As you travel our nation’s highways you often see areas along the highway set aside as wildflower planting areas. These wildflower plantings are no accident. After the Presidential election of 1964 Lady Bird Johnson decided to make environmental conservation a centerpiece of her efforts as First Lady. The Beautification Act of 1965 helped launch a campaign to clean up our nation’s highways and after her husband left office she continued to promote these causes which eventually lead to the creation of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in 1982. Growing wildflowers helps promote and protect native plants and you can replicate their beauty in your yard too.
While wildflower plantings can be a great substitute for a lawn or a way to control weeds they are not maintenance-free. Sustaining a wildflower garden in the long term requires planning and a little hard work. The first step in the process is to prepare the area you want for planting. This requires removing all of the grass in that area. There are a variety of ways that you can do this including mowing or cutting the grass as low as possible and then removing the grass by hand. My favorite way is to cover the area that you want to remove the grass from with weed block; a fabric that you can roll out directly on the ground and anchor in place with larger stones. I also put a layer of mulch on the weed block to keep it in place. I do this in the fall and over the winter the grass will die from a lack of light. Once spring arrives you can turn the soil and plant in that area.
Once you prepare the soil you are ready to plant. You can mix the seed with sand and then spread the seed and sand over the soil making sure to cover the entire planting area. Don’t turn the soil over again! Many wildflower seeds require light to germinate so you want to press the seed and sand mixture into the ground using a shovel, your feet or a piece of plywood. You can water the planting area and keep it from drying out until you see the wildflowers start to sprout. Most wildflower mixes including annual flowers that self-seed as well as perennials. The first year the annuals will bloom but the perennials may need the first year to get established and then bloom in year 2. Weeding in the first year is important so that the young plants aren’t competing for resources with the weeds. Over time this will become less of a chore.
After the first growing season in the fall you can mow the wildflower garden and put the larger plant pieces in your compost pile. You might need to chop these further to make them smaller so they will break down quicker. Once this growth is removed you’ll be able to see if there are any bare spots that may need to be replanted. A big question is when should you plant your wildflowers? It is generally recommended that in warmer garden zones 7 and higher that you start your wildflowers in the fall to give your plants a chance to develop a healthy root system before the heat of summer. In Northern zones you can plant in the spring when warming temperatures and ample rainfall will promote seed germination.
Finally, you don’t need a large area to plant a wildflower garden. While it is true that wildflower seed is usually sold in bulk it is also available in smaller seed packages. Make sure you get a mix that has plants native to your area and even the smallest planting space can yield beautiful flowers for years to come!