Late summer is prime time for wildflower meadow displays. You can see them most prominently along many interstate highways; some are installed along hiking and biking trails. They are the haute couture of roadside design, adding a lovely focal point to an otherwise featureless spot, and, because they are rarely mowed, lower the cost of road maintenance. They also provide habitat for birds, butterflies and lots of other creatures -- and they come back every year.
All of these qualities are desirable in a home setting as well. Who doesn't want low-maintenance, dependable flowering and plenty of birds and butterflies? You don't have to have a prairie-sized yard, either. A small sunny patch, a side yard or a bright corner will do.
Despite the availability of several kinds of flower mixes in a can, or flower mats, establishing a wildflower meadow or 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 found in nature. They're usually a mix of grasses, annuals and perennials growing in open, sunny fields.
Meadows can occur in many forms. There are alpine types with mostly small plants, such as dwarf woody trees and shrubs that are mixed with wildflowers. There are grazing meadows, such as those found in England and Scotland, that consist primarily of native grasses and are used for pasturing livestock. (Our modern lawns evolved from these meadows.) In the Midwest, areas of naturally growing flowers, small shrubs and grasses are called prairies. Here on the East Coast, they're called wildflower meadows.
For planting, native wildflowers are best, because they've adapted to growing in the area. And meadows should almost always be planted from seed. This type of installation will appear more natural as it matures and is far more affordable than using plants in pots that are placed randomly around the area.
There's not much of a science to deciding which wildflowers you will want, because you will be limited to the species that thrive in your soil and region. If you're using a prepared mix, check the list of plants to make sure there's a good variety of natives. 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.
Be happy for the colorful displays without concern about blending specific colors. Your meadow should become a dynamic mix of colors as one variety fades and another opens. This type of landscape is an informal coordination of blooms, not a tightly controlled flowering border of specific colors at precise times.
One technique that makes the planting look more natural is to plant several areas in groupings or drifts of a single species, so it looks as if they colonized the area where they're growing. If you buy pre-mixed seed, also purchase three or four species separately to plant in drifts. Sprinkle heavier concentrations of each of these seeds in several areas of the meadow.
Another rule of design is to make the planting look as if it belongs there. When I'm designing a landscape, I look at all the other landscapes in the neighborhood and try to include several of the same elements in my design. 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.
Then you can sow sunny patches of wildflowers in concert with the other plantings. That way your landscape design will fit the neighborhood. A meadow might also fit other parts of your property -- a sunny corner to the side or back yard where it will look more at home than at the front door.
The first and most important step to installing a wildflower garden is to create a site where it can thrive. You need full sun, as well as a clean, weed-and-grass-free spot, devoid of all competing vegetation. Once you have marked out your location, spread black plastic or another weed barrier fabric over bedding areas. Do this now. Stake it down, and leave it on until next June, just before planting. This will become your meadow.
Another method of controlling fall, winter and spring weeds before planting next summer is to spray the designated meadow area with a nonselective herbicide, such as Roundup or Kleeraway Systemic Grass & Weed Killer. Follow labeled directions and treat anything growing in the area three times: once in the next couple of weeks, again in April and again 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 of an inch to a quarter of an inch in depth. Spread your seed over the area.
Wildflowers establish much more slowly than lawn, so generally annuals are combined with perennials to give a quick cover and keep down competing weeds.
If you are seeding on an embankment, you might want to add several native grasses, and you should stake down an open mesh biodegradable fabric that will hold the seed in place and allow the wildflowers to grow through. Do not spread the same type of fabric you used to control the weeds.
The next step is to be patient. It takes a year or two before the meadow is producing properly. You should mow it annually in early spring before new growth starts. (Compost the debris.) The area will benefit from the open sun as it grows back.
If you don't have a lot of sun, you can still plant a "wildflower" area. However, shade-tolerant wildflowers are impractical to install from seed. You should plant them as container nursery 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 parts in spring; and also for foliage interest, arrow-leaf ginger (Asarum arifolium), with silver, mottled, arrow-shaped leaves; and bluestem goldenrod, (Solidago caesia), which blooms in fall.
Shade-tolerant wildflowers usually grow at woodland edges, and prefer the kind of dappled light and naturally composted soil found there. Some like even moisture, and some grow in bog-like conditions. It might be a good idea to put them in two to three areas of the garden to start and see how they perform. If some plants are struggling, move them to a sunnier, evenly moist location and replace them with more of the plants that are thriving.
There's been a huge surge of interest in using native plant varieties in recent years, and most states have native plant societies where you can get more information. In this area, you can check out Web sites at www.mdflora.org and at www.vnps.org. Your local cooperative extension service can also offer advice on plants and planting for your area.
Joel M. Lerner is president of Environmental Design in Capitol View Park, Md. E-mail or contact him through his Web site, www.gardenlerner.com.
Cleome grows worldwide and often is found in wildflower meadows.