Travel almost any roadway in our region during the summer or fall, and you'll be treated to a colorful display of wildflowers. Although the spring "ephemerals" (those can grow, bloom then die back) of woodlands such as trillium are wildflowers too, it is those of meadows we often think about first. It is these that the National Garden Bureau are promoting in 2013 as Year of the Wildflower (www.ngb.org). If you'd like to duplicate the wild in your own backyard, here are some guidelines for seeding a wildflower garden.
The most important part is the planning. You need to think about selecting suitable species, soil preparation and environmental requirements for germination and seedling establishment. Taking the time to plan now will allow you to enjoy the benefits of your labor later when plants are established and require little maintenance. You don't have to devote a huge parcel of land and recreate a meadow. Wildflower gardens may be a bed or border or may be used to replace small areas of turfgrass.
The first step in starting a wildflower area is choosing an appropriate site and matching plant species to environmental factors such as climate, rainfall, pH and type of soil. Whenever possible, try to select native species as they often perform better than non-natives (which you may see called "aliens" or "exotics"). Native species generally are more beneficial to pollinators and beneficial insects too.
Try to select species for bloom through the season. Some good choices for the Northeast are Eastern red columbine, swamp milkweed, lanceleaf coreopsis, oxeye sunflower, blazing star, wild bergamot, common evening-primrose, lupines, stiff goldenrod, smooth white beardtongue, black-eyed Susan, three-lobed rudbeckia and New England asters. Some that we commonly see along roads in fields, such as the blue chicory and white Queen Anne's lace and oxeye daisy, actually are not native. They came from other temperate areas originally and have become naturalized in North America.
Seed mixes that contain non-native species such as California poppies may sound appealing, but after the first year, these species will no longer germinate, leaving space for undesirable plants to grow. Research also supports a higher rate of germination and survival for native species, an important factor in establishing wildflower gardens. You can find much more on native plants, lists and sources from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center (www.wildflower.org).
Determining a species' desirability as a backyard plant is also important. Remember, your wildflower garden will become part of your landscape. Ask yourself if the species you are considering has desirable characteristics such as showy vegetation or attractive flowers. Does it have a good root system? Or is the species a poor choice because it is considered a noxious weed, such as purple loosestrife (Lythrum), which is actually banned in some areas?
If making a small garden, you can find and plant potted perennials during the summer from many specialty nurseries. Early autumn's typically cool, wet months makes that the optimum time to sow seeds for next spring's wildflowers. Some species germinate in the fall, and this gives them time to establish a root system and grow into leafy rosettes before overwintering. Other seeds may require the winter cold to break their dormancy before they will germinate. Seedlings can establish more easily in late summer or early fall without the competition from weeds. Use summer to get the site prepared.
You will need a good seed bed, just as you do when you are planting a vegetable garden or establishing a lawn. Rake out all debris and stones to prepare a smooth surface for planting. A common myth is that wildflower seeds can be scattered to the four winds on unprepared soil, and they'll produce a lovely patch. Not so.
Broadcast seed uniformly over the seed bed, cover with a light sprinkling of straw and push the seeds in firmly. Then water gently. Fertilization, in most cases, does not benefit the plants and can cause excess vegetative growth at the expense of the flowering.
Next spring, help your garden along by weeding out unwanted plants and weeds. Your garden will also benefit from an application of fertilizer, either organic or commercial, to provide extra nutrients to the growing plants.
Finally, be patient! Time is needed for your wildflower patch to become established, but once it is, it should reward you with continual blooms with some, but minimal, maintenance. You can find more on establishing and maintaining wildflower meadows in a companion article.