When our Nature Recovery Ranger Karen MacKelvie arrived at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre, one of the first things she noticed was its sweeping lawn that leads down from the old sanatorium building. On the surface, this was a vast green space – but a strict mowing regime and ‘weed’ suppression mean that this space was doing nothing to support biodiversity – and few staff used it, either. Working with a meadow-creation expert, Karen transformed the lawn over the course of the year into a thriving ecosystem that has defied expectations. She shares the process, and describes the nature that is now abundant on this old lawn.

When I first saw the lawn at Mount Vernon, I thought – what a vast expanse of ‘dead for nature’ space. It’s like a graveyard for wildlife. It’s a hard-cut lawn: it’s good for football, and it appears easy to maintain. But people don’t even walk on that type of groomed lawn; we’ve all been trained in the school of “Do not walk on the grass”. So I thought it would be a big win for nature to change that lawn into a native, perennial wildflower meadow.

Mount Vernon Cancer Centre, London
The original lawn at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre. Photo: CSH, July 2018. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

I went to Phil Sterling, who’s the head of Butterfly Conservation and a great urban meadow maker. He advocates for urban meadows all around  the UK. And as well as proving the benefits to nature – he’s done the analysis  on the savings it can create for councils when they focus on making conditions right for wildflowers instead of grass So Phil could argue the economic case very well. 

To me, it was clear that the house martins had stopped nesting on the eaves of the old building because they were lacking a good food supply, which for them is insects. I thought it would be a great marker of success if I got house martins to nest again. I had a hard time persuading the grounds contractor that turning two thirds of the manicured lawn into meadow was a good idea because he has built his reputation on mowing ‘the lines’. And for me to turn his lovely, beautiful, groomed lawns into a shaggy mess, as he would think of it – it was hard. But he was so good. And it’s been magical to work with him to create a wildflower meadow. 

The advice from Phil Sterling was to ‘cut and collect’. You don’t leave an area of grass to grow, it’ll just turn to shaggy, tussocky mess and then you’ve got a problem. Even if you sow wildflower seeds into that, or plug plant in amongst it or cut it in a regime that’s meadow-like, you’ll have problems going forward with more pernicious plants like bristly oxtongue or certain types of grass that are hard to manage  

If you prepare the ground properly to begin with, you have a much better run into the future. We needed to get the nutrients off the ground. Wildflowers hate nutrients; they love stony rough ground, old quarries, disused industrial sites. They do not like topsoil. Don’t bring in your lovely manure; that’s exactly what they hate. 

Normally, you cut the grass and you leave the clippings so the nutrients go back down into the ground and keep the grass nice and healthy. But I was advised that the nutrients were probably just sitting in the top couple of inches of this hard packed silty-clay lawn, and it won’t have been ploughed for over a hundred years, so if we let the nutrients grow up into the grass, cut the grass, and take the clippings off then we would reduce the nutrients nicely. We did this cut and collect process three times over the course of the year. 

I was lucky in that the grounds team had the specialist machines capable of cutting and then collecting that length of grass. It was maybe six weeks between each cut in the summer and some machines won’t cope with that. You can also find machines that have a collecting mechanism on the back so that it’s done simultaneously – you don’t need to go back and collect the cuttings afterwards. 

At the end of the year, after those three cut and collects, you scarify the ground. You put tines on the back of a tractor or another specialist machine and  break through the thatch that’sunderneath the grass. It’s like a giant rake. We definitely don’t want to turn the soil over in case we get nutrients coming up; we just want to break through that webbing so the seeds get contact with the soil. 

It’s two thirds of that vast, old, sanatorium building lawn that I’ve changed to wildflower meadow now. The normal regime of cutting has gone down to once a year with provision for a midsummer cut and collect if it’s needed. I have the football pitch as contrast, and when the contractor cuts the pitch he cuts some paths into the meadow on the same regime. It’s been used a lot for outdoor meetings because the mown paths invite people to come into the meadow, and a lot more people are experiencing what it is to have a richer ecosystem. 

Nature Recovery Ranger launched the staff gardening competition at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
Karen MacKelvie with the wildflower plug plants around the edges of the lawn. Photo: Vicki Brown / CSH Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Sowing wildflower seeds at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
Staff scatter wildflower seeds on the freshly cut lawn in autumn 2020. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2021. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

We sowed British, native, perennial wildflower seeds, and first up came the yellow rattle – the meadow maker! It’s a really cool plant. There was a forest of yellow rattle, parasitising the grass and making way for the other species – like kidney vetch, which is the biggest hit on the lawn at the moment. It’s so high, a big, bubbly thing. 

We did native wildflower plug planting around the edges. So we’ve got some amazing plants like viper’s bugloss and some incredible oxeye daisies, ragged robin, red campion, meadow buttercups, self-heal, foxgloves – just so many beautiful species. We’re going to get the scabious soon, they’re not quite out yet. 

I could never have predicted how incredible the diversity of the flowers would be, and the diversity of grasses, which I didn’t think would be a thing. There’s so many different species of grass and they all look  ‘friendly’ , not like couch grass or marram grass, the stuff that you just don’t want to deal with. It’s all loosely spread out. It’s really visceral. It’s very sensory. 

I’ve put little pictures of the flowers on sticks with the name, and put them in the middle of the meadow so that people can go and label them themselves, and ‘meet’ the flower. Instead of it being, “Here’s the flower”, it’s “go and find the flower!” And then you actually have to look, don’t you?

In terms of wildlife, there were two big hits. There was an adult male adder that was videoed by one of the delivery drivers. He filmed it going through the long grass. That was cool! And then a kestrel hovering over the meadow. It’s not going to hover over a football pitch, is it? There’s nothing for it on a football pitch. Even just now, we were just sitting there and a big emperor dragonfly came buzzing round twice. We started a butterfly transect last year, and there is a huge difference now in the species that we have on the meadow sections of the transect. We have marbled whites and dingy skippers, common blues and meadow browns. There’s so many butterflies on the meadow – a great indicator of increased biodiversity. 

Kidney vetch sprung up on Mount Vernon's meadow in July
Kidney vetch sprung up on Mount Vernon’s meadow in July. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2022. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).
Ladybirds enjoy the plants on the the meadow at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
Ladybirds enjoy the plants on the the meadow at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2022. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

The other day one of the consultants was saying what a difference I’ve made on the site. He said “we just all would have thought that lawn was how it should be. And now…” The diversity on that meadow is just special. It’s something else. And he’s just entranced by it all. Everybody is. It makes you realise what you didn’t have before. It’s really hard to get a sense of something that’s not functioning as a good ecosystem because the site is all planted with things like laurel. That makes it easier for the grounds team – it’s green all year, you clip it back, you don’t have to weed underneath it or have a problem with brambles.

But let’s start doing things that make sense for the environment. On one of the docks in the meadow, there were so many black aphids. And the ants were streaming up that dock and eating the aphids. It was a mini ecosystem right there. All these little ecosystems are springing up now and you realise monoculture is so bad for us, bad for our eyes, bad for our ears. We just don’t need monoculture in our lives. We need the full sensory hit of everything happening in harmony. You just can’t predict what it’s going to be. 

So, yes, it’s been amazing for me to learn how to make a meadow. And I’m not a trained gardener, I’m not a grower; I love wildlife and I love birds. So to make a meadow and see the whole process through is fantastic.

Meadow at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre
Meadow at Mount Vernon Cancer Centre in July 2022. Photo: Vicki Brown / Centre for Sustainable Healthcare 2022. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0).

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