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More than swards

Gardening: lawn or meadow?

It's hard to maintain a tidy, manicured lawn without using herbicides and it has little or no environmental benefit. The alternative is to establish a wildlife-friendly patch of ground that sports a range of grasses and wild flowers.

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One possibility would be to stop cutting part or all of the lawn, allowing the long grass to be used by beetles, insects and birds, but it couldn't be described as a wild flower lawn or a meadow. If you want a good mix of grasses and sedges, remove your current lawn and start again.

If you sow an annual mix, you'll quickly enjoy a good show of flowers such as corn marigold, cornflower and poppies. Unfortunately these species thrive on disturbed ground, so you would need to cut and remove the vegetation in the autumn then cultivate and rake the soil the following spring and re-sow.

With some extra work you can establish a perennial patch. There are seed mixes to suit an array of growing conditions – sunny spots, dappled shade and wet or slightly moist areas. Find out which species grow naturally in your part of the country. Emorsgate Seeds (www.wildseed.co.uk) are experts on grass and sedge seed. Many grasses have attractive seed heads such as Quaking grass (Briza media) or Giant fescue (Festuca gigantea). Tufted hair grass (Deschampsia cespitosa) forms substantial tussocks while Common bent (Agrostis capillaris) is a fine, short grass. There is a grass for every location, and rushes and sedges for damp areas: Pendulous sedge (Carex pendularis) is especially pretty.

Having decided on grasses, the backcloth of the meadow, the next stage is to choose flowers. It's critical to select native wild species since they are well adapted to the plant and soil in your garden. If buying at a garden centre, check you are not getting an import. The most reliable source for Scottish wild flowers is Scotia Seeds (www.scotiaseeds.co.uk). Ragged robin (Lychnis flos-cuculi) likes sunny, damp places, Greater knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) drier sites, while low-growing Selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) thrives in shade. I expect everyone would make room for primroses.

You can start a perennial meadow at any time during the growing season, other than perhaps July or August. Inevitably, there will be a large seed bed of weeds, so once you've dug and raked the soil, leave it for a few weeks to let these weeds germinate. Then hoe off the weeds and sow your grass mix. I recommend you restrict sowing to grasses and sedges because wild flowers are unlikely to compete with the tougher grasses. Sow the flower seed in seed trays then put young plants into the bed.

Remove docks and nettles as soon as they appear and control the more robust ox-eye daisies, red campion or meadow cranesbill after the first year. It will take a few years to establish the meadow, so you'll probably need to plant plugs of less vigorous species, such as Nottingham catchfly (Silene nutans). Good suppliers are www.wildflowershop.co.uk and www.habitataid.co.uk, the latter also supplying turf containing wild flowers.

Meadow grasses and flowers grow naturally on poor ground so try to reduce soil fertility. In autumn, strim down the growth to 5-8cm, then rake up and leave for about a week. The vegetation dries and is easier to cart off to the compost bin.

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