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Sow Cornfield Wildflowers

Sow Cornfield Wildflowers
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© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017

Most of us dream of a splash of bright colour in the garden through the summer but does this have to involve a trip to the Garden Centre or growing your own bedding plants?  The answer to that question is ‘no’!  

Carefully chosen annuals, sown in spring or autumn, can produce a colourful wildlife-friendly patch with little work or maintenance.  Use a mixture of the annual wildflowers that used to grace the edges of our arable fields in years gone by, and you will please your local wildlife as well as yourself. These annuals can be sown in the spring or in September - an autumn sowing producing an early display of jewel-bright intensity.  They attract a huge range of beneficial insects, some small mammals and a few of our seed eating birds as well.  In all, they enhance the wildlife garden greatly.

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A cornfield area is not a meadow – a common misconception - as it does not contain the range of native grasses and perennial wildflowers that make up a meadow habitat.  However the seed can be sown in the same way - scattered onto bare, weed-free soil and pressed in with the feet. From an autumn sowing, flowering will begin in May and will continue until August culminating in a sea of contrasting golden seed heads in September.  A mix of seeds can be purchased from specialist growers, and will generally contain field poppy, cornflower, corncockle, corn marigold and corn chamomile. Some may have one or two other species including heartsease or pheasants eye.  Sown together in September they provide a wonderfully colourful patch of wildflowers that will bring many species of hoverfly and bumblebee, common blue butterflies and even goldfinches into your garden.

Preparing for sowing Prepare an area of soil in full sun for these seeds.  Unlike a wildflower meadow, a cornfield area will be quite happy in good soil, as there is no competition with grass.  The plants may flourish and achieve a greater size than they would in the wild, but bigger brighter flowers in this instance look fantastic.  Sun however is important.  Although some of the species will grow in a little shade, they tend to flop and make a less attractive feature and fewer insects will visit them. The soil should be turned over, raked to a reasonable tilth and perennial plants such as thistle, dandelions or couch grass should be removed.  All these ‘weeds’ are valuable wildlife plants in their own right, but would be better incorporated into a wilder patch elsewhere in the garden.  Annual weed seedlings will probably germinate, but this does not really affect the finished result.  The odd annual weed here or there will probably provide seeds for a finch or two and will not be noticed amongst the sea of colour your cornfield will provide.

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The seed should be mixed well before sowing as the smaller of the seeds, especially the poppies, will have dropped to the bottom of the packet.  Sow at a rate of about 2g per square meter.  This does not have to be exact; just scatter the seed as evenly as possible over the area. It may help to add a handful of silver sand to the seeds as this makes it easier to distribute evenly.  For a really interesting effect, you could add a handful of an old-fashioned barley or wheat variety at this stage.  After scattering walk over the area, carefully pushing the seeds into the soil.  This is important – you do not want to cover the seed with soil, as many wildflowers need light to trigger germination, so resist the temptation to rake the seed in.  To deter finches and sparrows (and there will be plenty of seeds for them next summer) make sure your bird feeders are kept well filled and hang a few old CDs if you still have some, tied to canes around the area.  These twist in the slightest breeze and the shiny surfaces reflect light, making them effective birdscarers.  Once germination has begun the CDs can be removed.  Not all the species will germinate straight away.  Corncockle and cornflower will soon produce leaves, but poppy and corn marigold will not usually appear until the following spring.  They require a period of cold weather before germination can occur.  By March the area will be full of tiny seedlings and by June you will have a mass of red, blue, pink and yellow to enjoy right through the summer.

Keeping your cornfield going  Maintenance of this area could not be easier.  Next September or October when the seeds have set, pull out the dead stalks, and give them a shake to ensure that the seeds fall back to the soil.  This not only distributes the seed, but also disturbs the soil in much the same way as the plough would have done in the past. Seeds that have fallen into cracks and crevices in the soil will be brought up to the surface and exposed to the light they need to trigger their germination, either immediately or in a few months time.  Any unwelcome weeds can be removed at this time, but make sure you don’t fork over the soil too much, as this will only bury the seeds again. These wildflower species will continue to perform for an indefinite period, but over time corncockle, an autumn germinator, may come to dominate.  By getting ahead in the autumn, it can sometimes crowd out the spring germinators.  This can be remedied by selectively weeding out or hoeing corncockle seedlings in small areas in October or February to give the other species a chance.

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Sowing an area of these native annuals now will provide a colourful wildlife-attracting focal point for next summer.  The added bonus comes in future years as they self-seed.  Their continued presence allows populations of dependant invertebrates to build up, greatly increasing the numbers of invertebrates in your garden, as well as providing you with a colourful focal point all through the summer.

The star line-up

Poppy - the bright red corn poppy is familiar to all of us as it still sometimes crops up in wheat fields, providing a welcome splash of colour in the countryside.  This usually happens when ploughing has been deeper than usual, bringing long forgotten seeds to the surface of the soil, where they burst into life in the springtime.  Poppies are excellent providers of pollen and this flower attracts hoverflies and bees.

Corn Marigold - The corn marigold is golden yellow and flowers right through the summer well into September.  It attracts solitary bees, the smaller bumblebee species, pollen beetles and skipper butterflies.

Cornflower - Rarely seen in our countryside now, the pure bright blue cornflower is the only plant to have a colour named after it.  Its old country name of ‘hurt-sickle’ implied that it was thought to blunt the scythe during harvest.  Smaller butterflies, including the common blue, will visit the cornflower for its nectar.  When the seeds have set, they are a favourite with goldfinches and greenfinches, providing natural food for them through the autumn.

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Corncockle - Corncockle was eradicated from our fields as the seed is poisonous.  Never the less, it is a beautiful flower with bright pink petals that fold up like an umbrella in low light.  Bees and the occasional butterfly will visit the flowers.  

Corn chamomile - This little plant has tiny white daisy flowers which provide the perfect backdrop to the other more colourful flowers in the mix.  It is a good pollen producer, attracting solitary bees and hoverflies.

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