus. Our Summer Meadow is ideally only cut from early autumn and is part garden feature and part wildlife reserve.

With all the rain that north-west Hampshire (UK) has been given recently, the Summer Meadow has grown far more than I wanted. I do not consider our clay soil as lacking water for most of the year, but grasses are surface rooting, so perhaps their growth-limiting factor in summer is water. The other possibility is that rainfall releases soil nutrients, and they are the factor that encourages fast grass growth. Clay holds a big stock of nutrients that are available for release. Regardless, a big water donation equals exuberant grass growth here.

Why am I concerned? The essence is that tall grasses often crash down, leaving the ‘garden’ aspect of the meadow lacking, and will hide away the more colourful, garden-worthy, plants. Were this a nature reserve it would not be a concern*, yet we want people to adopt meadow gardening, so a good looking garden meadow is an advantage.

[*Short-tailed voles would be happy as they would be doubly hidden from kestrels!]

As with the two sites in the Waste Ground? article, thin soils can generate diverse and attractive grassland. Achieving that with a soil based on clay is far more demanding. To make a flowery meadow Plant Life recommends** removing the top soil layer – sure, that would cost £s and leave us with a pure, yellow clay in which nothing would willingly grow***. Cutting and removing the herbage at some stage is vital in almost any situation.

[**With justification. It will work in most situations, but not ours. But is costly.]

We have cut and removed herbage for 30 years, and still have excessive growth some years. Clay is not a great habitat for a reliable, grassy, wild, summer garden meadow. Yet we do have potentially good diversity, and with over an acre of available garden, the challenge has been worthwhile. But it is not as good a garden feature as the ‘waste meadow’ just a kilometre away. However, it is an attractive feature in dry years and from April through to mid-June … then it all depends on the rainfall.

[***Keith Wiley (Wildside, Devon) took this to an extreme – he changed a flat landscape into peaks and troughs. If I recall correctly, 2m deep. His garden, which we visited some 15 years ago, was stunning and incorporated many planting zones. Well worth visiting.]

The solution I have is : cutting. Sections of the Summer Meadow are cut to about 2cm as necessary during the growing season. This takes away some bulk and most plants survive, although those that flower only once, such as orchids, will be lost. Also, the flowering period will be delayed. So I cut sections and try to avoid trimming everything at one time. The difference in height and development can be an attractive feature for a garden meadow.

Sure, this is not a perfect solution for a garden feature, yet the grasshoppers, wild bees and most invertebrates will hardly care too much.

A nutrient-poor, or very porous soil, will behave quite differently. Sandy or gravelly soils lose their minerals and moisture to the water table easily. The natural vegetation, heathers and their pals, have evolved to have small, scale-like leaves with few stomata and a thick waxy leaf cuticle to reduce water loss. They also grow slowly as they lack the nitrates, iron etc needed for their body chemistry. Excessive growth should not be an issue here. Likewise meadows on thin chalky soils.

We have one section of the Summer Meadow that has a more chalky, thinner soil structure. This is our most successful area and has never required spring or summer cutting, and that was why it has allowed, quite naturally, the first orchid colonisers and a good floral diversity.

A wet year makes for tall grasses, especially when the yellow rattle’s magic has ended. The zone to the right was cut back a month ago and will end up at only about 15 – 20cm. Yes, the nectar value will be much reduced, but it will still host plenty of invertebrates and slowworms and long-tailed voles enjoy the spot.

In some respects, if you want a garden quality meadow on clay you would be better advised to go for the Spring Meadow approach. You miss out on possible flood of summer invertebrates but have great garden colour from February until late May.

At Forest Edge, with a long, thin garden, our Summer Meadow is not a critical garden feature. It is a distant wildlife area, so garden-quality displays are not critical … but would be quite acceptable!

Yellow rattle. This is described by Plant Life as the ‘meadow maker’. A valid description, with some reservations. Firstly, it seeds and ceases to control grasses from early July. Rampant grasses will then grow enthusiastically. Secondly, with wet spells the grasses outcompete the rattle in growth – the grasses have won in some parts this year.

The moral? You have to understand your soil and climate before you start your meadow garden.

Now, in early July, our first meadow brown butterflies are just emerging. Other butterfly species should appear soon, with the hatching season appearing later this year. There are good numbers of bumble bees and other invertebrates – almost none would be on an equivalent area of closely-cut grass.

With the end of the bulbous buttercups flowering session, the lawn is cut to about 2cm. If the grandchildren are due to stay some will be cut lower. Beneath the walnuts the herbage is cut to about 1cm as it would not reflower due to the shade. The uncut oval area is to the right.

The no-cut lawn for May, has now been cut. The buttercups and most other attractions had gone to seed, with grass and lanky dandelion-like plants then dominating. They now reside in the compost heaps. It was cut on the highest setting and will recover over the summer as a medium-tall grassy meadow.

One oval area in the lawn has been uncut all year. This has a fine display of snowdrops in late winter but, cleverly, has avoided cutting by growing a greater butterfly orchid in its midst. It will be cut once the orchid’s seeds have dispersed.

Beneath the walnut trees that part of The Spring Meadow performed as reliably as ever this year. Now it is cut to lawn height (1cm) and with the shade will remain comatose until the autumn. The open section of that zone has not been cut. I’m leaving it for a group from Hampshire Wildlife to view, and for the pyramidal and twayblade orchids to set seeds. It will be cut in mid or late July, once the seed pods have burst.

This is the orchid seeding area of the open Spring Meadow ie not beneath the walnuts but managed in a similar way until now.

The hedges and layered hazel at the end of the garden are now left to grow, with the hedge to be cut for a second time in the autumn.

The pond’s surroundings are now tall with meadowsweet. This will be selectively trimmed over the next few days. The rain has kept the manmade pond well filled. We see little of the frogs and newts as vegetation covers the water surface, yet they must be around and a water scoop will usually yield some newtpoles.

Impossible to see, but the once open view of the pond is hidden mostly by meadowsweet. This will now be trimmed to allow some view of the water.
Meadow cranesbill

Voles have moved into the Summer Meadow. I hope they keep their heads down when it is cut in September. It is always cut long first (2+ cm), yet the tyres occasionally crush the cute mammals, even if the blades miss. Scythe, you say. Yes, I have one, and I do occasionally employ it … but I’m 73 and the mower is easier, quicker and less demanding on my frame.

Where the uncut part of the Spring Meadow meets Paul’s Himalayan Musk rose climbing up.

Garden birds are much quieter now, with just blackbirds, thrushes, wrens and stock doves calling. Wood pigeons are courting and calling all twelve months of the year. Of course, the kites and noisy buzzards are always overhead. The tawny owls have ignored our nest box again this year.

Surrounding The Lawn and Spring Meadow are traditional shrub / herbaceous borders with dense planting and many natives. There has been much replanting and their flowery impact has been lessened this year, plus the slugs have enjoyed the dampness – so some salvias and heleniums are smaller now than when planted a month ago and many have vanished. Annette’s herbaceous borders have had less replanting and look far better than mine! Just wait until next year!

With no chickens living next door, the slowworm population seems to be recovering. It would do even better if I could discourage the non-native pheasants to move elsewhere. They fail to take the noisy hint. Baby rabbits are living with us for the first time in several years; no doubt the stoats will notice.

I may be over hopeful, yet I see fewer signs of keepering and pheasant breeding this year in Harewood. Perhaps people who myopically point lethal, spray weapons at big, noisy, slow-flying big birds, that must be difficult to miss, are seeing the error of their ways and doing something sensible. What a ‘sport’!

So, is it now the season to sit under the walnut trees and read a book? And hope the walnuts thrown down less product this year – we were, and still are, overwhelmed with last year’s nuts.

Keep safe.

The more chalky soil here means the grasses never need cutting and the diversity is high.
Photographed from under the walnuts.

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