With Wildflowers, Plan and Prepare Well Before Planting

By Joel M. Lerner
Saturday, July 18, 2009

Summer is prime time for wildflower meadow displays. You can see them along many interstates and along hiking and biking trials. They are fashionable in roadside design, adding lovely focal points to otherwise featureless areas, and, because they are rarely mowed, they lower the cost of road maintenance. They provide habitat for birds, butterflies and other wildlife, and they reappear every year.

These qualities are desirable in home settings, as well -- who doesn't want low-maintenance, dependable flowering and a profusion of birds and butterflies? You don't need a prairie-size yard, either. A small, sunny patch, a side yard or a bright corner will do.

Despite the availability of a variety of wildflower seed mixes, or flower seed mats, establishing a wildflower meadow or wildflower garden is not an instant process. If you want one, now is the time to start planning for next summer.

Meadows are generally created to mimic those in nature. They're usually a mix of grasses, annuals, biennials and perennials growing in open, sunny fields. They can occur in many forms. Alpine varieties grow in mountainous regions with mostly small plants such as dwarf woody trees and shrubs mixed with wildflowers. There are grazing meadows that consist primarily of native grasses and are used for pasturing livestock. In the Midwest, areas of naturally growing flowers, small shrubs and grasses are called prairies. On the East Coast, they're called meadows.

Wildflowers are usually native plants. Local flora is best, because it's already adapted to growing where it's being planted. Meadows are almost always sown from seed. This type of installation will appear more natural as it matures and is far more affordable than using plants in pots, which have to be placed randomly around an area.

There's not much of a science to deciding what wildflowers you'll have, since you will be limited to the species that thrive in your soil and region. If you're using a prepared seed mix, check the list of plants to make sure that there are a variety of natives that prefer the soil type and climate where they are to be planted. Several examples that will do well in this region are black-eyed Susans, purple coneflowers, butterfly weeds, goldenrods, coreopsis, wild and sulphur cosmos, gaillardias and cleome.

Don't be apprehensive about blending colors. Your meadow should become a dynamic mix of colors as one flower fades and another opens. This type of landscape is an informal coordination of blooms, not a tightly controlled flowering border of specific colors that bloom at precise times.

One technique for a more natural look is to plant several areas in groupings, or drifts, of a single species so it looks like they colonized spots here and there. If you buy premixed seed, include three or four seed varieties to plant as monocultures that will serve as drifts. Sprinkle heavier concentrations of each of these seeds in several areas of your meadow.

Make plantings look like they belong. In most areas, there are not a lot of front-yard wildflower meadows; lawn is usually the common denominator, along with mature flowers, shrubs and trees. A good design should include all of those elements. Sow wildflowers in sunny patches of other parts of your property -- a sunny corner to the side or back yard -- where it'll look more natural than at the front door. That way your landscape design will fit the neighborhood.

The first and most important step to installing a wildflower garden is creating a site where it can thrive. You need a full-sun, weed- and grass-free spot, devoid of all competing vegetation. Here are two methods for preparing your site for wildflowers to ensure the least amount of weed competition when it's time to plant.

Once you have marked your location, spread clear plastic or weed barrier fabric over bedding areas. Clear plastic encourages germination and suffocation of weed seeds as they grow. Do this now. Stake it down and leave it until next June, just before planting. This will become your meadow.

The other method for controlling weed competition requires an herbicide treatment this summer, fall and next spring before planting in summer. Spray the designated area with a nonselective herbicide containing glyphosate, such as Roundup or Kleeraway Systemic Grass & Weed Killer. Follow labeled directions and treat only the greenery of actively growing weeds. It is advised by wildflower growers that, if you are not covering the area with a clear plastic sheeting or other fabric, spraying should be done four times: now, in the fall, again in April of next year and 10 days before seeding, let's say June 1.

About the first or second week of June, when you remove the weed barrier fabric, or about 10 days after your last spraying, loosen the soil surface an eighth- to quarter-inch in depth. Spread seed over the area, and keep it moist until it germinates. This is the best time of the year to sow wildflower seed because you will have much less competition from weeds.

Wildflowers establish much more slowly than lawn so generally annuals are combined with perennials to offer a quick cover and keep down competing weeds.

If seeding on an embankment, you might want to add several native grasses and stake down a biodegradable, open-mesh fabric that can hold the seed in place and allow the wildflowers to grow through.

The next step is to be patient. It takes a year or two before the meadow is producing properly. Mow it annually in early spring before new growth starts. It needs a lot of sun to grow back.

If you don't have full sun, you can still plant wildflowers. However, shade-tolerant wildflowers are often impractical to install from seed. These should be planted as container stock, root pieces or bulbs. Plant them in groups of three to 10.

Some shade-tolerant native wildflowers that come to mind are: great white trillium (T. grandiflorum), a popular perennial with spring flowers; meadow anemone (A. canadensis), which is tolerant of some sun; Jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) with interesting-looking green, mottled, purple spathes in spring; Asarum arifolium, with silver, mottled, arrow-shaped leaves; bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), which flowers white often before it leafs out in spring; wood poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), which will cover a forest floor when happy; and Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), a local favorite with pink buds that open to blue flowers and colonize areas quickly in this region.

Shade-tolerant wildflowers usually grow at woodland edges and prefer the kind of dappled light and naturally composted soil found there. Some like moisture, and some even grow in bog-like conditions. It's a good idea to place them in two to three areas of the garden and monitor how they perform. If some plants are struggling, move them to a sunnier, evenly moist location and replace with more of the plants that are thriving.

There's been a surge in interest in using native plant varieties in recent years, and most states have native-plant societies where you can get more information. In the Washington region, check out http://www.mdflora.org and http://www.vnps.org. Your local cooperative extension service can also offer advice on flora and how to plant in your area.

Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, http://www.gardenlerner.com.

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