Cutting the Flower Meadow

Have you noticed how ubiquitous ‘Wild Flower Meadows’ have become?  Whether it is a small garden bed, raked over and sown with a wild flower seed mix, or an acre or more of unimproved grassland, summer meadows shimmering with native flowers and buzzing with insects are now widespread; de rigueur even.  And quite right too.  They have a long flowering season, are full of interest and provide a vital haven for our beleaguered butterflies and bees.  That’s a lot of boxes ticked.  But the big head scratcher (if the meadow is of a size) is the annual summer/autumn cut and the removal of all that mown material.

After four years of experimentation with developing a meadow at the Priory, I have found that the best solution to this problem is … (dramatic pregnant pause) … Sam and his Amazing Mowing Machine:

On a perfect sunny day in September of last year, Sam trundled through the meadow gate and set to.  Once his big-green-drum-thingy (that’s a technical term) was full he emptied it into …

… a waiting trailer.  (I had borrowed it and a tractor from Margaret the local farmer).

When the trailer was …

… full, Nick (also borrowed as he can drive a tractor and I can’t) drove up through Margaret’s fields with me perched on top of the hay (as ballast, Nick said).

As we rattled up the long slope, I bounced and I savoured the views;

I hummed and I grinned and I enjoyed my Thomas Hardy/Laurie Lee moment.  And the hay?  We piled that on Margaret’s tottering manure pile.

It was a super, satisfying, itchy, scratchy, bouncy day (see ‘Shaving the Meadow‘) and …

… the result was exactly what I had hoped for.

But this year, after weeks of rain and several postponements, I was unable to hire Sam and his massive mowing machine.   The huge tyres would have chewed up the spongy meadow ground, like warm toffee.  (Poor Sam; it has been a lousy year for him.  He normally cuts seven or eight meadows but this year he has mown precisely … none).

Luckily for me, I had an alternative to Sam.  Each year at the Old Forge (the other garden I tend) I hire an Etesia ‘Atilla’ to cut all the rough pasture.  Look, here it is:

The Attila will cut rough, tussocky grass easily and because of a low slung chassis and wide wheel base it can handle relatively steep slopes, banks and rough ground without toppling over and crushing me.  Which is a bonus.

It’s a rugged and not afraid of aught little machine.  And at £85 for the day, a bargain to boot.

The only drawback is that it doesn’t collect the cuttings but spews them out to one side.

And so afterwards, Jim and I had to rake up all those cuttings.  This was so much fun I could barely stand it.

With most of the grass cuttings raked up, Jim was then able to use the Priory ride-on mower (an Etesia Hydro 80 for those of you who care) to cut the meadow grass shorter still and collect yet more of the clippings.  (The more cuttings removed, the more the soil’s fertility will be reduced; to the benefit of wild flowers and the detriment of long, tall, lush grass.  But hey! – you knew that).

Of course, I still had a problem: what on Earth to do with mountains and mountains of mown grass.  Unfortunately, I had no alternative other than to dump them at one end of the meadow.  Historically, this is one of the places where my predecessors piled lawn clippings.  I would rather have taken them out to the bonfire site and/or compost bins but this would’ve meant repeated driving across soggy, boggy lawns.  And this year, that was a mud-churning and lawn-destroying no-no.

And so the cuttings will just have to sit beneath that oak tree.  Can you see them?  (And the moon)?  In time a bank of nettles will grow over them and within a couple of years the heap will have rotted away to virtually nothing.   Honest it will.  But it is an unsightly solution and not one I want to repeat.  (You can see in this photo how soft the ground is.  Even the Atilla and the ride-on mower have left shallow tyre runnels).

When dry enough, I shall continue to mow the grass over the coming winter until the first daffodil leaves emerge.  In an effort to make cutting the meadow an easier task next year, I’ve just ordered 100g of yellow rattle seed.  This grass semi-parasite should (so the theory goes) seriously reduce grass vigour and growth in the meadow.  Will it work?  Well, I do hope so.  I really do.  You see, there’s only so much hay raking I want to do in my life.  Yep, only so much hay raking I want to do.

As fun as it is.


36 thoughts on “Cutting the Flower Meadow

  1. Seems like you thrive on hard work David, hope the weather is kinder next year for Sam. Oh, I did see the daylight moon. Reading your link, the gardens and me, glad you found what most suited you, I spent all my life as a motor mechanic and then a shopkeeper, jobs which paid the bills. Take it easy, don’t get too anxious, better name for my blog would have been the paranoid gardener.


  2. I suppose you can only tell yourself “It will all be worth it in the end” so many times while you’re wielding a rake before you start punctuating each word with an oath and then just go straight for the oaths. (I can’t even use a rake in my garden without getting tangled in a tree branch.) I hope you’ve dried out a little — and aren’t now slipping on patches of ice! The sky in the bottom photo is worthy of NM. (Accidentally typed NJ, and then thought, no, that’s just wrong.)


  3. Hi Dave – As you well know, I do the job by burning the cut grass in smothers. It’s highly satisfactory, and leaves you with a pile of very fertile ash to mix with your compost. However, you’d need to scythe the meadow (or its mechanical equivalent) as the cuttings thrown out by mowers would not let enough air into a fire. But at least you wouldn’t have a bank of nettles…..


    • Hi Mr K, yes indeed I did think of you when considering how to get rid of the clippings – though I hadn’t realised that your method won’t work unless the grass is scythed or strimmed. But as I say above, I wasn’t able to wheel or trailer the cuttings out to the bonfire site anyway, as this would have meant repeatedly going across the lawns and these were just too wet. Having to strim the meadow is far too big a job so sadly I don’t think burning the hay will be an option in future years either. Dave


      • The solution is to cut with one of those old-fashioned reapers from before the combine-harvester era….still plenty of them around. Burn in situ, of course then take the ashes off you get a patch of very alkaline bare earth – then a packet of wildflower seed mixed in a bucket of sand…..and you add to the flowering possibilities. That’s the theory; the practice may be different!


        • OK Mr K, thank you. That might just be too much work for me though (it is a big area). There isn’t really a spot for a bonfire out on the meadow and so I think next year, I shall revert to Sam. For which he’ll be very relieved. As will I. Dave


  4. Exhausting! But at least you didn’t have to use a scythe… And nature will soon reclaim the grass pile. How’s your back? Here’s hoping for a September 2013 with a plethora of perfect meadow mowing days.


  5. The last time I went to Harlow Carr garden, the yellow rattle in their wild area was doing a great job. Its an interesting plant and really does take the vigour out of coarse grass.


  6. Mowing will certainly keep the brush from gaining a foothold, but it’s too bad it had to be hand raked. i remember the aching arms and shoulders from so much raking, but getting all that nitrogen off a wildflower meadow is a must. And it’s a satisfying feeling to be done with it.


  7. I’ve often wondered what work goes into a wildflower meadow. More than it seems at first glance, which I suspected. I’ve never heard of yellow rattle seed, but would be very interested to hear what you think of it after you’ve used it.


    • Hi Holley, my packet of yellow rattle seed arrived today – not quite as much as I was hoping for. I think I thought 100g was more than it is. Ho hum Will report back on its effectiveness. Dave


  8. This year is more muck-raking than hay-raking. Poor Sam and his lonely machine. Glad that you found an alternative though, and let’s hope next year is a bit drier!


  9. A hard year all round and after the last week one that hasn’t got better. Maybe you could have had a ‘rake the clippings’ party. A bit like a paint the house, house-warming party, only a bit less messy.
    I envy you and your meadow. They are one of my faves and I do dream of one day having even the smallest of patches of one of them. I love the idea of riding on top of all the clippings but hay fever would make it an uncomfortable experience and one I would regret. Wellyman hates lawn mowing but I think that ride on mower would change his mind. Can just see him whizzing about on it. Probably need the house with the pasture first though. 😉


    • I kind of did have a raking party, WW. Poor Jim was the only guest though. I don’t actually use the ride-on that much. I prefer the lawns to have a stripe so use a walk-behind on them. Reviewing that though as it is just too time consuming. D


  10. I guess Attila is a perfect companion for you, Dave. Every time you begin a story I always wonder: “what will this man be up to? Cutting the meadow or maybe even conquer Constantinople with that funny car full of gears and shifts?!”
    Knowing what I know about English wet and rot weather I think your pile will take far less than what you said to disappear…


    • I think you may be right re the grass pile, Mr Alberto. I don’t suppose it’ll be around for long. And I hadn’t considered conquering Constantinople but now you mention it. You’ve planted an idea. Hmm. Dave


  11. I do think that wild flower meadows are more work than most people realise. I think they work wonderfully on a large scale but in a normal sized garden planting borders with ‘simple’ bee and butterfly friendly flowers is a better option. Christina


    • Hi Christina, I agree but there are SO many articles in the gardening press re growing your own wildflower meadow in a normal, smallish garden – meaning a flower border. Hardly a meadow! D


  12. What a lot of work, but it will be worth it in the spring, honest! After such awful weather all summer and autumn, its amazing that you got it done Hope you dry out soon and that your meadow is fantastic next year.


    • Hi Pauline, I originally had scheduled the cutting for early September and then had to postpone twice. Next year I may try and have it cut in August just to give me a little more leeway. D


  13. Such a lot of work. I had always wondered how the wild flower meadows were worked, now I know! Pity that Margaret’s cows are so fussy about their fodder. When we used to pass the silage piles near Aberdeen they had a strong alcoholic reek, Scots cows are obviously easier to please. Good luck with the rattle – that should be worth seeing.


    • Sadly Amelia, the Priory meadow simply isn’t big enough to make harvesting the grass as hay worthwhile (silage tends to be harvested from May onwards – which even if it were viable, is too early for me). I have had long conversations with Margaret re the best way of disposing of the cuttings believe me! The manure pile won! Dave


  14. Do you realize you’ve got a fantastic Children’s book in the story of “Sam and the Amazing Mowing Machine?” A total NYT best seller!!!
    You’ve got big farm apparatus, characters with easy names (Nick, Sam, Margaret) and an intro to agriculture…not to mention the socio-economic effect of weather on the priory and surrounding villagers.
    Brilliant post!


  15. I admire your determination to get the grass mown – for all that you’ve had a rotten time of it – it will surely be worth it come next year when all the flowers spring forth – you get all the best jobs!


  16. Wouldnt Margaret’s cattle like the mowings as feed? Isnt that they use for silage? Saying that I know nothing about these things.
    I like wild flower meadows but I do think they need some scale to give the full effect, like yours. Though saying that there are some wonderful roundabouts in Kidderminster near me which were planted with wild flowers this year


    • Hi Helen, the grass would need to be harvested by a bailer and there simply isn’t enough room in the meadow to get a bailing machine in and for it to do its stuff. One year we did dump the hay in one of Margaret’s fields but it heated up very quickly after which her cows wouldn’t touch it. D


  17. Attila looks fun to operate, but the raking that followed, I can sympathise…Could be therapeutic though!

    It’s been such a wet year so I’m not surprised at all that you can’t mow down the grass as you would normally. And cross fingers the yellow rattle seeds would work!


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