How to Plant and Maintain a Wildflower Meadow


From Eric Larson, director of Yale’s Marsh Botanical Garden, for Garden Clips.  Enjoy many more videos at Garden Clips on Youtube.

Today we’re going to talk about wildflowers. Here in New England when a forest is disturbed, either by lightning strike or man-made activity, openings in the forest occur and the first species that come into that situation are called “pioneer species”. It starts with herbaceous plants a lot like the perennial wildflowers that we’re looking at here. But, it doesn’t take long for them to get shaded out by young, woody plants of different sorts, and for those plants then to be overtaken by other species of woody plants. What it is all trying to do is become an oak, beech, hickory forest. But for our situation here, where there is lawn interspersed with planting beds, what I’ve tried to do is take as much lawn out of circulation and transfer it to other kinds of plantings.

When you have a turf grass lawn you are mowing the lawn virtually every week of the growing season and its a monoculture, so often one pathogen will affect large expanses of your landscape. The root systems are not that extensive, so if you can plant something alternative to lawn – either a ground cover or in this case, a great planting of wildflowers; instead of mowing it every week – we cut this down in the fall and we let the chaff just lay where it is to reseed itself in for the subsequent years. So we are not mowing it every week. We also have this beautiful display in May, June and July of wildflowers. The daisies. The Sweet William, a lovely, fragrant plant. There are some foxglove blooming here, Digitalis. There is a Lupine or two down below. These are all planted from seeds. If there is a bare spot in our planting we actually come in in subsequent years and plug in some young, perennial plants to fill out that area.

A couple of things I wanted to point out as I stand in the middle of our second wildflower planting here at Marsh Botanical Gardens. One is that many plants that are included in seed mixes are not actually American Native wildflowers. For instance, the Foxglove- Digitalis Purpurea is a native of Europe but sometimes you will find them in the mixes for American Native wildflowers. This one was a pioneer, a volunteer that came in from another planting up the hill. I have left it for purely aesthetic reasons.

In a wildflower planting, what you are working against is the seeding-in of grasses, often non-native species and you are also working against the incursion of woody plants into the planting. Many of these woody plants are non-native, invasive species – but there are also many native species that will tend to seed in and want to grow in your wildflower planting. So one of the aspects of wildflower planting is that you have to go through once in a while and remove the woody plants that will shade out your wildflowers. In this planting, I have purposely planted three American Native woody plants. There is an American Smokebush, there is a Sourwood and I also have a Sumac growing behind me.

So I encourage you to think of lawn alternatives, including wildflowers. For wildflowers it is important to plant in the spring. The best way to do it and the cheapest way to do it is to plant a good seed mix. Plant the seed on ground that has been harrowed, or raked, or tilled, so there is good seed to soil contact. Water the first few weeks if it is dry. Then enjoy a great display for many years to come.

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