Why wildflowers prefer poor soils

4 min read

wildflowers prefer poor soils

Why wildflowers prefer poor soil – I’m a gardener who happens to be married to a farmer.  Ever since I can remember, I have been taught about improving soil. I need better and more productive plants.  Until now.  Now that I have been bitten by the wildflower bug, I’m learning that not all plants like rich soil.

Horses for courses

The best way I can explain the difference between wildflowers and what we’re used to growing in our gardens is to use an analogy from the world of horses.

Centuries ago, man took a liking to wild horses and he domesticated them.  Through generations of selective breeding, he produced all sorts of different horses that he could use in different situations.  Tough little Shetland ponies to help haul coal out of the mines.  Gentle giants that could pull a plough. Graceful carriage horses for transporting lords and ladies in style. Elegant racehorses built for speed but not much else.  The list goes on.


These racehorses are a bit like well-bred flowers – their metabolisms have changed so that they are dependent on high quality nutrition.  These beautiful creatures could never thrive in the wild.  Conversely, wild flowers cannot thrive on nutrient rich soils.

Horses for courses…

So most of these different types of horses need careful diets to keep them in good shape.  The thoroughbred is an athlete.  Uniquely, a racehorse can not live out on the moors all winter eating heather and gorse.  To say nothing of the oats, maize, bran and molasses. A carefully balanced diet of proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals is what they need.  Similarly, a working carthorse won’t thrive on grass. An Olympic shot-putter can’t survive on pop-tarts and pasta.

The wild horses of Dartmoor, Exmoor and the New Forest however, are small, tough, and built for survival.  Consequently, their woolly winter coat means they don’t look as good as the fella who advertises that bank on the TV. But equally, they don’t need stables and rugs in the winter.  Furthermore, their bodies are fine-tuned to make the very best of what little they have.  If they are overindulged with rich grass and supplements they become ill.

Wild plants and wild horses need simple diets

Man has bred food crops and flowers that do best when they are well fed and sheltered from inclement weather.  Do our hybrid tea roses look lovely after a rainstorm? No.  Do wild dog roses look awful after bad weather? No.  I rest my case.


Wild flowers create a colourful display in poor quality soil.  To recreate this look in your garden, replace the top 8cm of soil with some low nutrient topsoil and grow Meadowmat or seed in it.

Just like those wild ponies who are effectively poisoned by “good” nutrition; wild flowers have very simple needs. They are just not equipped to deal with artificially boosted nutrient levels.

Years of farming and gardening have redefined our soils

Man has been improving soil probably since he started farming.   The earliest farmers would probably have noticed their fields yielded better crops when manure was added to the soil.  Equally, over the centuries soil science and plant nutrition have become big business. Very few stones have been left unturned.


Buy wildflower seed low fertility soil
Buy wildflower seeds Buy low fertility soil
What does that mean for wildflowers?

So, apart from very few inhospitable areas – like moors, bogs and beaches – most natural soils in the UK have been enhanced.  Think about it.  If land has ever been farmed, gardened, intensively grazed or used for leisure, it will have been improved.

Simple tips for preparing your soil for wildflowers

So, wild flowers don’t need excessively rich soil.  If you want to grow wildflowers in your garden…..

  • Buy a testing kit and find out how much phosphorus is in the existing soil – aim for a level of less than 26mg/litre – ideally it should be less than 10mg/litre but this is awfully hard to achieve.
  • Don’t add fertiliser
  • Steer clear of manure
  • Avoid mulch
  • Do scrape the top layers of soil away and replace them with low nutrient soil
  • Think about growing in a raised bed filled with low nutrient soil
  • Do tailor your seed-mix to the soil conditions

More articles about wildflowers and soil types

Wild flowers for clay soils

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