unspecified-2If you have a patch of reasonably sunny soil, you can start a wildflower garden this fall! It’s simple to do and very rewarding, whether you use it only for a season or decide to dedicate that portion of the garden to wild flowers. Attractive to butterflies, bees, and other pollinators, wild flowers add natural beauty to the landscape, are easy to grow, and re-seed themselves generously every year.

The term “wildflowers” usually refers to native North American flowering annuals and perennials, but you can also consider any plant that comes true from seed — that is, produces new plants from seed that look just like the parent plant — a wild flower. Just look for varieties that have a genus and species but no trade name, such as Asclepias tuberosa (the species of Butterfly Weed) rather than Asclepias tuberosa Gay Butterflies (a cultivated variety, or “cultivar” of the Butterfly Weed species). Strains, such as Rudbeckia Goldsturm Strain, will also come true from seed. And any variety that is described as “open pollinated” will also produce new plants from seed that look just like their parents. Here’s a quick list of tried-and-true reliables:02045-pk-p1

Of course, you can always use a wildflower seed mix, which will bring you a dozen or more species. One of our favorites is Bee Buddies, a pollinator-friendly blend that seems to work well from one end of the country to the other.

Now that you have some idea of your choices for a wildflower garden, let’s get to planting it! Here’s what you need:

  1. Seed of your chosen varieties

  2. Clean white sandbox sand (also known as builders’ sand)

  3. A rake and a few gardening hand tools for uprooting weeds and rocks.unspecified

Next, prepare your spot. You have probably chosen an undeveloped area of the garden, and it is probably undeveloped because the location or soil (or both) aren’t conducive to plant growth. So before you plant, you will need to work the top few inches of soil. You can do this with a tiller, but that will go much deeper, and may create as many problems as it solves by agitating weed seeds which will sprout like crazy. (Part of the reason you want to plant your wildflower garden in fall is to avoid rampant weeds immediately sprouting in the soil you have disturbed.)

Instead of tilling, try this: dig up any obvious weeds and remove rocks and other impediments (broken cement, old knotty roots, etc.) in the soil. If the area is smallish, run a garden fork through it several inches deep until it pulls smooth. If it is larger, rake it deeply until the top few inches are loose. Then smooth it out so the soil is reasonably level, without pockets and hills that will cause water to pool and run.

51430-pk-p1If the soil is extremely dry, water it thoroughly and then wait a day or two before planting. Otherwise, don’t worry about its moisture level.

When it’s time to plant, take all your seeds and mix them with an equal amount of clean white sandbox sand. Then divide the mixture into two groups. Note: plant wildflower seeds the way Nature does: by the thousand.  You are broadcasting seed, with the expectation that one in every 10, or even 100, seeds will sprout. This is why flowers each contain so many seeds; most will never germinate.

Place one group of the seed/sand mix in a can or bucket and walk in straight lines back and forth across your planting area, dropping the seed/sand evenly onto the soil as you go (if the garden is big enough; if not, just drop the seed/sand mix in straight lines while remaining to one side of the soil). Then take the other group of seed/sand and repeat the process, but at right angles. In other words, if you walked north/south and south/north with the first group, walk east/west and west/east with the second. In a smaller patch, if you dropped the seed/sand in straight lines with the first group, drop the second group in straight lines that crisscross the first. You are creating a lattice effect to cover the ground evenly, and the white sand serves to mark where the seed has landed.00078-pk-p1

When you have dropped all of the seed/sand mix and the planting area looks pretty evenly white, you want to sink the seeds into the top of the soil. You won’t cover them with soil; you’ll just walk lightly over them, or press a board on top of them and then walk on the board. If you are planting a very large area, a lawn roller works well for this.

Now comes the hard part: do nothing. You will want to mulch the seeds, or strew hay over them as you would grass seeds, or at the very least rake away all those dead leaves that blow over on top of them. When you see birds pecking away at the soil, you will want to shoo them off and then replant seeds where they have eaten. When a torrential rain arrives, you will want to repeat the whole planting process. Resist. You knew you were going to lose a lot of seed when you did this; it’s the way of wildflowers, and you have planned for it. Leave the seeds alone until spring, taking only one precaution: try not to walk on the wildflower garden, because this will compact the soil and degrade the seeds.

unspecified-3In spring, you will see wildflower sprouts earlier than you expect. (You will also see weeds, which you can carefully remove as soon as you can tell what they are.) Do not thin or move any seedlings, but do pay attention to water. If you have a dry spring, water the little seedlings as soon as they begin to look stressed. Otherwise, leave them be. Many people even abandon weeding once the plants are large enough to fend for themselves; the choice is yours. If you have planted a wildflower mix, new varieties will appear at different times in spring, instead of all at once. Generally, you will have a dense planting that never needs any plants added or removed (they will self-select if crowded).

To keep the wildflower garden going for seasons, just remember not to walk too much on it in fall, when the new seeds have fallen, and to water the tiny new seedlings in spring if conditions are dry. Otherwise, it is self-sufficient!unspecified-1

Oh, one last note: the best time to sow your wildflower garden is after a frost in fall. It can even be a hard frost. You want to disturb the soil late enough that you won’t stimulate the growth of either weeds or newly-sown wildflowers. Also, in winter the garden is dormant, giving seeds the vernalization (cold spell) that some of them need, and preventing other growing plants from choking them out. If you can, wait until you have had at least one good frost before sowing your wildflower seeds.

If you like, please send us pictures of your wildflower garden at any stage in the process. We’re excited to hear what you planted and how it’s coming along!

 

About Sappho Charney

Sappho Charney is a garden writer living in Lubbock, Texas.

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