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At American Meadows, between our people and online resources, we have been helping, literally, millions of meadow gardeners for over 20 years. And there are about 5 critical subjects that everyone needs to understand fully to maximize the pleasure from a wildflower meadow.
Annuals are the ones that grow and bloom quickly from seed, then die at the end of their first year. However, they often drop seed and return to some degree as new plants.
Perennials are the ones that grow more slowly, don't bloom until their second year, and then return year after year from the same roots, forming larger and larger clumps.
When you plant the seed of an annual, normally it's up and growing in a week or less. Many are in bloom within 4 or 5 more weeks. Most all annual flower plants are full grown and in full bloom within 3 months.
Perennials? Plant the seed in spring or summer (it doesn't matter when, as long as it has some time to grow) and all you'll see is small leaf growth before winter. It's because these seeds are making root growth during their entire first growing season…after all, they are gong to have to go through the winter, unlike annuals. Don't expect flowers.
A seed of a daisy plant, for example, makes only 2 or 3-inch leaves near the ground its first year. Then the second year, in spring, it bounds out of the ground with big glossy leaves, and stalks with beautiful flowers up to 24" tall! That's how a perennial plant develops from seed—totally different from an annual.
When it comes to color in a meadow, the thing most meadow gardeners want more than anything else: The average annual flower plant blooms for 2 to 3 months. The average perennial flower plant blooms for 2 to 3 weeks.
Annuals, plant for plant, add about 4 times the color to your meadow in a given year than perfectly grown, mature perennials. (Of course, as perennials become large clumps, they add more flowers, but their bloom period is always short, compared to annuals.)
A fine wildflower seed mixture is artfully blended to create bloom for the gardener over the entire growing season, spring to fall. Also, since no one is cutting back dying flowers, as in a perennial border, the various species should bloom roughly from shortest flowers to tallest. That way, new, fresh taller flowers will cover the fading shorter ones as the meadow evolves through the year. What's more, most meadow gardeners want this ongoing color the first year and also the second and beyond.
Good bloom the first year is easy, since the mixtures contain about 50% annuals. And the annual seeds are there for more than color. They're there for a "good gardening reason" as well. Since the perennials in the mix do not bloom, and make very small growth, the spreading annual plants tend to "fill the ground", warding off weeds during the first year. (After all, as everyone knows, anywhere you leave an open space in the soil, nature will quickly plant a weed.) Then during your second spring, your annual plants that filled the spaces are dead and gone, and the perennials are ready to burst into large plants filling the spaces saved for them.
We understand gardeners' love affair with perennials. It's based on "Why plant something that lasts only one year?" But it's based on building perennial gardens, not wildflower meadows. We explain in number 4 (above) about all the contributions annuals make in a wild meadow.
If you plant only perennials in a wildflower garden, you gain some things, but we feel, you lose much more. Yes, it will be more permanent. But you'll have no color at all your first year, and you'll be battling plenty of weeds your second. In some ways, a perennial meadow imitates nature more closely, although annuals are common in nature, too. And if you want your meadow in good, colorful bloom all season long, you simply won't be able to accomplish that without the long-blooming annuals.
Purists carp about how annuals "run out" after their first year, and that's true. The same thing happens in the wild. And after all, this is your meadow. Minding the natural run-out of annual flowers is like minding the fact that a box of chocolates runs out after you've eaten them. All that enjoyment-who says it has to be permanent? You can add more annuals whenever you like. (And buy more chocolates, too.)
In a meadow garden, most homeowners are not trying to imitate nature. In fact, most don't want to. Because natural meadows in the wild have long periods of browning after any heavy bloom-do you want that in your backyard? So it's important to realize that what you're creating is a meadow garden that you can control, not a "natural" meadow. It takes work, and as it evolves; the work does not end.
The biggest loss with all perennials in a meadow is definitely pleasure. What gardener doesn't thrill to a shimmering sheet of color like the show of bright red poppies, or a dazzling drift of deep blue cornflowers? In late summer and fall, what gardener doesn't love to see flowers like wild cosmos tall and beautiful, waving in the wind. These are all impossible scenes without the wild annuals. Grow them, and enjoy them for what they are.