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Success with WIldflowers

If you want a completely care-free garden with lots of color, just plant wildflowers, right? 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. Then scatter the seeds on the ground and wait for the magic to happen.

The PR representative for wildflowers has been very busy the past couple of decades spreading misconceptions about wildflower meadows! I don’t think there were any conspiracies. It’s just that we all hope and wish it were true. Amazing outcroppings of colorful flowers sprout and flourish on their own, and native plants germinate 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?

It makes sense, but in reality, establishing a self-sustaining wildflower plot is a very complex task! I’ll try to distill all the intricacies into plain talk to help you produce a real-life wildflower experience that will work well in the field.

First, it is important 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. It’s complicated. It is a grand mystery.  This is why working with wildflowers can be truly fascinating, and why wildflower seeds are typically sold as a mix. Each year, climate differences influence the performance of different wildflower species.

Next, different soil structures and compositions effect performance. Not to worry, though. Wildflowers earned their reputation by adapting to local conditions without any help from humans. Some didn’t even originate in the local region. They came, invited or uninvited, and naturalized themselves. The distinction between a naturalized wildflower and a weed is a fine line. It is a subjective judgement. Naturalized species are typically prettier, and weeds are awkwardly out of place. Botanists can be very fickle when labeling them.

Third, 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 this way, the plants look great during the few weeks of bloom, and look like weeds the rest of the year. On roadsides, with very harsh environments, wildflower plots are planted this way and typically last a single season. They need to be replanted every year.

Finally, the definition of a wildflower is about as clear as the definition of a native plant. A wildflower mix you purchase at a garden center is often mixed with invasive species that happen to have a decent bloom. And, usually, the only successful germination you see is from the invasives within the mix. The result of a planting of a canned wildflower mix will most likely be Queen Ann’s Lace and Oxeye Daisies rather than Butterfly Weed and Gayfeather. By choosing specific native species adapted to your soil and climate situation, you by the pound, you can create a custom mix. The cost can sometimes be less than a pre-mixed alternative. Large roadside plots are planted in single-species fashion in order to be visible when travelers drive past them at 70 MPH.

You probably have faced planting challenges with smaller plots on commercial and residential sites. Establishing wildflower plots on the scale required for roadsides increases the complexity. Talk with experts that work specifically with wildflowers on roadside projects to get help with incorporating them into your landscape designs. State departments of transportation do a wonderful job of establishing wildflower meadows on our roadsides. States like Georgia attempt the task using the least amount of herbicides possible and using non-disruptive drill-seeding planting methods, while other states might till plots before planting and use extreme fumigation techniques. Wildflowers on large sites are typically impossible to establish without some assistance with reducing weed competition. Weeds like Johnson Grass over-power any disturbed soil and awaken to decimate baby wildflower plants. Plan on fighting a constant battle with invasive weeds.

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.

Real-life Wildflower Plots