The best friend on earth of man is the tree: when we use the tree respectfully and economically we have one of the greatest resources of the earth.
Who of us at one time or another has not envisioned transforming our chemical- and mower-dependent lawn into a carefree wildflower meadow? The fantasies can be hard to resist, particularly with seed companies promoting instant wildflower gardens in a can, sack or roll.
But if you think you need only scatter the seeds upon the ground, rake lightly, and wait for your garden to become saturated with colorful blossoms, attracting a plethora of rare and beautiful butterflies and hummingbirds, you’re in for a rude awakening.
The Harsh Reality
In reality, starting a wildflower garden (also known as a “prairie” garden) can be more work than creating a perennial border. Once established, a wildflower meadow may be virtually maintenance-free. But first, you must invest some time in planning and preparation.
Site Is Important
Choose a full-sun location (minimum six hours) for your wildflower garden. It need not be irrigated, but should at least be within hose-dragging distance, at least until the plants are established.
Also, consider placing it away from areas that are frequently tended, such as lawns and vegetable plots. That way, your garden will remain natural and undisturbed.
Weed Control Is Key
Weeds are a wildflower’s biggest threat. (Of course, only you can determine what is a weed and what is a wildflower.)
The best way to control weeds is to remove all existing vegetation. According to the University of Minnesota Extension Service, if you try to scatter seeds or plant seedlings into existing vegetation, your likelihood of success will be very low.
One way to remove existing vegetation (and perhaps the most eco-friendly method) involves “solarizing” the soil. To do this, you need to wet the soil thoroughly, then cover it with sheets of clear plastic, pulled tight, and staked down. Remove after six to eight weeks.
Once the vegetation is dead, you can treat it like compost. So you can plant directly into it or mound soil on top of it. Either way, it will eventually disintegrate. (Do not rototill the soil. Most experts advise against tilling at all, as it brings up weed seeds and pathogens lying dormant in the soil.)
A Time to Plant
Buy wildflower seed mixes that contain species known to grow well in your region. For Wyoming, these would include: Poppy, Candytuft, Columbine, Coneflower, Blue Cornflower, Daisy, Black-Eyed Susan, Red Coreopsis, Sweet William, Mountain Garland, Larkspur, Flax, Firewheel, and Rocky Mountain Penstemon.
Unless you have a very large area for your garden, requiring a seed drill, you can broadcast your wildflower seeds by hand. Be sure to mix the seeds with a lightweight, inert material (such as sawdust or peat moss), and roll the site with a mechanical roller for good seed contact.
After seeding and rolling, you can apply a light covering of clean, weed-free straw or marsh hay. (Never use field hay–it contains too many weed seeds.) The straw will help retain moisture, prevent soil erosion and increase seed germination. It’s particularly helpful on dry, sandy soils. Be sure the straw just lightly covers the soil surface; some soil should be visible through the straw.
Then, be sure to water the seedlings regularly throughout the first season until they’re established.
A few other wildflower planting tips:
- To create a natural meadow effect, plant flowers and grasses together. The dense root systems of the grasses will dominate the upper soil and help to squeeze out the weeds.
- Use shorter flowers and grasses in small gardens. The short grasses (such as Little Bluestem, Side Oats Grama, and Prairie Dropseed) will form clumps that leave room between them for flowers.
- To create high impact, plant flowers in masses of color.
- Select plants for a succession of blooms throughout the growing season. (The grasses will also continue to provide a show in fall and winter, after the flowers are gone.)
Once your wildflower garden is well established, you can finally reap the rewards of a beautiful, low-maintenance meadow — without fertilizers, irrigation or (especially) pesticides. Even during severe heat and drought, your well-planned wildflower garden should continue to thrive.
Here’s a little additional inspiration from some folks “down under”: