Traditional hay meadows of the nostalgic kind are made up of a mixture of grasses and various flowering herbs – they seem like the most natural of places, but are actually completely man made. The word meadow comes from the word mow, mowing is the key to a meadow – the effect of mowing for hay is to take away nutrients from the land, this is different from allowing animals to graze since animals will return nutrients to the land via their dung.
Taking away nutrients from the land gives the flowering plants the upper hand over the grasses, if you want to give grass and nettles the upper hand, give the land plenty of fertiliser or manure.
The soil on Brewery Field has been “improved” for modern hay production, fertilisers were added to benefit the grasses, making a richer, more nutritious hay. However, there is often something lost in “improvement” processes – old style hay, with its suite of herbs, provided medicinal value for livestock in the days before veterinary medicine. For example, the herb sainfoin is known to have anti-worming properties (incidentally Sainsfoins is the namesake of the farm estate on which I live- also meaning “healthy hay”). Of course the downside of a suite of herbs increases the risk of poisonous ones, such as ragwort.
How to make soil poor without the years of mowing and collecting method? There are a few ways of doing this, one is to scrape off the topsoil where any nutrients lie. This is a difficult procedure without heavy machinery, but in the Brewery Field case we have decided it is worth doing in certain areas since we are already moving the soil around with a digger. The spoil from the pond will be sub soil, and mostly chalk, so ideal for species of herbs normally found in the nutrient poor chalk downlands. We are also scraping off some of the soil between the main access gate and the pond, so here we are going to try to sow meadow. I say try, since it is difficult without some co-operation from the community – restraining from trampling (dogs too) and help with weeding out undesirables.
The seeds we will use here will be a mix of natives, some for dry well drained soil, some for more moist ground. We will extend the seeding to the area near the pond where off cuts of the pond liner will be used under the soil to reduce drainage and here we will be giving a different suite of herbs the upper hand, and hopefully achieve something like a moist meadow.
Another way to make the soil poor is to sow the parasitic herb yellow rattle, this plant is a parasite and feeds off grasses, reducing their stronghold. If we can get yellow rattle established, there is a good chance of success with the meadow.