How to Grow a Wildflower Garden
by Wendy Priesnitz
Aldo Leopold wrote, “Our ability to perceive quality in
Nature begins, as in
art, with the pretty.” The growing popularity of landscaping with wildflowers
can be traced back to the simple fact that wildflowers are pretty. They are also
part of the current awareness of the importance of growing native plants to help
preserve biodiversity and attract endangered pollinators like bees and
However, many people find wildflowers difficult to grow. According to the
American Seed Trade Association, the frustrations experienced in growing
wildflowers stem from 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. As a part of Nature, they
are also part of the inevitable cycles of the seasons. Whether the season is
delineated by temperature or rainfall, wildflowers will naturally be more
spectacular during one part of the year than another.
By understanding what a wildflower garden is and how it changes throughout
the year, and in subsequent years, you will find new pleasure in growing
these hardy, pretty flowers. And you will find ways to design your wildflower
garden so that it fits in with your neighborhood year 'round.
Meadows occur naturally in many parts of the world – wherever the climate can
support a combination of grasses and wildflowers; yet some limiting factor
prevents the area from turning into a woodland. In many northern locations,
including North America, the best known
naturally occurring meadows are found in the mountains, where altitude and
temperature extremes prevent the growth of trees and shrubs. It is this type of
meadow that we often try to imitate in our home landscapes.
At lower elevations, a wildflower meadow most closely resembles a grassland.
A grassland or meadow is often a transitional state in the natural evolution to
a forest or woodland. Grass and wildflower seeds are naturally among the first
kinds of plants to grow in an open, sunny spot. If left undisturbed, frequently
larger species such as shrubs and soft wood trees begin to grow, completing the
next stage of what scientists call “old field succession.” Plants of the final,
or climax, state vary from ecosystem to another, and may include species as
diverse as prairie grasses and oak trees.
Wildflower meadows are not for everyone. If your idea (or your neighbors') 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
During the first year, annuals offer a spectacular display of colors.
Depending on the combination of wildflowers planted, you may have full bloom
from annuals and growth from biennials and perennials, which will not bloom
until the next year. Annuals included for first year display are usually both
native species and some quick blooming, easy to grow, naturalized or non-native
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
biennials and perennials. Weeds and other unwanted species will always be part
of a planted wildflower meadow, as Nature tries her best to follow natural
succession. When present in a wildflower planting, weeds should be dealt with
quickly and mercilessly. Prevention, of course, is the best answer, and weeding
will be much easier if you rid the area of as many weed seeds as possible before
planting. As you weed an existing meadow, sow seeds of the original mix or
annuals in the spaces left bare.
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 help Nature out by reseeding every year. Watering to help
seedlings develop a good root system, weeding out invasive plants, and periodic
mowing of the area will always be necessary to keep your meadow looking good.
The American Seed Trade Association's Wildflower Group suggests the following
1. In year one, before you seed, install an irrigation system or provide
adequate water. Prepare the soil by removing all existing vegetation. Till the
soil to a depth of three inches, or scarify the top surface.
2. After seeding, irrigate as needed. When rainfall is less than three inches
per month, provide daily moisture during the germination period, and one-half
inch per week thereafter during the growing season.
3. Mow the entire area every fall after flowering is over. Clippings can be
left as a mulch or be 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.
4. Evaluate your 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
If you live in the city or suburbs, you might want to plan for something
less than a full-fledged wildflower meadow. In that case, there are more
ideas for native plant gardens in the "similar articles" sidebar
above and to the
right. No matter which type of wildflower
garden you choose, you'll be able to enjoy the prettiness that Aldo Leopold
wrote about, learn more about the workings of Nature, and provide a source
of food for those all-important pollinators.
Wendy Priesnitz is Natural Life Magazine's co-founder and editor.