These days, sustainability is one of the biggest buzzwords permeating our culture. Seems like the recent attention given to global warming, in particular, has made us more aware of how our lifestyles impact our environment.
Yet in this industry, which depends so heavily on natural resources, it’s often difficult to focus on sustainability, even though we know it’s essential to our survival. Water is a prime example of a much-touted resource that needs to be managed carefully. Still, we have to use a certain amount of it to keep our trees and plants lush.
As the industry evolves and takes on greater accountability, sustainable practices such as Xeriscaping, or using native and drought-tolerant plants to reduce water usage, have gained importance. One way to practice Xeriscaping is to plant wildflowers. Using less water, wildflowers can dramatically punch up the color palette of a landscape. Picture the sprightly pink of a marsh milkweed or the inverted, triangular shape of a glade coneflower. No longer resigned to mountain meadows or dark woods, these unique plants fashion a striking, less structured take on landscaping.
And unlike some traditional ornamentals, wildflowers are well adapted to their respective climates. Properly managed, wildlife species can enliven a space for years to come. These hardy blooms are accustomed to making do with whatever sun, soil and water Mother Nature provides. This means less maintenance and usually no fertilizer, which alleviates the impact on the earth. Beauty and sustainability— what could be better?
When preparing to introduce new plants into any area, the biggest variable is, of course, the site itself—the soil and any current landscaping into which the wildflowers must be incorporated. As Willow Springs, Missouri-based Easyliving Wildflowers asks on its website, “Do you have a limestone glade, a wet bog, open woods or prairie? Will direct sunlight be available to the plant for the full day, part of the day, or not at all? Is the area low-lying, where water will be readily available, or is it located in a high, dry spot? These evaluative steps should be done very methodically to allow you to match the correct plants to your area, plants that will thrive in the conditions provided.” Weather, insects and aggressiveness of surrounding plants can also affect the chosen plant’s ability to thrive among other vegetation.
Planning should account for the flowers’ bloom times and heights. According to Nate Elfner, owner of Elfner Landscape & Organic Lawn Care in Delaware, Ohio, “You can get the same color palette with wildflowers as you would with traditional species, but you have to plan ahead and get a mixture of species that will bloom at different times, giving balance to the landscape.” He says, “The plant’s ultimate height must be kept in mind, too. If you plant a 12' plant next to a window that’s 4' off of the ground, you’ll have a problem.”
Grow Native!, a joint program of the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) and the Missouri Department of Agriculture (MDA) in Jefferson City, Missouri, recommends developing a focal point, using a mixture of bold and fine textures to avoid looking messy, and planting two to four species in broad sweeping masses or drifts that repeat throughout the planting area. It also suggests incorporating native grasses into the area to control weeds, as native grasses develop dense fibrous roots that prevent weeds from getting established. Grass will help keep the flowers upright as well.
When it comes to choosing the actual species, shoot for native varieties to ensure good results. Native plants are generally defined as those that grew in a specific area before European settlement. “If you use wildflowers native to an area,” explains Karl Hildebrand of Wildscapes Native Landscaping in Centerburg, Ohio, “they’ll be adapted to the climate and soil type. They’ll have a better chance of survival.”
Do some research on what wildflowers thrive in different areas of the country. Consult a field guide or your local nursery to ensure that the flowers are wild—not your experience of trying to germinate a species that won’t take.
How to tell a good seed (or plant) from a bad one
To ensure successful germination, you will need to first verify the quality of seed or plant. According to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, Texas, purity and germination are the most important indicators of good seeds. Together, these two indicate what the center calls Pure Live Seed, or PLS. Generally, the higher the PLS, the better the quality of the seed, but each component should be examined separately.
“Purity measures the proportion of pure seeds versus other items such as noxious weed seeds, the seed of other crops and inert matter such as chaff and broken seeds, in a given sample,” explains the Center in “How to Buy Wildflower Seed in Bulk.” With regards to germination, quality seeds have higher germination percentages, meaning that a higher proportion of seed will germinate in a seed-testing laboratory under optimal conditions. However, the Center cautions, “Germination may be low for some seeds because of an impenetrable seed coat or other germination inhibitors. Many seeds, especially wildflower seeds, have built-in dormancy mechanisms.” Still, seeds that don’t germinate initially may do so at a later time.
While you can’t estimate a seed’s PLS just by looking, viable seeds will usually be plump and firm. If you’re not able to visit the seed supplier in person and look over the seeds, talk to the supplier before making any sort of purchase. Although many suppliers offer a variety of seed mixes, the Center recommends making your own or asking a reputable dealer for a custom blend to make sure that each species is inside its natural range.
Paul Albright of S&S Seeds in Carpinteria, California, adds, “In developing seed mixes—whether for cover crops, revegetation, erosion control, landscape color or any other purpose—compatibility of species is important to consider. For example, we won’t use alyssum in a mix because it tends to dominate.”
Many species can be found only in seed form, but container-grown live plants, sometimes called plug plants, can work well in smaller areas. Elfner generally uses perennial plugs for residential work in the 4,000-8,000 sq. ft. range. “The plugs ensure good root mass,” he explains, “and that way there’s something to see right after planting.” Live plants may be too costly for large spaces, but if you want to incorporate wildflowers into a smaller space, look for plants that appear strong and have good branching structure.
Many species are best planted in the fall, when the time is right to break seed dormancy. During this time, wildflowers do not have to compete with weed seeds. This gives the wildflowers a chance to establish themselves before weeds germinate in the spring. Another advantage to fall planting is an earlier bloom. However, spring and summer are also suitable planting seasons, depending on the species, weather and the region.
Once you’re ready to plant, bear in mind the golden rule of seeding: seed-to-soil contact is paramount. Most wildflowers thrive in loose, well-drained soil. “The competition from native grasses has to be reduced as much as possible,” says Albright. “But there is no way to eliminate all of the different types of plants that will fight your efforts to grow wildflowers. The best you can hope for is a managed kill of germinated seeds. Winter weeds and grasses can be germinated with irrigation in the fall. If the growth periods of summer and winter grasses can be made to overlap, both can be killed simultaneously with selective herbicides. It is likely, however, that only the winter grasses can be killed this way. A second kill of the summer grasses using the same technique of early germination in the spring may also be necessary. Wildflowers seeded in late summer will then have a better chance to germinate and emerge in the spring.”
Removal of any existing weeds is also important. Remember that weed seeds lay dormant underneath the topsoil, so if you remove too much soil, you increase their chances of flourishing. Hand-weeding, solarization and herbicides can all work well. “Getting rid of all weed seeds that will germinate will increase your growing luck,” says Hildebrand. As soon as all weeds are tamed, you’re ready to start planting.
Generally, little or no pretreatment of the soil is needed. Once you have removed competing vegetation, it’s time to seed. Both hand sowing and sowing with a mechanical seeder are accepted methods of seeding. For larger areas, a seeder can cover more territory in a shorter amount of time. Experts advocate mixing anywhere from four to 10 parts sand (not beach sand) to every one part seed. This will provide a visual reminder of the areas that have been seeded, as well as reduce clumping and help spread the seeds more evenly for better growth. After seeding, compress the seeds into the soil to facilitate good soil-to-seed contact. Tramping or using a lawn roller can do the trick. Then water the area immediately afterwards. This is crucial for germination. If rainfall is scanty, you will have to irrigate for four to nine weeks to keep the ground moist until the seedlings are established. “At the end of nine weeks, the wildflowers should be well established and won’t need more than occasional watering during the dry season. Extra watering will prolong their blooming,” according to Albright. However, mulching to control weeds and stabilize the planting may be necessary.
If you’re planting a live flower, follow nursery guidelines and plant it as you would most perennials. To create a more natural look, plant in a less calculated arrangement rather than in strict rows, advises the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in “Gardening and Landscaping with Native Plants.” Dig a hole larger than the root ball, fill the hole with the loose dirt and align the pot soil line with the ground.
Some maintenance required
While wildflowers are a sustainable solution, some maintenance is required once the flowers bloom. According to Albright, “Plants will sort themselves out according to their location based on a lot of factors. . . . The problem arises with weeds that dominate—such as star thistle, tumbleweed and annual grasses, and some much uglier plants. If you want to see the flower, you’ve got to control these weeds.”
Weeding gives wildflowers room to grow. American Meadows, a Williston, Vermont, wildflower gardening web retailer, says on its website to weed soon after the flowers come up. “One good way to spot young weeds is by ‘clumping.’ If you see a clump of a particularly fast-growing plant, which is not evenly appearing over your meadow area, that clump is probably a group of weeds. After all, you sowed your seed evenly, and if these plants are just here and there, they’re intruders, so pull them while they’re young.” Hand weeding and herbicides (following the manufacturer’s instructions) can rid the area of weeds once they have reached heights of about 6". An organic option is corn gluten, which Elfner uses. “The corn gluten prevents weed germination. We usually apply 20 lbs. per 1,000 sq. ft.,” he says. After one or two years, “the wildflowers will choke out the weeds, although you may have to continue to do some hand weeding.”
Annual mowing eliminates vegetation that can invade wildflower areas. It also allows the flowers to reseed and grow back healthy the following spring. American Meadows recommends a late-fall mowing. Mowing to a height of about 6" is ideal, although most wildflowers won’t grow taller than this during the first year.
Another option is doing a controlled burn of a larger meadow area, but this technique requires vigilance and usually a permit as well. Under the right conditions, burning can enhance growth. Under the wrong conditions, burning can inhibit it or damage surrounding structures. Only experienced contractors should attempt this. In addition to weeding, remove faded flowers by cutting any flower stalks that have finished blooming. The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center says that “clipping seed heads and branch tips encourages fullness and longer bloom periods for many perennials, although it may sacrifice some seed production.” And as the area fills out, the Center adds in “Wildflower Meadow Gardening” to reseed in order to seal bare spots or introduce new species to the established mix. To make the most of reseeding, be sure to implement proper weed control.
Sustainability isn’t just a fad; sustainable techniques are designed to last. Protecting our resources doesn’t have to mean sacrificing beauty, however. Create something beautiful that you, your children and grandchildren can enjoy. Go a little wild—with wildflowers!