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Environment and Energy

King's College wildflower meadow

During the 16th Century, King’s College pioneered formal gardening in Cambridge, with its large, manicured lawns demonstrating wealth and opulence. It’s apt then, that in the 21st Century, King’s College is leading the way once again in converting a large swathe of Cambridge’s most iconic lawn into a wildflower meadow to support biodiversity.

Visitors in May, June and July next year will witness blooms of harebells, buttercups, poppies, cornflowers and more, stretching from King’s College Chapel to the river banks. ‘Keep off the grass’ signs will be cast aside and temporary paths will let visitors truly explore the new ecosystem. People won't be the only ones benefitting from this landmark decision to give the lawnmowers a rest, as the seed mix of native wildflowers has been specifically designed for King’s and will attract a whole host of insects.

Pollinating insects are crucial to healthy ecosystems, other wildlife and human food security. Since 1980, changing patterns of farming, the use of pesticides, a warming climate, and the destruction of wild habitats, have caused pollinators to disappear from 25% of the places that they were once found in Britain. The biodiversity meadow at King’s will play a role in helping to prevent further declines. Surveys conducted before the seeds were sown in October, and after the wildflowers have bloomed, will provide valuable data on species richness in this new meadow.

The transformation of one of the most well-known scenes in Cambridge signals the need for us all to reassess traditions and old habits to ensure a thriving, sustainable future. As Head Gardener at King’s College, Steve Coghill says:

“Wildflower meadow creation in this country has been around since the 1980s so it’s about time we got involved. Grass lawns are essentially monocultures so it will be incredibly rewarding to instead create a biodiversity-rich ecosystem to cherish and enjoy.”

The project was initiated by Geoff Moggridge 18 months ago and, after widespread support from the Gardens Committee and the Fellows of King’s College, Steve and his team worked with external consultants to make the meadow a reality. Perhaps counterintuitively, wildflowers don’t like nutrient-rich soil so across much of Britain, they thrive in the subsoil which tends to be nutrient-poor. Soil testing at King’s however, revealed that the unique history of the area has caused the reverse  the subsoil is richer in nutrients than the topsoil. In the mid-15th Century, the great lawn at King’s was the centre of Cambridge, bustling with student hostels, a monastery, a parish church, the college that became Christ’s College, a wharf and drinking inns. The nutrients from cess pits and dung heaps seeped into the subsoil and, centuries later, meant that Steve and the team could only sow the wildflower mix in the shallow upper layers of soil.

Germination of the perennial wildflowers and annual cornflowers has already begun, with lots more to come. An enviable trait allows the still-submerged seeds to effectively fill themselves with anti-freeze and wait until the worst of the frosts are over before breaking through. Once the wildflowers have finished flowering, they will be harvested for hay and the lawn mown once again. This isn’t the end of the story though, the seedlings wait patiently until the mowing stops in Spring 2021 and will burst into bloom once again, ready for another chapter in the history of Cambridge’s green spaces.