There’s a revival of interest currently in traditionally managed meadows with a particular focus on the native wildflowers they contain. Appreciated for the biodiversity they support, these plants provide food and cover for insects and birds. The flowers are also a natural spectacle for us to enjoy, and wrapped up in the meadow’s appeal is a certain nostalgia for the old ways of farming.
Today meadow grasses seem to receive only a fraction of the attention that is devoted to the flowers, but in the late 18th century a trend to make farming more efficient and scientific meant that horticulturalists like William Curtis (1746 – 1799) spent time researching the most productive grasses available for both cattle and sheep, and using these to create the ideal meadow.
Curtis published Practical observations on the British grasses: especially such as are best adapted to the laying down or improving of meadows and pastures: to which is added an enumeration of the British grasses in 1790. Purchasers of the pamphlet (priced at ten shillings and sixpence) were entitled to a special packet of grass seeds, with which to establish their own meadow.
Some fourteen years later in 1804 the eighty page pamphlet was in its 4th edition, by this time published by William’s cousin, Samuel Curtis. Samuel added new coloured illustrations and the seeds were now available from Samuel’s garden in Walworth. (The previous address of William Curtis’s Botanic Nursery in Brompton has been inked out – although it’s still visible if you zoom in on the digitised version).
At the beginning of the pamphlet William Curtis expresses exasperation that the only grass seed available commercially for sowing pasture or meadow is Ray-Grass, which he says is widely accepted to be inadequate for the purpose. Curtis discusses the virtues of a range of grasses, finally recommending six native to England which he believes to be the best.
‘The grasses recommended will, I am confident, do all that our natural grasses can do: they are six of those which constitute the bulk of our best pastures; most of them are early, all of them are productive, and they are adapted to such soils and situations, as are proper for meadows and pastures.
But let no one expect them to perform wonders; for after all, they are but grasses, and, as such, are liable to produce great or small crops, according to particular seasons, or to the fertility or barrenness of the soil on which they are sown.’
These grasses were provided in the seed packet:
These grass seeds were intended for the farmer or landowner to grow on, until there were enough seeds to plant a whole meadow. It would take two years for the new meadow to achieve reach maturity, a considerable investment of time and effort.
The seeds were to be sown in rows according to their variety at the end of August, and regularly weeded and thinned if the plants were growing too close together. The following year, the new seeds were saved for autumn sowing and the roots of the original grasses were divided to make more plants. He says, ‘by degrees a large plantation of these grasses may be formed, and much seed collected.’ At the same time, the ground for the meadow must be, ‘got in order’.
‘.. perhaps the best practice (if pasture land) will be, to pare off the sward, and burn it on the ground; or, if this practice should not be thought advisable, it will be proper to plough up the ground, and harrow it repeatedly, burning the roots of Couch-Grass, and other noxious plants, till the ground is become perfectly clean; some cleansing crop, as potatoes, turnips, tares ,&tc. may contribute to this end.’
It’s interesting that Curtis suggests reducing the soil’s fertility by growing crops rather than removing topsoil, as is sometimes recommended today. If planting a new meadow was impractical, an existing meadow’s productivity could be improved, Curtis says, by harrowing the ground and planting the same seed mix, but in a smaller quantity.
Thinking back to today’s ideal meadow full of wildflowers, Curtis mentions comparatively few flowering perennials as useful plants for livestock. He recommends several species of clover, with dandelion and the ribwort plantain as useful early spring grazing for animals hungry after winter. This kind of mixed meadow could be cut twice, he says – in May and then again in July or August.
An invaluable guide to anyone considering wishing to re-create a traditional grazing meadow or pasture today, it’s also a reminder that our ideas about agriculture are always developing.
Practical Observations on the British Grasses (1790)
from the fascinating Perkins Agricultural Library at Archive.org. Walter Frank Perkins of Hampshire, UK (1865-1945) collected over 2000 books on British agriculture published up to the end of the 19th century. The collection was donated to the University of Southampton Library with the proviso that free open access was maintained. In keeping with his wish, books from the collection are now being digitised and made available from Internet Archive and the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Further details of the collection are available in the Perkins Agricutlural Library guide.