The Essential Role of Wildflower Meadows & Flowers in the Edible Garden

Maddy Harland
Wednesday, 17th February 2016

Maddy Harland describes how her forest garden is a consciously designed space that 'works with nature', wild though it may appear. Flowers play a central role in this edible garden.

This forest garden is planted on chalk. It can be very dry in summer and nutrients are leached away quickly during rainy seasons (whenever they might be these days). This means that we struggle to grow gages and quince never fruits. We also have to grow a lot of nutrients and then capture them in mulch under the trees. One method we use is to plant comfrey Bocking 14 under the trees and cut and drop it in situ when it is ready. The long tap roots bring nutrients up to the surface and by scything it on the spot, they are returned to the soil.

We also grow Siberian pea, a beautiful, delicately flowering tree that fixes nitrogen into its root system and shares it with its neighbours below the soil. Being a forest garden, it is never dug, preserving the living soil.

The meadow plays a critical role. It provides seasonal mulch (we hand scythe it in autumn) and return the cuttings to the trees. This keeps unwanted plants mulched out, preserves moisture and adds some fertility as well.

The meadow however has another vital role to play. It brings into the garden an incredible number of beneficial insects, birds, reptiles and amphibians who eat the pests and enable us never to spray the fruit or bother about codling moth traps. From a bare field in 1994 with no wildlife, we now have the rare common lizard, toads, frogs, slow worms, a catalogue of invertebraes, chalk downland butterflies, moths, and mammals. Bats hunt in the evening over the meadow, hawks, owls and red kite are seen scouting for prey over the grasses, woodpeckers drill into the swathe, and we are admittedly forced to share our fruit crop with blackbirds.

We don't mind. Our design was always to encourage wildlife back on to a piece of land that was once arable drenched in fertiliser pellets.

The engine of biodiversity

The meadow, far from an indulgent open space, is the engine of biodiversity, bringing all the cultivation we do into balance. For 'wild' gardens, as ours might appear to be are in reality very consciously designed places where we are actively working with nature. The scythe replaces the passing herd of herbivore in autumn, the hedgetrimmer a larger grazing mammal in our system, and we are the birds, sowing seeds, harvesting, and adding fertility to the system.

The meadow itself requires little work except the annual cardio-vascular autumn scything work out. The spring meadow is planted with bulbs like aconite and snowdrops that begin to flower from January onwards. They are followed by crocii, daffodills, narcissi, grape hyacincth and provide colour for eye, uplift in the cold and bee forage for our bees. After spring bulbs the tree blossom starts to bloom in riotous abandon and then the later season flow with the nectar of fruit, vegetable and flower blossom. There is never a month without a blooming flower.

The summer meadow is an increasingly diverse mix of wildflowers and grasses. My favouite grass is 'quaking', perhaps appropriately called Briza media, with a delicate heart like seed. Flowers include greater and lesser knapweed, ox-eye daisy, field scabious, cranesbill, black medic, sorrel, plantain, hawksbit, cowslip, self-heal, yellow archangel, bugle, wild marjoram, forget-me-not, buttercup... and we hope to reintroduce yellow rattle.

The flowers spread all over. Ox-eye daisy migrates to the no dig vegetable patch, pops up in the pond area in the front garden next to scented tea roses, attempts to colonise the herb garden... I have to weed it out when it threatens to overcome our vegetable sowings. I leave it to enjoy its freedom under the trees and in the flowering borders.

Multi-functional flowers

Permaculturists pre-occupied with edible landscapes might think flowers are an indulgence of the senses but they have many functions.

1. A mix of native and wild flowers provide year round nectar for honeybees

2. Flowers provide food for bumble and solitary bees, moth, butterfly and other invertebrates

3. Flowers attract beneficial insections who eat your pests

4. Many flowers are edible - we eat cowslips, day lily, violets, ransom and chive flowers (actually any flowering allium heads), borage, calendula, common mallow, marjoram, primrose, sweet woodruff, sorrel...  so many to list ... in salads. Rose petals and lavender and other scented herbs flavour delicious desserts.

5. Flowers gone to seed can provide food for birds like goldfinches. Teasel particularly is popular but even marjoram heads will provide food late into the winter.

6. The uncut meadow provides habitat for many species, not just insects and birds, as mentioned above. They in turn attract birds of prey. Before we transformed our barren arable plot, buzzards were rare and red kites unknown. Now they are casue to celebrate.

7. More bees, both honey and bumble, means a higher level of pollination for fruit and vegetable crops.

8. Flowers should be a part of every robust polyculture. Even the most tidy of veggie patch needs a conservation area beside it full of flowering plants, both native and exotic, that attract beneficial insects and provide habitat for slug eating amphibians, reptiles and mammals like hedgehogs.

9. Flowers aid healing. A much cited study, published in 1984 in the journal Science by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich, now at Texas A&M University, was the first to use the standards of modern medical research — strict experimental controls and quantified health outcomes — to demonstrate that gazing at a garden can sometimes speed healing from surgery, infections and other ailments.

10. Life is challenging. We know from personal experience that flowers feed the soul. They provide emotional and mental respite - and there are studies to back that up as well.

Maddy and Tim Harland have been forest and no dig gardening since 1994. They will be explaining how to design and plany a forest garden on Monty Don's 'Big Drems, Small Spaces' on Thursday 18th February on BBC2 at 8pm. For more information and an iPlayer link see See

We need more programmes about permaculture and forest gardening and so the public viewing figures are an important indicator to programme makers. They demonstrate that these subjects are not fringe interests but serious subjects that deserve to be widely explored. Please therefore spread the word!

Further information

See Tim and Maddy's garden on Alys Fowler's The Edible Garden series

For more details on the forest garden design see 'How To Make a Temperate Forest Garden'

Visit Tim and Maddy's garden 'Introduction to Forest Garden ' Day in May and October 2016


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