I've become increasingly intrigued by the idea of growing a sown understorey to my forest garden, rather than the Plan A system of first planting trees and shrubs within an area of rough grass and then gradually opening up bed areas in which to plant useful herbaceous plants.
Bed areas are so expensive, not to mention high maintenance! I have several species of creeping weed that keep creeping in and smothering my herbs, which drives me nuts, makes a right mess of my lovely beds and gives me loads of work each year sorting it all out.
So Plan B - have just a few of the lovely herbaceous beds in gaps around my trees and shrubs, but otherwise sow a wildlife meadow. This will look great, will be really wildlife friendly and will need a fraction of the work to maintain.
With this in mind, I've found a local supplier of meadow seed and have been digging in to James Hitchmough's inspirational book 'Sowing Beauty' for tips on how to successfully grow beautiful perennial groundcover communities straight from seed. If you can get hold of a copy, I definitely recommend this book.
I'll be sowing meadow plants, as my ground is quite open and sunny, but in future when my trees have grown some more, I'm really keen to try using his techniques to grow a more low growing woodland understorey and also to try incorporating a mixture of both wildlife friendly and edible plants. Using seed rather than plants will save loads of money and by covering the ground in a year, it will take less work in the end to get a really full ground cover layer to the forest garden. The book has loads of tips on how to select appropriate plants for any given situation - right plant, right place being the key to success with this system.
For now though, with my plant choices pre selected by my local meadow seed supplier, here are my favourite top tips for getting a seed mix established:
1. Make sure you irrigate well from early spring to early summer. By this he means once every couple of days, which sounds like a lot to me, but he suggests this can have a huge impact on seedling emergence and survival. Evening irrigation is of course much more beneficial than morning irrigation.
2. Manage slugs. A top tip here if we're avoiding slugicide is to sow into a sand mulch. The most at risk areas are those near long grass or hedges - generally the boundaries of the site to be sown. Also risky are north or east facing slopes and clay soil covered in a compost mulch (being a very moisture retentive situation).
3. Weed control. You need to make sure your chosen species are dominating any weeds by the end of the first growing season (i.e. by autumn). This will mean you get a nice closed canopy of your chosen plants, which will keep future weeds at bay in future years. Sowing into a mulch can help with getting your plants established in a reduced weed environment and then spot weeding during the first year to reduce weed dominance may also be needed. The best time for taking out weed seedlings is generally early summer, when weeds are easy to identify. He suggests hand weeding on all fours, using string lines to mark up weeding aisles of about a 1.2m width, to make it easier to be systematic about covering the whole area.
Where time is limited, take out the most problematic weeds only - these are perennial clump forming plants, such as docks and creeping plants, such as bindweed, creeping thistle, couch grass and nettles. Creeping buttercup and clover can be a bit of an issue, but being shorter, are less problematic in meadow or prairie sowings. The best time for taking out perennial weeds is over winter and early spring when the plant cover is more open and accessible.