The Ins and
Outs of Planting and Maintaining a Wildflower
By Wendy Priesnitz
gardening is a landscape trend that has taken hold, whether you’re one of
the new generation of environmentally aware gardeners, or an established
green thumb who is looking for something new, a wildflower garden is a low
maintenance (eventually), attractive, and decidedly “green” style of
At the time of
year when we begin to think about what we want to do differently for the
next planting season, increasing numbers of people are researching how to
convert their mixed borders – or even whole yards – into wildflower gardens.
might not be as easy as you think. Many gardeners believe you can simply
scatter some seeds and wind up with a self-sowing meadow. In truth, starting
a wildflower garden is often more work than putting in a perennial border
and it is not necessarily self-perpetuating.
Aside from what
may be negative opinions of neighbors or municipal officials about the
“messiness,” many gardeners experience frustration growing wildflowers
because they have unrealistic expectations. The beauty of a wildflower
display is seasonal. These plants are exquisite during the blooming season,
but may look a little ragged once they have gone to seed.
gardens (perhaps better thought of as “meadows”) are not for everyone. If
your idea of a perfect landscape is one that is predictably clipped and
manicured, then wildflower plantings will probably not suit you. If, on the
other hand, you find great delight in a glorious display of nature’s most
beautiful flowers, and understand that you are participating in the
inevitable cycle of the seasons, then wildflowers are for you. You must also
are biennials and perennials, and will not bloom during the first year they
are planted. So unless you are prepared for a drab display this summer,
you’ll need to include some annuals – which can be both native species and
quick-blooming naturalized ones. If you allow the annuals to form seed heads
before mowing, in mild climates many will reseed to bloom during the second
year, along with flowers from the biennials and perennials.
Choose a site
with full to partial sun. It’s important to properly prepare the soil.
Remove all existing vegetation. If you’re planting a small area, this can
easily be done by hand. For larger areas, mow as low as your lawnmower will
allow. Water the area well and then cover the area securely with clear
plastic sheeting, leaving it to bake in the sun for up to two months. Future
maintenance will be easier if you rid the area of as many weed seeds as
possible before planting. Then till the soil to a depth of three inches.
mixes will tell you how large an area they cover. You can plan for four
pounds of seed per acre or four ounces per 2,500 square feet. Broadcast
evenly throughout the area to be planted. Most wildflower seeds are very
small. Mixing some sand in with the seed mixture will make it easier to
spread evenly. Rake lightly again after spreading the seed.
If you had the
foresight to prepare your wildflower beds last fall, or are replenishing an
existing wildflower garden, you can sow your seed very early in the spring
when the ground is just starting to thaw.
If live in an
area with no snow on the ground or if you’re planting later in the spring,
you will need to water during the germination period, unless you live in an
area where rainfall is over three inches a month. A light mulching with
straw or compost will help retain moisture and keep the birds from eating
the seeds. (Don’t use peat for these reasons.)
of Your Wildflower Garden
planting at the end of the first growing season. In bare areas or places
where perennials did not establish well, over-seed with the original mix, or
a different one if your expectations were not met. If you had more weeds
than wildflowers, start over by eliminating all vegetation and weed seed.
Mow or cut back
the entire area to a height of about four inches every fall after flowering
is over. Clippings can be left as a mulch or removed according to individual
preference. Some clippings should be left to help desired species reseed.
Clipping seed heads before they mature helps control species that are
becoming too aggressive.
By the third
year, your meadow should begin to take on a mature look and the perennials
should be well established. To continue to receive good color from annual
wildflowers, it may be necessary to re-seed every year.
Weeds and other
unwanted species will always be part of a planted wildflower garden, as
nature tries her best to follow natural succession. Of course, the
definition of the word “weed” is up for debate, but invasive species should
be dealt with quickly and mercilessly. Wildflowers grow densely and weeding
should be required less and less as the garden fills in. As you weed, sow
seeds of the original mix or annuals in the spaces left bare.
and Your Wildflower Garden
gardens are made of native species that have established themselves without
assistance from humans. A non-native plant (sometimes known as an “exotic
species”), on the other hand, has been introduced by human activity, either
intentionally or by accident. Then there are invasive species, which are
non-native (or sometimes native) plants capable of moving aggressively into
a habitat and monopolizing resources; in some cases, they are so prolific
that they create a biodiversity destroying monoculture. Some of these
“over-achieving” plants contribute to the decline of endangered and
threatened native species. Additionally, some studies that the fruit
produced by invasive plants are, in effect, the “junk food” of the plant
world and as such may not be as nutritious to local wildlife, perhaps
contributing to their decline.
species will be invasive in different areas. But many of our popular garden
plants fit the category, including Norway Maple, Burning Bush, Purple
Loosestrife, Japanese Honeysuckle, and Multiflora Rose. Since gardeners –
botanic gardens and home growers alike – are responsible for about sixty
percent of invasive species, environmentally aware gardeners should plant
native species only.
Native Plants and Climate Change
experts are telling us that global warming will result in the disappearance
of many of our local and regional plant icons, along with the related
tourism, products and ecological communities that depend on them. For
instance, maple/beech/birch and spruce/fir forest types are very likely to
be completely displaced by more southern forest types by the end of the 21st
century in New England and eastern Canada. And a study at the University of
Virginia suggests that in 25 to 35 years, Minnesota’s climate will be
similar to today’s climate in Kansas, which is drier and warmer than
Minnesota’s. Minnesota’s climate could even become more like current-day
Oklahoma, a scenario that would seriously threaten the future of native
prairie plants and grasses.
plant conservation strategy has been involved with protecting and managing
land. But now, some of the ecosystems that have been protected, such as bogs
and northern forests, could be eliminated and new invasive species could
take hold as the climate becomes more favorable to them.
Virginia researcher Julie Etterson says that native plants face two problems
that affect their long-term survival. One is the fast rate of climate change
and the other is that the habitat of native plants is often fragmented to
isolated islands between farms and cities, making it difficult for plants to
slowly migrate to areas with more favorable conditions.
plants will have to rely more on their evolutionary response to changing
conditions. And some won’t likely adapt quickly enough. “Climate change is a
complex and serious plant conservation issue with a profound impact on
plants and ecosystems,” says Gwen Stauffer, Executive Director of the New
England Wild Flower Society, America’s oldest plant conservation
the world are taking notice and planning for the future. The Millennium Seed
Bank project, initiated by the Royal Botanic Garden in Kew, in the U.K., is,
for instance, collecting and banking seed for ten percent of the native
flora in order to create an insurance policy against ecological loss or
garden that works with Nature, not against it, will be a rewarding project
that will not only be beautiful to look at but give you the satisfaction
that you are preserving our native plants at a time when they’re stressed by
development, invasive competitors, and climate change.
Johnson Wildflower Center native plants database
Society – UK
Native Plant Society
Propagating Wildflowers (The New England Wild Flower Society) by William
Cullina (Houghton Mifflin, 2000)
Encyclopedia of Wildflowers: An Organic Guide to Choosing and Growing over
150 Beautiful Wildflowers by C. Colston Burrell (Rodale Books, 1997)
Alternatives to Invasive Plants by C. Colston Burrell (Brooklyn Botanic
Native Plant Gardening in Canada by Lorraine Johnson (Random House of
Landscaping: Designing with Native Plant Communities by John Diekelmann and
Robert M. Schuster (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003)
Wildflower Guide by Lawrence Newcomb (Little, Brown and Company, 1989)
Guide series by Roger Tory Peterson (Houghton Mifflin, various dates)