Natural Life Magazine

How to Grow a Wildflower Garden
by Wendy Priesnitz

wildflower gardenAldo 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 butterflies.

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 you.

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 species.

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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 maintenance schedule:

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 seed.

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.


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