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Look no further than wildflowers and native grasses, according to Miriam Goldberger, author of the book Taming Wildflowers (2014; St. Lynn’s Press).
“Wildflowers are, without exaggeration, the unsung heroes of the planet,” writes Goldberger.
To learn more, I contacted the wildflower expert, who co-owns Wildflower Farm, an amazing 100-acre flower seed farm in Ontario, Canada. Over the years, Goldberger has planted, harvested, sold and designed flower arrangements with thousands and thousands of wildflowers. Here’s what she had to say:
Question: What exactly is a wildflower?
Answer: Wildflowers are native or indigenous plants, which have grown and evolved to be tough enough to withstand extreme conditions. Some wildflowers thrive in clay; others in pure beach sand.
These native plants don’t need fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides or watering to perform well. At the same time, these beautiful wildflowers attract many diverse varieties of birds, butterflies and good bugs to your property.
Question: What type of gardens should have wildflowers?
Answer: Wildflowers belong in every garden. With so many types available, wildflowers can be incorporated into any size and style of garden – even formal ones.
These wildflowers and grasses are just as lovely as any non-native species. For instance, these attractive Yellow Coneflowers shown above can reach 5 feet tall, making a dramatic backdrop to shorter plants.
Many gardens require regular fertilizing, watering, weeding, pruning and deadheading, but established wildflower gardens with native grasses require little (if any) of this work. These plants are spaced closely together, so they reduce the number of weeds that can germinate in your garden.
Question: What’s the best way to get started?
Answer: It’s a lot easier and less expensive to choose wildflowers that thrive in your natural conditions. Consider these three questions:
1) What is your soil type?
2) What are the natural sunlight conditions?
3) How much moisture does this area get naturally?
For more information www.wildflowerfarm.com has a simple, step-by-step seed selecting guide to help you find plants that will thrive in your growing conditions. There are other resources out there as well. Find one you like and start browsing.
Question: Can small-space gardeners also plant wildflowers?
Answer: Absolutely. Even tiny urban gardens can grow wildflower gardens.
Generally, we suggest one plant per square foot. But in a small garden, you can plant as close as one plant per six inches. Always consider the size of the mature plant, however, so you can give your garden room to grow.
Remember these basics:
- Choose small plants (height and width) for small spaces.
- Keep in mind your vantage points; don’t hide short flowers behind taller ones.
Question: What about containers?
Answer: Many wildflowers do well in containers, such as spring-blooming Shooting Star; summer-flowering Black-Eyed Susan; and fall-blooming Sky Blue Aster (shown above).
I recommend planting wildflowers in containers with a minimum depth of 12 inches. For a really dramatic look, plant a single species of native grass, such as Big or Little Bluestem in a beautiful 14 to 20 inch deep container. Remember that containers dry out faster than your garden so water regularly.
Question: How is planting seeds for wildflowers different than for other flowers?
Answer: Most hardy, perennial wildflowers need cold, moist stratification. They need the cool, wet conditions of winter to break down the seed coat and allow for germination. But as I reported in Taming Wildflowers, there are several simple ways to facilitate this process, even if you don’t have snowy, cold weather where you live.
Annuals do not need this process, which is why you can sow seeds in spring and they will bloom by the summer. However, annuals have short life spans, because they need to get everything done in one year: germinate, flower, produce and distribute seeds.
With long-lived North American perennial wildflowers, there won’t be any flowers the first year. The plants put the majority of their energy into producing deep roots to source water and nutrients from this new home. Your patience will be repaid, however. Once established, these wildflower meadows can last many decades.
Question: What about fall and winter interest in the garden?
Answer: Many wildflowers look great in fall and winter too. Some bloom later in the season, such as New England Asters or Showy Goldenrods. Other wildflowers form attractive seed heads.
Always leave wildflowers and native grasses standing throughout winter. These plants not only look attractive, they provide food and shelter to winter birds, beneficial insects and other wildlife.
In fact, cutting down your wildflower garden in the fall can endanger beneficial insect species and hurt your changes of seeing their beautiful adult forms come the following spring and summer. These insects provide valuable food for birds, bats and even other insects.
Question: Do wildflowers make good cutting flowers?
Answer: Yes, many native wildflowers make great cut flowers, both fresh and everlasting! Spiderwort and Purple Coneflower are some flowers that last 10 days in a vase. Pasque Flower and Prairie Smoke seed heads last for months in arrangements. Native grasses such as Big Bluestem and Indiangrass are great for the vase, and when dried, are virtually everlasting.
Many native flowers dry in a funky sort of twisted shape that I love. The daisy-shapes (Lanceleaf Coreopsis, Sweet Black-Eyed Susan, Ox-eye Sunflower, etc...) dry in different shapes and make for interesting additions to everlasting projects.
Question: What has surprised you the most about wildflowers?
Answer: I first loved wildflowers for their great beauty. I fell further in love with them, when I learned that they make great cut flowers. When I realized that our precious pollinators need wildflowers in order to survive, that became a call to action for me. That’s why I hope for every gardener to include some wildflowers in their landscape.
Learn more about wildflowers and the book Taming Wildflowers by visiting www.wildflowerfarm.com.