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Growing Your Own Wildflower Garden

Growing Your Own Wildflower Garden

By National Garden Bureau
Photographs courtesy of National Garden Bureau

Wildflowers are one of Mother Nature’s loveliest gifts and a perfect addition to your Victory Garden 2.0. Their changing panorama of colors, shapes, sizes, and heights provides delight throughout the seasons. Wildflowers can be used anywhere. In the home landscape, they are ideal for creating colorful beds and borders, as well as offering a lower-maintenance alternative for large areas or replacing turf grass. Wildflowers can be planted to cover large, open areas or assist in the recovery of a landscape that has been damaged or destroyed by the actions of people, a natural disaster, or the spread of invasive plants. Add a wildflower garden as a border or fill a container of wildflowers and place by your vegetable garden to increase pollinator activity and beauty!

We asked our NGB member American Meadows to answer 15 FAQ on growing wildflowers. We hope that these answers will help you grow an amazing wildflower garden.

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1. Why should I plant a wildflower garden?

A garden of wildflowers offers benefits to both the gardener and the environment. Once established, properly chosen wildflowers require less maintenance than traditional landscape plantings which can mean less watering, fertilizing, pest control, and mowing. Some plants have deep root systems that prevent water runoff and soil erosion and enable them to withstand drought. Their growth also brings earthworms and beneficial soil microorganisms to enhance soil health. And colorful blossoms can be arranged into lovely, casual bouquets that brighten the home.

Flowers provide nectar and pollen sources for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators, while ripened seeds are a food source for birds and wildlife. Current research suggests that native plants and flowers might be more attractive to native bees. Even a small area in a garden or landscape planted with wildflowers that bloom at varying times throughout the growing season helps attract and support pollinators.

2. What do I need to know when buying my wildflower seeds?

Some wildflowers have very specific soil, water, light, temperature, and fertility requirements and won’t grow outside of a specific geographic range or set of conditions. Others are easier to grow because they have adapted to a wide range of environments. Does the plant like full sun, partial sun, or a shaded location? Will it require constant moisture or will the plant survive periods of drought during the year? Does the plant like rich, fertile soil or does it grow better in a poor soil with lower fertility? Choose plant varieties that are matched to the conditions of your site.

Many types of wildflower mixes are available from seed suppliers. Some mixes may be formulated to grow in a defined geographic region or climate. Other mixes have a balance of annual and perennial species to provide fast color and long-term beauty. Some mixes contain mostly annual flowers for a quick-growing wildflower garden. Not all of the wildflowers contained in mixes will grow in every garden but there are usually enough different types in each mix to provide a nice variety. Remember that successful wildflower gardens are created over many years as plants that are best adapted to your garden conditions become established and thrive.

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3. What flowers should I plant so I get flowers for the whole season? 

It is highly recommended to plant a wildflower mix from a reputable seed company. This is going to get you the most bang for your buck! When purchasing a wildflower mix, it’s important to know the exact species and the life cycles of the flowers in the mix. Any reputable seed company can help you in this process. When sowing seed, annual flowers are ones that flower and complete their lifecycle in the first/one season. When planting perennials from seed, they will not begin to flower until the second and successive seasons as they need to go through a dormancy period during the winter months once they’ve germinated. This is important to know so you can plan your meadow accordingly and set the proper expectations.

The most popular wildflower mixtures combine both annuals and perennials which will provide first-year color from the annuals (while also helping to suppress weeds and other unwanted growth) and perennials that will begin to flower in the second and successive seasons.

Another advantage of working with a reputable seed company is that most of their mixtures are already designed to give you color all season long. A nice wildflower blend should have 15-25 different flower species and some may also contain some native grasses.

4. What are the best shade wildflowers?

Shade can be a little tricky but not impossible. If you are planting from seed, you are going to need at least 3-4 hours of sun for the seeds to germinate. If you have this, you could start flowers from seed such as Jack In the Pulpit, Cohosh, Joe Pye Weed, Bellflower, Bishops Cap, Columbine, Asters, Meadow Rue, and Bergamot. Now if you get less than three hours of sun you will be better suited to buy plugs for plants to create your meadow as it would be too shady to start seed. Don’t let that discourage you. Many people have dense shade and are still able to add some shade-loving wildflowers to their garden. It may be a little more expensive when buying plants vs. seed, but the end results can be just as satisfying!

5. When tearing up a large portion of the lawn for growing wildflowers, what’s the easiest way to get rid of the grass and creeping charlie to plant the wildflower seeds in an open space?

There are a number of ways you could go about preparing a meadow area. The most common and quickest way is to till. You could also solarize the area with clear or black plastic (this will take a few months so plan accordingly), you could use a sod cutter or depending on how big the area is, you could just pull the existing growth or rough it up using a steel rake. Some may also use a chemical application but if you do use this method, please follow the instructions. Whichever method you do choose, we can’t stress enough how important it is to spend the time preparing the area. The better you can clear the area, getting rid of existing grasses, weeds and other unwanted growth, the better results your planting will yield, both in the short term and the long! Here are additional tips on planting your wildflowers.

6. Once I plant the seeds, do I need to cover them with hay or something else so the birds can’t eat them?

All the seed from a reputable seed company is 100% pure seed. That means you’re getting a lot of seed! In a ¼ lb. of one mixture, you will be getting approx. 50,000 seeds. The birds can feast all they want and it won’t have an impact on the outcome of your meadow. You could apply a light coverage of straw over your seeds once you’ve planted to protect them, but just make sure you keep it light as you still want moisture, sunlight and your seedlings to be able to penetrate and germination to take place. Unfortunately, some people will cover them too densely, smothering the seeds and hampering germination. In most cases, it is not recommended to cover and let the birds or other wildlife have a snack!

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7. I live in South Florida and very much want to have a wildflower garden. I currently have lantanas and about five host plants for butterflies but my “wildflowers” look more like unruly weeds that are being ignored … Help!!

There are plenty of wildflowers that would thrive very well in your Florida climate. Here’s a short list found at the Florida Wildflower Foundation which I would highly encourage you to check out. They have been pioneers in educating and providing information on wildflowers that are suited best for your warm growing climate: Milkweed, False rosemary, Tickseed, Goldenaster, Blanketflower, Blazing star, Skullcap, Twinflower, Sunflower, Spotted beebalm, Silver-leaved aster, Black-eyed Susan, Wild Petunia, Sage, Goldenrod, Rosinweed, Verbena, Senna, St. John’s wort and Aster. Most of these flowers can be found at a number of our NGB members.

8. We built our home on prairie land. Lots of sun. How much seed per feet or yard or acre does one plant wildflowers?

How much seed you will need for your planting will be determined by two key factors: #1 – How big of any area you are thinking/wanting to seed. #2 – The look you are wanting to achieve. Knowing the size of the area is very important in determining how much seed. Once you know that, you would align with the ‘look’ you are wanting. A little more dense, a little more seed. More of a ‘natural’ look, you will use a little less. Any reputable seed company can help you choose the proper amount.

9. How can I tell the weeds from the wildflowers? 

When seedlings are coming up, or still small, many people wonder how to tell the flower plant seedlings from the young weeds growing with them. Here’s how. Look around the area, and see if the suspicious plant is evenly distributed over your meadow area. If it is, it’s probably one of your wildflowers. If it’s just here and there, or in a clump or two, it’s probably an intruder from weed seed that was in your soil when you planted. (Weed seed is dormant in all soil.)

Later in the season, when you notice some tall, healthy weeds or grasses among your wildflowers, try not to let them bloom and seed. This means when they “top out” with seed heads on the plants (wheat-like seed plumes or tassels for most grasses) either pull the plants or cut the tops before the seed ripens. This way, those seeds won’t rain down into your flowers and be back next year in bigger numbers.

10. How can I keep my flowers blooming all season long?

One important consideration is water. If things dry out for long periods, blooms will be reduced, and with real drought, blooming can actually shut down. Most wildflowers won’t die, they’ll simply “wait for the water” and not bloom. So if it’s very dry, water when you can, even when your meadow is up and blooming.

As expert flower gardeners know, if you cut annual flowers, it forces more bloom. Here’s why. Since an annual lives only one year, it’s “purpose in life” is to create seed. If you remove flowers before they ripen into seed pods, the plant simply buds out and makes more flowers, trying to produce some seed.

This really works with some of the wild annuals. Of course, if you have a whole acre blooming, there’s not much handwork you can do! But many meadow gardeners do prune a small area or an area that’s near the house, etc.

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11. Can I cut flowers for arrangements?

This is one of the great joys of wildflower gardening. Unlike traditional flower gardens, where the removal of prized blooms ruins the “look” of the garden, wildflowers are so prolific, the ones cut will never be missed.

12. Can I plant more seed during summer? How about fall?

In most areas, yes. Summer is a perfectly good planting time. After all, nature plants wildflower seed all summer long, as flowers in the wild bloom, fade, dry out, and finally drop their seeds to the ground.

But heat and drying out make things more difficult for seed than the perfect cool, moist conditions of spring. If you plant during the summer, you’ll have to water more, and if it’s very hot, the seed may take a while to sprout. Sooner or later…in the cooler days of fall perhaps, the seed will probably begin its growth, assuming it has good contact with the soil.

Perennial seed can be planted anytime. But you should think twice about planting annual seed in mid to late summer. It’s better to hold your annual seed until after frost, then plant it, and you’ll have early germination come spring. (Fall planted annuals bloom about 2-3 weeks earlier than spring-planted seed.)

Click here for Full Details on Summer and Fall Planting

13. How do I care for my wildflower garden in the first year?

The first year is a time to help wildflowers get established. Not all seeds will germinate right away but may be waiting for the right environmental conditions before they begin to grow. This is especially true with perennial wildflowers so don’t get discouraged or be disappointed if you don’t have that instant flower meadow. For more immediate results you may want to combine seeding wildflowers with planting a few container-grown plants. Plants will quickly get established and compete with weeds that may appear. Be sure to identify and remove weeds when they are small to prevent them from spreading.

Depending on the needs of your wildflowers provide additional water if rainfall is sparse, especially during periods of extended hot temperatures. Avoid cutting all of the flowers after they bloom this year so they can go to seed. The seed will drop to the ground and spread to fill in your planting.

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14. What is the recommendation for the second year care for my wildflower garden?

During the second year, you may see new plants grow from seeds that didn’t germinate the first year. Water if rainfall is not adequate, especially in the spring. Additional water may be needed in the summer during extreme or extended periods of hot weather. Continue to remove weeds as they appear. As wildflowers become established the need to weed should taper off. Fill in bare spots with additional seed or container-grown plants.

15. How do I care for my wildflower garden the third year and beyond?

After the third year and beyond your wildflower planting should require minimal maintenance. Remove large weeds that may move in. You may want to move plants that have grown too close and are crowding each other. Use them to fill in bare spots or sow additional seed to cover those spots. Additional water may be needed in the summer during extreme or extended periods of hot weather. Fertilizing is generally not required. In a garden setting, you can mulch around established plants with compost or well-rotted manure.

Cutting or mowing wildflowers in fall to a height of about 6 inches will keep the planting looking neat and help spread seeds. Periodically disturbing the soil by digging or raking can also help regenerate a wildflower garden by creating good soil contact with seeds that have fallen to the ground.

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Photographs courtesy of Suntory Flowers

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