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    Garden Planning: Wildflowers Garden

    Authored by Leah Chester-Davis

    Wildflower gardens are becoming more popular. They particularly have appeal for those who love a beautiful, natural-looking landscape and are interested in providing habitat for small animals. Pollinators such as bees, moths, and butterflies love them and so do many birds. Many wildflowers are native plants, but wildflower gardens may contain a mix of any plant that grows with little care. It can include annuals, biennials, and perennials.

    While it may seem that planting a wildflower garden is as simple as spreading a wildflower mix, you will first need to prepare your garden site, and that takes time whether you plan to start with a small space or an entire meadow. Wildflower gardens can take as many as three years to look their best. Here is a guide to get you started.

    Choose your wildflower garden site

    Most wildflowers will be happiest in an area that receives full sun through most of the day. An open area with little to no shade is best though there are wildflowers that are suited to shady areas. Your site will dictate the type of plants that will thrive there.

    Consider your region

    When it comes to any plant, it is best to select ones that are best suited to your location. Use your plant hardiness zone as a guide when selecting plants.  

    Keep in mind plant requirements

    Some wildflowers are drought tolerant while other plants prefer moisture. Some like well-drained soils while others can handle poorly drained conditions.

    Prepare your wildflower garden soil

    Even though an established wildflower garden may look as though you scattered a lovely mix of seeds, it is important to start your garden by preparing the soil. Start with a soil test four to six weeks before planting. Soil test results will guide you in knowing what you may need to add to your soil for optimal wildflower growth. For wildflowers, you will need a soil pH ranging from 5.5 to 7.

    As a guide for getting your ground ready, it’s important to get rid of any existing grass or weeds. This can be rather daunting if planning a large wildflower meadow but there are a few ways to tackle this task.

    • One option, according to University of New Hampshire Extension, is to cut the grass as close to the ground as possible. Rake off excessive clippings and create a smooth surface. Lay sheets of thick, 4- or 6-mil black plastic, an opaque tarp, or a thick layer of organic mulch over the area. The objective is to keep sunlight from hitting the area so that weeds cannot grow. Leave the soil covered for at least three months in warmer seasons to allow any grasses and weeds to be smothered. For smaller spaces, some folks spread a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard over the ground to suppress any weed growth. Cover the paper or cardboard with mulch. Plastic, mulch, or paper are desirable routes for those wishing to avoid using any type of herbicide. When you remove the plastic and mulch, you should have bare ground. If needed, rake away the debris and plant your seeds. New Hampshire Extension advises that there is no need to plow or add more compost.

    • For a field that is already cultivated, or one in which you want to use the cultivation technique, repeat the cultivation process two or three times to continue suppressing germinating weeds. This method may be less effective with grasses. The key is to cultivate in two- or three-week intervals to disrupt weeds. With this and other methods, make sure to allow time to work the ground enough so that weeds and grasses can be adequately removed so the ground will be ready to receive your wildflower seeds and not have to compete with weeds and grasses.

    • The use of herbicides is yet another route. Clemson Extension recommends mowing the area closely. When the regrowth reaches 6 to 8 inches high, spray with a nonselective postemergent herbicide containing glyphosate according to label directions. After 7 days to 2 weeks, cultivate the soil. If green vegetation is still present, make a second application of the postemergent herbicide. Don’t plant seeds too soon after any herbicide application as it may prevent seeds from germinating. Depending on the herbicide, you may need to wait a few weeks.

    Other soil considerations:

    • Avoid using topsoil as an amendment because it may contain weed seeds. 
    • Avoid overuse of fertilizer.
    • When planting moisture-loving woodland flowers in shady areas, be careful when preparing the soil around trees to avoid damaging tree roots. Add 1 to 2 inches of rotted leaves or peat moss to help retain moisture. 

    Selecting wildflower seeds and planting

    Numerous wildflower seed mixes are available. Look for mixes that are suited to your region. They likely will specify if they are for the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, or other region. Mixes that contain native perennial wildflowers are preferable. A helpful resource is the National Suppliers Directory, a database of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

    If you would like to create your own mix, contact your local extension center, plant nursery, or botanical garden for ideas on plants suited for your area. Michigan State Extension recommends including annuals to provide bloom during the first year as most perennial species spend the first year developing root systems instead of flowering. Fast-establishing perennials are another option for early results. Coreopsis and Rudbeckia are two great choices that grow across many regions.

    Avoid chemicals

    Your wildflower garden will be a welcomed habitat for bees and other pollinators. Avoid spraying insecticides or other chemicals nearby that are harmful to them. 

    Reap the benefits

    Wildflower plantings offer many benefits. While they are beautiful, they also can enhance and support the pollinator population, a benefit not to be underestimated. Pollinators are necessary for numerous crops. 

    According to Michigan State Extension, wildflower plantings can help stabilize soil and reduce erosion. They also can improve local surface water quality through better infiltration and reduced runoff.

    Exercise patience

    It takes time to establish a wildflower garden. The first year or two while it is getting established may be lackluster in terms of appearance. If you’ve prepared your site well, selected a good mix, and kept weeds under control, by year three you should have a wildflower garden that will keep both you and the pollinators happy.