Success with WIldflowers
Planting a wildflower meadow in real life is a complex, difficult task. The seed companies will tell you, if you want a completely care-free garden with lots of color, just plant wildflowers. All you have to do is buy a seed mix in a bag or a can (they usually have a photo of a kaleidoscope of blooms on the front cover of the seed packet), and then scatter the seeds on the ground. Then wait for the magic to happen. The ad representative for wildflowers has been very busy the past couple of decades spreading misconceptions about wildflower meadows. I don’t think there were any marketing conspiracies. It’s just that we all hope and wish it were true, and we have seen evidence of the self-sufficiency of wildflowers. We’ve seen amazing outcroppings of colorful flowers sprouting and flourishing on their own in abandoned lots. We’ve seen native primrose plants germinating in cracks in street gutters. If wildflowers are so tough, then why can’t we simply purchase a mix of wildflower seeds and cast them onto the ground and let the garden fairies do the rest? In reality, a self-sustaining wildflower plot requires planning to work well in the field.
The definition of a wildflower is not clear. Wildflowers and weeds earned their reputation by adapting to local conditions without any help from humans. They come, invited or uninvited, and naturalized themselves. The distinction between a naturalized wildflower and a weed is a fine, subjective line. Naturalized species are typically called wildflowers if they are pretty, and are called weeds if they are awkwardly out of place. Botanists can be very fickle! A wildflower mix you purchase at a garden center is typically mixed with invasive species that happen to have a decent bloom. Most of the successful germination you see from an inexpensive wildflower mix is from the invasive plant seeds. The results of a planting of a canned mix will most likely be Queen Ann’s Lace, Cornflowers, and Oxeye Daisies. The more refined species do not establish easily when merely tossed on bare ground.
It helps to understand that wildflowers and weeds vote every year on which species will be the dominant presence. There is nothing as a designer you can do to influence the vote. Some species may even decline to run for office because they just aren’t in the mood at the time. It is a grand mystery, and this is why working with wildflowers can be truly fascinating! It is also why wildflower seeds are typically sold as a mix. Each year, different soil structures, seed banks, climate, and moisture differences influence the performance of different wildflower species.
Wildflowers are not naturally showy and proud. They prefer to whisper, “I’m beautiful,” rather than shout, “Look at me!” The only way you can get a substantial pop of color from a plant classified as a wildflower, is to artificially plant it by the thousands in the same manner as a row crop, in big fields of single-species plots. When using wildflowers in large, homogenous blocks, the plants look great during the few weeks of bloom, and like weeds the rest of the year. On roadsides, with very harsh environments, wildflower plots typically last a single season and need to be replanted every year.
State departments of transportation do a wonderful job of establishing wildflower meadows on our roadsides. States like Georgia attempt the task using the very minimal amount of herbicides possible and using non-disruptive drill-seeding planting methods. Other states might use extreme fumigation techniques and till plots before planting. Wildflowers on the roadsides are typically impossible to establish without some assistance with reducing weed competition with herbicides. Roadside weeds like Johnson Grass over-power disturbed soil and awaken in newly-planted plots to decimate baby wildflower plants. Large roadside plots are typically planted in single-species fashion to be visible when travelers drive past them at 70 MPH, using pretreatment of the soil to prevent competition from invasive plants.
If you decide to plant a wildflower meadow, then these tips will help you be successful:
• Accept the new, messy aesthetic that a wildflower plot will bring. Provide a clean, turf mowing strip around the plot to keep it from looking weedy.
• Rather than disturb the soil, try top-seeding the area with fresh, weed-free and preferably sandy soil in a light layer about ¼ deep. This will provide good contact for seeds and might help mulch out weed competition.
• Provide some frequent hand-maintenance of established seeded areas to remove or spot-treat competing weeds before they are able to set seed.
• Purchase seeds from sources that sell by the species rather than in mixes, so you control what flowers are seeded.
• Choose species you see growing nearby. Keep your choice to only one or two species.
• If you have the unusual opportunity to purchase seeds from a local grower, then pay the extra cost to do this. It is a good thing to do for about 50 different reasons.
• Mix a nurse grass in with the seeds you plant, but not too much! Keep the rates low—maybe 2 lbs/acre for nurse grasses.
• A good rate for many wildflowers is about 8-10 lbs/acre, but for a one-time blast of color, state departments of transportation might bump that up to 20-25 lbs/acre. You wildflowers will be healthier and last longer if you use moderate rates.
• Plant in the fall or early spring for more cold-tolerant flowers. For warm-season flowers, wait until the soil temperatures are reliably above 72 degrees
• Schedule maintenance for your plot. For perennial species, plan on mowing the area shortly before the flowers go to seed, to prevent them from over seeding the plot. OR, you could let the flowers progress to the point the seed heads just begin to change color, harvest the seed heads, and start a new plot somewhere else. Then mow the area and remove most of the plant debris to prevent pests and disease.
• Remember, when you are working with wildflowers, you are farming a meadow. Unless you live in a prairie state, plant succession will turn that meadow into brambles quickly unless you artificially maintain the plots by mowing them before each growing season and after the flowers are spent.
• Keep wildflowers tucked alongside the edges of woodland areas so they have a green backdrop and can show off their color.
My vote is for wildflowers every year! Their complexity and independence is part of their beauty and fun.