Fall is an ideal time to get a wildflower garden established. Wildflowers can be planted from seed or transplants, but sites that work for one species won't necessarily work for others.
More than 600 species of wildflowers are native to Arkansas, some quite common, others more rare.
There are wildflowers that bloom in different seasons and under different conditions. Wildflowers grace our roadways and scenic drives all across the state, but they will also do well in home gardens.
When choosing wildflowers (as with any plant for your garden) select plants that need the same growing conditions found in your yard — sun versus shade, good soil versus poor, wet versus dry. As with any garden, it all comes down to the right plant for the right spot.
Decide what type of garden you want. Do you want to intersperse some wildflowers in with your existing landscape or create a meadow or a woodland garden?
Make sure that you choose a variety of plants, with some that bloom in every season so you can extend the show. There are wildflowers that bloom as spring ephemerals — here today and gone tomorrow — while some bloom in the summer, fall and even in winter.
Once you have a plan in mind, prepare the site well.
If you have a yard full of weeds and grass, don't expect a packet of wildflower seeds to turn it into a parkland. The weeds and grass are quite competitive. You need to kill the grass and weeds that are in the area so that you reduce the competition factor.
Regardless of how clean the site is to start, weeds and grass are always going to be a concern, especially in sunny areas. With proper planning and maintenance, you can reduce the problem.
The larger the planting area, the more planning is required. Maintenance will be ongoing, as with any garden.
After the area has been cleared of weeds and grass, till the soil and lightly rake it. If your soil is poor, amend with compost before tilling and planting.
SEEDS VS. PLANTS
Starting your planting with seeds costs less but requires more diligence than using transplants.
If you're using seeds, fall is the best time to plant. Some seeds need a cold, moist chilling period called "stratification" before they will germinate. When you sow in the fall, the seeds get the stratification period naturally. There is usually ample rain in the fall and winter, which aids in germination and establishment.
Depending on the size of the area you are planting, you could hand-sow the seeds or use a broadcast spreader to sow them. A general rule is to put out 2 to 4 pounds of wildflower seed per 1,000 square feet.
Mixing seeds with sand can help you get better distribution. Three to four parts of sand mixed with one part of seed helps to distribute the seeds evenly.
Once you sow the seeds, make sure they come in firm contact with the soil. Lightly rake, or you can roll the area. A roller is an empty drum that you fill with water and roll over the planting area. The roller helps ensure soil-seed contact.
After you sow and plant, water well. Some gardeners try to plant just before a predicted rain. Beware: If the rain is heavy, seeds can easily wash away, particularly if your yard is sloped.
When choosing wildflowers, you want not only a good mix of bloom times, but also types of plant — from annuals and biennials to perennials.
◼️ Annuals are plants that grow, flower and die in one season but often over-seed themselves.
◼️ Biennials grow foliage the first season, then flower, set seeds and die the second season.
◼️ Perennials are plants that come back for more than one season.
Annuals and biennials must be allowed time to set seed and have that seed mature so they can reseed themselves in the wildflower planting. Perennials return from the root system but also can multiply by seed.
Having a mix of annuals and perennials ensures flowering in Year One. Seed-grown perennials might take two seasons before they have good blooms. Adding a few wildflower plants along with the seeds also can aid in establishment and give earlier blooming.
DO THE HOMEWORK
When buying wildflower seed it is helpful to buy from a source as close to where you live as possible, ensuring hardiness.
There are many wildflowers to choose from and there can be very different varieties in any one species, so do your research. Depending on where you are planting, you need to know mature size as well as bloom time and flower color of that particular plant. For instance, some types of sunflower are beautiful in the late summer/fall garden but can become quite aggressive and large.
If you truly want just natives, again, do your homework. Many wildflower books or reference guides list Queen Anne's lace and ox-eye daisy as Arkansas wildflowers. While it is true that they flank our roadsides, both were introduced plants from Europe that have naturalized in our state and can outgrow some of our native species of plants.
Wildflower meadows or large plantings are usually in sunny areas, but there are some great options for shade wildflowers. Think of all the plants you find when hiking in the woods.
Establishment from seed is possible, but it does take more time, since the seeds will be slower to germinate and could need more time to get to their blooming phase. If possible, consider starting with transplants in shade gardens, or a combination of seeds and plants, so you won't get discouraged.
Wildflowers are not just for a pasture or meadow. Many gardeners are growing a wide variety already — consider the coneflowers, coreopsis, milkweed, Joe Pye weed and asters already growing side-by-side with other flowers and shrubs. Interest in gardening to attract pollinators — bees and butterflies — has brought native wildflowers to many gardens.
SIZE AND MAINTENANCE
The size of your wildflower garden will determine its long-term care. Most home gardeners are not going to have large meadows or prairies, but many will add a few wildflowers interspersed in a flower garden that can be easily maintained with weeding, division and fall cleanup.
Large wildflower gardens can look a bit unkempt at the end of the growing season, but allowing plants to mature and set seeds is a required step to ensure good seed set for future generations.
Weed control is often the biggest challenge in any garden, and the same is true in wildflower plantings. Broadleaf weeds are a big problem, since anything that could kill a broadleaf weed will also kill your wildflowers. A good hoe and proper mulching can help.
Large acres of wildflowers are often maintained by controlled burning every few years.
Whether you want to plant a few wildflowers or an acre of them, now is a great time to plant.
Read Janet Carson's blog at arkansasonline.com/planitjanet.