How flower meadows promote water retention?


Not so long ago, we associated water shortages mainly with countries in the Global South. Today, water problems affect virtually all of us. According to UN figures, one in three people in the world does not have access to drinking water, and this is only the beginning of the fight against global drought. Unassuming-looking flower meadows can be an effective weapon in this unequal battle. Will these vibrant islands of biodiversity save us from a water disaster?

How climate change is affecting water resources?

Climate change is no longer just an issue on international debates and agendas, but its effects are increasingly being felt locally. We are experiencing increasingly acute high air temperatures in the summer season, we are increasingly confronted with extreme phenomena (floods and droughts), and we are increasingly hampered in our daily lives by environmental pollution. Problems with sustainable water management are particularly fostered by sealed surfaces (artificial ground surface), the limited capacity of sewerage and drainage systems to carry away excess water and the failure to take water retention into account in planning documents and investment plans. The higher the percentage of impermeable surfaces in relation to the area of green space, the lower the retention and the higher the surface runoff. It is for this reason that cities and urbanised areas experience water problems the most, ranging from drought during rain-free periods to localised flooding during heavy rainfall. Blue-green infrastructure plays a key role in maintaining environmental sustainability during these extreme periods. Implementing water retention solutions for long periods of drought helps to effectively maintain green spaces. In turn, the use of green spaces to retain rainwater, makes it possible to reduce the negative effects in the event of flooding or waterlogging. In this case, we can speak of a network of interconnected vessels that not only should, but must be considered holistically. Unfortunately, there is still a perception that blue-green infrastructure solutions are expensive investments and that the long-term economic benefits usually have no place in the calculations that are developed. However, the implementation of these solutions is a key element in making urban agglomerations more resilient to the negative effects of climate change. The main objective of the idea of the ‘resilient city’, or resilient cities, is flexibility of response and the ability to survive in the face of extreme situations caused by progressive climate change. Without concrete measures taken with adequate time margins and precise water management guidelines developed, we will never be able to talk about achieving full resilience in the event of a climate crisis.

Green deserts

Climate change is a long-term process, but over the last few years we have begun to feel its effects more intensely in our immediate surroundings. After a period of excessive ‘concretisation’, we felt the need to bring nature back into our neighbourhood. Cities have launched projects on a fairly large scale with the main aim of greening grey urban spaces. These activities are not always carried out in a skilful and competent manner, resulting in the seemingly easiest and most economically beneficial solutions being implemented. In the context of shaping and planning landscaped areas, we can certainly already speak of a trend towards the creation of so-called green deserts. What is the origin of this term? For a long time, the most popular landscaping solution was to create lawns or plant beds with ornamental plants. These solutions were good at first glance, as grey concrete was quickly and cheaply transformed into green grass and the colourful flowerbeds added to the aesthetic appeal. In the long term, however, it was noticed that the maintenance of lawns carries huge running costs due to the need for frequent mowing and watering. Similarly, ornamental plants require special treatment to maintain their appearance, including frequent watering and weeding. Particularly in recent years, when water shortages and restrictions on watering home gardens have become more frequent during the summer, maintaining the luscious green of urban lawns and the beautiful colours of ornamental flowerbeds has proved to be a very difficult task to achieve. Given the lack of any value of lawns and ornamental plants for the preservation of biodiversity, such an approach to the management of amenity green spaces can hardly be justified anymore. Floral meadows, which, in addition to their economic benefits, have a very positive effect on the surrounding nature, are gaining more and more favour with local authorities and land managers.

Floral water stores

Water and greenery are key elements in determining quality of life. Flowerbeds fit perfectly into this statement. They perform exceptionally well during periods of drought, when we are particularly concerned about conserving water. The deep and extensive root system of wildflowers makes them extremely hardy and drought-resistant, while retaining moisture in the soil. As a result, they do not require additional irrigation and present themselves well, even during prolonged periods without rain. In addition, during heavy rainfall they behave like a sponge, binding rainwater in the soil, significantly reducing surface run-off and the risk of flooding. Discharging rainwater into stormwater drains results in water being lost irretrievably. Using nature-friendly water retention solutions means that rain, which is so valuable nowadays, can be given a second life and reused in drier periods. Water retention also promotes the recharge of groundwater whose resources are increasingly being exploited, especially in urban centres.

Benefits of establishing flower meadows

Unlike traditional lawns, meadows also do not require regular mowing. The lack of regular maintenance saves time and money, which can be used for other investments. In addition, grasses require regular fertilisation in order to resemble a lush green carpet. In addition to the huge costs associated with buying fertiliser and employing workers, there is also the pollution that gets into the soil and water. In addition, the noise and smell of exhaust fumes from lawnmowers negatively affect the living comfort and well-being of residents and can frighten away animals. Reducing maintenance significantly increases the chances of these areas being colonised by beneficial animal and plant species by providing them with natural habitats.

Colourful and useful

Flower meadows enrich the poor urban ecosystem, providing a real oasis for biodiversity conservation. They are teeming with life and full of natural colours, scents and sounds. They provide food and shelter for beneficial insects, including bees, butterflies, bumblebees, as well as birds and small mammals. The lack of suitable habitat is one of the three most important reasons for the mass extinction of wild pollinators. Particularly in urban spaces, the presence of floral meadows improves living comfort and offers the opportunity to stay in close contact with nature. In addition, green spaces strewn with a carpet of wildflowers provide a wealth of positive aesthetic impressions. Flower meadows also provide an extremely valuable ecosystem service for agricultural landscapes. The proximity of appropriately composed flower species significantly increases the quality and quantity of crop yields, which not only translates into higher crop returns for farmers, but above all ensures food security for the general public. Carpets of wild flowers are a valuable tool in the fight against smog. There are even special blends already available on the market to increase the ‘anti-smog’ effect.

How to set up a flower meadow?

Seed – a meadow for a year or for many years

It is worth starting your adventure with a flower meadow by thinking about your own expectations and possibilities. We sow annual meadows to have a quick effect and when we can afford to do a little more work. Annual plants flower after just two months and the flowerbeds often look spectacular, but you have to reseed them every year, so this solution is more suited to small areas. If you are more interested in saving money than aesthetics, then sow permanent meadows, as their maintenance is limited to occasional mowing (1-3 times a year). This is not only economical, but also an environmentally friendly solution, as perennial meadows are primarily made up of native flower and grass species. Here the problem can be the late flowering of biennial and perennial species, which usually only occurs in the second year after sowing. If flowers are needed quickly, the perennial mix can be enriched with annual species, such as field flowers, which do well on most moderate soils.

When establishing a meadow, the right choice of seed for the site is crucial. A different mix will be used on moist soil, another on dry or partly shaded ground. We can use several hundred plant species, and the more accurately we match them, the better the meadow will grow. There are valuable native wildflowers, flowering weeds, ornamental and cultivated plants as well as specially selected grasses. The composition of the species determines the price of the mix – the cheapest are those made from readily available cultivated or ornamental plants, and the most expensive from wild seeds collected from the wild or from boutique plantations. The price of seeds can also be reduced by adding grasses, but this solution is only suitable for perennial meadows and the proportion of grasses should not exceed 30% of the seed mixture. The multitude of possibilities means that it is advisable to consult a specialist before creating a meadow and determine the optimal solution. This will not only make the choice easier, but will also save you the disappointment of an unexpected result. It is advisable to buy seed from a reliable supplier who is able to supply it, the mixtures available in supermarkets often have little to do with the picture on the label and the wide range of species will only allow a small percentage of plants to grow.Establishing a meadow

Establishing a meadow

For a meadow, choose a sunny or only partly shaded and little-used place, as it is easy to break the plants when walking on the meadow. Good positions for meadows are sunny slopes or hillsides. In such places, wildflowers not only look fantastic, but thanks to their deep and extensive roots, they additionally stabilise the ground and prevent erosion.

If a certain effect is needed, the site should be prepared in a similar way as for a lawn by carefully removing the old vegetation. Very little wildflower seed is needed – approx. 3 g of a professional mixture is sufficient per 1 m2, which should be sown evenly and staked or tamped down. Wildflower seeds can be very small, often smaller than a grain of sand, and each one can grow into a sizeable plant (as long as it has enough space and suitable growing conditions). Do not cover the seeds with soil, as many of them germinate in the light, and covering can delay or prevent proper growth. At the end of sowing, the stand is watered generously. Under favourable conditions, the plants will begin to germinate after a few days and annual species will produce their first flowers within 1-2 months.

A flower meadow can also be created more naturally by successively enriching the lawn with flowering dicotyledonous plants. This can be done by sowing seeds into gaps in the turf or, for larger areas, as flower islands in the lawn, for example. However, it should be borne in mind that such a meadow can take a long time to take shape, as seeds need specific conditions to grow and can wait for a very long time. Sometimes digging up the soil is enough to start a wildflower adventure, allowing seeds that have been waiting in the soil for years to start growing and bloom. We often see this effect with new road projects – poppies, chamomile or cornflowers bloom intensively in heaps of earth or along roadways in the first year. However, this effect is short-lived and disappears after 1-2 years if the soil is not re-stirred, which stimulates the seeds to grow.

Care of the flower meadow

Meadows are semi-natural communities – their maintenance involves mowing. It is a treatment that allows wildflowers to reproduce and limits the natural succession of trees. Maintenance of perennial meadows is limited to mowing the meadow 1-3 times per season. Annual meadows are more ornamental plantings, the restoration of which, in addition to mowing once, also requires the soil to be tilled and sometimes additional seeds to be sown.

In a meadow, if the soil has not been sufficiently cleared, undesirable plants may appear and drown out the flowers. In annual meadows, such plants should be removed manually by weeding. In perennial meadows, intervention mowing is used to prevent further growth of undesirable plants.

Because of its diversity and wild character, there are no pests in the meadow. The wildflowers are used by insects and other invertebrates, birds, as well as amphibians or small mammals. Occasionally aphids may appear, but they are also followed by ladybirds, which are quickly dealt with. Every organism in the meadow is needed in the meadow, and all together form unique little ecosystems.

Why plant flower meadows?

The situation we currently face is a kind of paradox. Meadows that were once at our fingertips now have to be re-planted from purchased seed. Not so long ago, field flowers filled all home gardens and wastelands. Children used them to make hair garlands and adults used them to make their own bouquets for tables. Nowadays, they are not so easy to find in our surroundings. We don’t need a lot of space to create a meadow, even a small flowerbed or balcony pot is sufficient. A flower meadow can also be sown on an existing lawn, adding to its functional qualities and reducing the need for maintenance, including mowing. Dealing with drought does not necessarily mean having to implement complicated, expensive solutions. With small steps, you can really achieve great success!

The text was written as part of the project „Hydrozagadka – jak wygrać z suszą?”