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Today's Garden

Timely Tips on the Greening of America from the National Garden Bureau

(Note: Some edits have been made by the Plant Conservation Alliance in italics.)

Nothing beats Mother Nature. And many gardeners consider wildflowers to be among Nature's loveliest gifts. They are carefree and simple, abundant and serendipitous. In prairies and meadows they provide a changing panorama of colors, shapes, sizes and heights. It is the informal spontaneity of wildflowers, and the mixture of colors and species, and the changes that occur as the growing season progresses that make them so delightful to the viewer. It is no wonder that wildflowers have become popular with home gardeners.

Today, growing wildflowers is easier than ever. Unlike past decades when finding sources of wildflower seeds or plants was difficult, today's marketplace abounds with choices, often right at local nurseries and garden centers, and always through the many mail order sources. To help gardeners in their selections of wildflowers, National Garden Bureau has prepared a two-part series (of which this is part one) about wildflowers. With so many choices available, better informed gardeners will make better informed selections and may expect better success. This information on wildflowers is intended for use in gardens, not on public lands or along public roadways


Simply put, wildflowers are flowering plants that grow in their natural state with little interference from man. They are often bred or cross-bred the way hybrids and other cultivated annuals and perennials may be, and generally may be considered "natural" because they grow in open fields without someone planning where they should be planted. Wildflowers may vary a fair amount in coloration, plant size and plant habit. This natural variability is a desirable quality, providing the interest and one of the reasons why wildflowers are so popular.


One of the many appeals of wildflowers is their low-maintenance need. Designed by Nature to tolerate natural growing conditions, once established, wildflowers usually require less attention than more "cultivated" types. In other words, if they are adapted to the climate and elevation of the site, they will probably need less water, less pruning, little if any fertilizer, and little pest control. Another appeal is their less formal nature - within a species wildflowers may vary greatly as to height, plant shape and coloration. As their name implies they are more "wild" than "tamed," and should be appreciated for it. Choosing to grow wildflowers can be as spontaneous as picking the first wildflower plants or seeds you see at a nursery, garden center or in a mail order catalog, or as selective and informed as you want to be.


Deciding which wildflowers to grow in your garden depends on where you live and where in your garden you want to grow the wildflowers. Plants well-suited to the Southwestern United States will do best in that climate and elevation, and wildflowers that prefer six to eight hours of sun each day will do their best with that amount of light. Read seed packet and plant label descriptions carefully to avoid disappointment. Many perennial wildflowers will not perform at their best until after they have been established in the garden for a year. A number of wildflowers are also biennial meaning that they bloom the second year and die, and some wildflowers are annuals, and you have to plan on either replanting the following year or count on the plant reseeding itself in the garden.

Wildflowers can be purchased as seeds or plants, as a single species or in mixes. It is important to note that a botanical reference to genus and species is given in wildflower listings - wildflowers do not usually have true variety names. Often plants will have common names, but these can be different from one area of the country to another. Centaurea cyanus, for example, is commonly known as "Cornflower" and also as "Bachelor's Button." When choosing wildflowers it is best if you know the botanical names of what you want, and then check the packaging. By law, wildflowers must be listed by genus and species.


There are also a number of easy-to-plant and grow wildflower products that can add to your ultimate success. If you want only a few specific wildflowers, purchasing growing plants or buying seed packets may be your best choice. Started plants offer you the advantage of avoiding the germination stage and may give you a better idea of what a plant really looks like.

Mixtures are a popular way of purchasing wildflowers. Please make sure you check the plant species in your mixture to assure that none of them are state-listed noxious weeds. Companies from out of state often do not know which plant species are noxious weeds within different states. Some species may be highly invasive and aggressive in one state and not in another. While there are started-plant mixtures available, seed mixtures are among the most common combinations. Mixtures offer the advantage of combining a wide range of species that offer the opportunity for a full season of color and growth. Mixtures also offer the free-form look of varying heights, sizes and colors, one of the natural appeals of wildflowers.

There are also regional mixes that may be designated as "Midwest Mix," "Southern Mix," "Northeast of (New England) Mix," etc. These mixes are usually clearly designated for a certain region. They have been specially blended with annuals and perennials suited to a particular growing area, which takes some of the guess work out of what will grow where. If a seed or plant mixtures is available at a local retailer, you may want to do some research on the species listed. Make a list of the species and check a garden reference. Some wildflower mixtures are also available in special color mixes featuring plants that produce flowers in shades of a specific color such as reds, blues or whites, or a combination of specified colors such as pastel shades. (Check your see catalogs and local retailers.)


From seed packets to innovative packaging, wildflowers are available today in a wider variety of products than ever before.


Seed packets offer choices in individual species as well as mixes. You can elect exactly what you want. Seed packets also offer you the opportunity to blend your own custom mix.


Individual plants of wildflowers are often available at retail outsets and through mail-order catalogs. The advantage is that you can get right to the growing-on stage.


Often looking similar to the cylindrical boxes of a well-known breakfast cereal, rounded containers of wildflower seeds are becoming more common in retail and mail-order outlets. These usually contain a wide range of wildflowers and are often blended for specific regions of the growing conditions such as sun or shade mixes. When you read the contents label you may see a high percentages of "inorganic" material such a s vermiculite. This is an important ingredient because it aids in spreading the seed evenly, especially if you are seeding a large area.


Some seed suppliers are offering wildflower mixes that come in mat form. These mats (size vary by supplier) are like thin pieces of carpet, and are impregnated with a mixture of seeds. The mats may or may not contain growing nutrients as well. The advantage of mats is that they are easy to handle (no loose seeds to spread around), they can be cut to fit circular and irregularly shaped beds, and basically all that has to be done is to keep them well watered until the plants have begun to grow (always read the directions). The mats are often made of a wood fiber material, are biodegradable, serve as a mulch to help keep down weeds, and will eventually disappear into the soil. Again, please avoid mixtures that contain plants on your state's noxious weed list!


A newer innovation in wildflower planting is the development of started, growing plants that look like a piece of sod. The plants are well established, and the "sod" is simply placed on prepared soil and kept watered. The sod can be cut apart and the pieces spaces out in a bed, and like mats, these can be cut to irregular shapes easily. The distinct advantage is that they offer plants that are already growing.

As the growing season approaches, it's time to think about going a little wild in the garden. For more information about seed suppliers, contact the National Garden Bureau, Suite 310, 1311 Butterfield Road, Downers Grove, IL 60515. Ask for a list of the Bureau members.

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Last updated: 18-May-2005