Northern Ireland header image

Creating a Wetland Meadow

You are here

When thinking about wetland meadows, images of sinking into mud and being attacked by flying insects from all sides while hopping from one clump of grass and roots to another may come to mind. However, you can create a different picture! A wetland meadow can help transform your garden into a wildlife paradise.

Due to our tendency to drain large areas of land for such things as agriculture and housing, we have lost many of our natural wetlands worldwide. This may contribute to erosion, loss of habitat and flooding.

Now is your chance to make a difference for your local wildlife. This article will guide you in the right direction and, with a little patience and time, you will soon be able to enjoy the pleasures of having your very own wetland meadow. By creating a wetland meadow and adding native plants, you will attract many local insect and animal species.

Preparation

A wetland meadow does not, like a swamp or marsh, have standing water, except for a few brief periods during the growing season. However, the soil is very damp and 'squishy' and could be compared to a soaked sponge.

The first step in creating a wetland meadow is to find the perfect location - one which will provide enough light and moisture. The easiest way to do this is to take advantage of an existing wet and sunny area in your garden. This could be a muddy area, a pond edge or an overflow.

To prepare the soil, first break it up to prepare the surface. We suggest you leave the soil untouched for a few weeks, to enable you to clear any fragments of roots and weeds that germinate before planting or sowing. Clearing the site of stones will also give your new native plant species a better chance to grow.

At this point, you can begin planting native wildflowers and grasses in your wetland meadow.

Plants for your wetland meadow

The reason why the location of your wetland meadow is of important, is because wetland meadow plants require full sun for a greater part of a day. The soil should be quite poor (you should never add fertiliser), as this will ensure that the grasses will not become dominant. Newly replanted wetlands are vulnerable to invasion from unwanted "exotics" (non-native) species and weeds which can spread rapidly and take over the area. The best way to keep these out of your wetland meadow is to pull them out by hand, including the roots, if they occur.

It is possible to add pot-grown wildflowers into an excisting wet grassland and avoid having to sow wildflower seeds (or you could use a mixture of both). Perennial wildflowers grown in plugs (and subsequently) replanted in pots, have a greater chance of survival than seeds. When planting, plants of the same species should be planted in groups to increase pollination and to look more natural.. Also, the stronger the wildflowers are before being planted, the more able they are to compete for moisture, space and light from surrounding weeds.

The time to sow your seeds is either early autumn (August or September) or spring (April or May). If you wish to sow your grasses and wildflowers at the same time, we suggest that you mix approximately 1.5g of pure wildflower and 3.5g of grass seed per square metre. It will take a few weeks for the grass seeds to grow and even longer for the wildflowers. There are quite a few wildflower species that require a period of cold to break their dormancy so, if they are sown in spring, they may not germinate until the following year.

Sowing advice

Before sowing, you need to make sure that the soil is moist If not, soak the soil overnight, and sow the seeds the following day. On a small area, the seeds can be cast by hand, but we suggest that on larger areas, you should divide up the area with canes and string to make a grid, and thereafter sow the seeds evenly in each grid square. If you rake the soil lightly after sowing the seeds, it will help the seeds to grow - but ensure the seeds are not buried deeper than 3-6mm. Lightly firm the soil to make sure that the seeds are in contact with the soil.

A few recommended perennial plants

  • Meadowsweet (flowers June-September)
  • Ragged Robin (flowers May-June)
  • Meadow buttercup (flowers April-June)
  • Marsh bird's foot trefoil (flowers June-August)
  • Yellow flag iris (flowers May-July)

A few recomended grasses

  • Reed canary-grass
  • Big bluestem
  • Switchgrass

Managing your wetland meadow

The species that will survive and grow in a wetland meadow will depend on how it's managed. It is important that the wetland meadow is kept moist during prolonged dry periods, although a little drying out now and again will do no harm. We also suggest that you cut your wetland meadow in late summer (September) and, for the first couple of years, during other drier periods, to prevent trees and other species from settling in your wetland meadow. It is best to use rainwater to water the meadow with, although tap water will also do if it has (preferably) been left standing for 24 hours.

It may take a year or two before your wetland meadow finds its balance but, once it has been established and looked after properly, you will be rewarded with the joys of a low maintenance area of beauty and with the knowledge that you are helping biodiversity.