If there is one abiding confusion in the world of wildlife-friendly gardening, it is the difference between a meadow and an annual flower bed.The latter so often gets called a meadow, but there are so many differences in how you look after them - and the wildlife that uses them.

Yesterday I visited a nature reserve that reveals the contrasts on a vast and impressive scale. It is called Ranscombe Farm in Medway, north Kent, and it is a Plantlife nature reserve and working farm.

Barely 100m into the reserve, you are greeted with this:

Spires of Viper's Bugloss poke through the white, chalky soil, dotted with Common Poppies and Opium Poppies (sometimes known as Breadseed Poppy).

It can look so impressive close up:

This is a bed of annual flowers, not a meadow. There are no grasses, and it is effectively a tilled field where a load of annuals and biennials come up in the absence of weedkillers. In amongst the bobby-dazzler flowers are all sorts of rare annual arable weeds. Come the end of the season, the field will be ploughed and next year new plants will come up from the seed dropped this year.

Then, further into the reserve you get to this:

This is chalk grassland, dominated by the faded greens of wild grasses. This is a meadow - it never gets ploughed, and most of the plants in it are perennials, surviving year after year. The main management is to graze it lightly in winter, usually with sheep. In big broad view like this it is much less visually impressive than a bed of annuals, but it is when you get close up that the magic is revealed. Wildflower diversity is at its peak, with the jewels often being the orchids, such as this Pyramidal Orchid:

And what of the wildlife? Well, the bed of annual flowers is great for pollinators, alive with bees and hoverflies, and hence very valuable for them as well as for the rare annual plants. Meanwhile, the meadow is the realm of butterflies and grasshoppers, ants and moths as well as bees, and a breeding ground for many species such as this Marbled White:

This all translates into what you can do in the garden, just on a smaller scale. Here is part of my annual bed this year, which will put on this fireworks show for a few weeks, but at the end of the season will all get pulled up, weeded, dug over and I will reseed in the autumn just to ensure I retain a good mix:

Whereas this is my mini-meadow (it looks larger in the photo than it is - it is about the size of an average garden), which will just get a cut in August and maybe again before the end of the year, just as if I was cutting it for hay and then grazing it. It is much less showy than the annual bed with none of the colour-show but this is the place where so many of my butterflies breed such as Meadow Browns, Common Blues, Small Skippers, and it is where grasshoppers stridulate, Grass Snakes sunbathe and Field Voles set up their little runs:

One important difference to add is that annual beds can be achieved on almost any soil, rich or otherwise, whereas meadows work best on poor soils where the grasses don't grow so lush and thick that they out-compete all the other meadow plants. But my meadow above is on the site of an old chicken pen which would have been splattered with nitrogen-rich chicken poo for decades - I did remove the top four inches of topsoil to get down to something less rich underneath, but it shows that mini meadows are still possible almost everywhere.

Whichever you choose to do - annual bed or mini-meadow - two things are sure: wildlife will benefit, and so will you!

Anonymous