Skip to Content

Wild About Wildflowers

Recent Airdate: Sept. 23, 2007.
“Gardening by the Yard” is one of America’s most popular TV gardening shows. With well-known host, Master Gardener Paul James, it has been a mainstay of cable channel HGTV (Home and Garden Television) since the early nineties. The television crew visited our original wildflower plantings in Vermont during 2004, and asked Ray Allen to explain the installation of a meadow. The article below appears on as a companion piece for the TV show, which has a fall theme.

Thriving just about anywhere--from deserts to roadsides and mountain tops--wildflowers are tenacious plants.

For the gardener who grows wildflowers, the reward far exceeds the effort. Vermont wildflower expert Ray Allen defines a wildflower as a flowering plant that can get by on its own out in the wild. "It can flower, seed and reproduce and doesn't need the pampering we give garden flowers," says Allen.

The wildflowers of today are the same flowers our ancestors knew in centuries past. According to Allen, that's why people feel so connected to these timeless beauties. "Everyone has sort of an emotional attachment to wildflowers."

Just as the allure of these blooms attracts people, wildflowers are also magnets for pollinating insects. "These are the flowers that Mother Nature designed to attract pollinators." And while the size of the flowers may not be that large, the vibrant colors are well-known to insects.

Some people think Queen Anne's Lace and a number of other wildflowers are nothing more than invasive weeds. Their seeds can be viable in the soil for as long as 100 years. "We've found with our customers that Queen Anne's Lace is many people's favorite wildflower," says Allen. "So we try to educate them. There are good and bad things about Queen Anne's Lace.  We don't sell the seed of the roadside weed. However, it is a common biennial in almost every state, so most wildgardeners end up with it in their meadows, since the seeds are often dormant in the soil."

If a wildflower has proven to be invasive in your region, odds are the seed is in the soil--whether you like it or not. Allen's solution: plant a wildflower selection that doesn't contain the offending flower. The rogue may emerge next year, but at that point you can pull the plant before it goes to seed.

Wildflower gardens are meant to be informal and low maintenance--attributes that make them attractive for busy gardeners. "Wildflowers are tough. Wildflowers are independent," says Allen. "And this is one reason wildflower gardening is popular. People tell me, 'I like wildflowers because they get by on their own.' And what they're really saying is that it's not much work."

Planting a wildflower meadow from seed is inexpensive and easy. To plant from seed:

  • In a well-drained, full sun location, use a string trimmer to mow down existing plants before they drop seed. You can also use a lawn mower to clear the area.

  • Rake up the clippings--a preventive measure against sowing unwanted seeds.

  • Use a rototiller. Avoid tilling too deeply so as not to bring up dormant grass and weed seeds. Shallow tilling should be enough to remove roots and loosen soil.

  • To plant the wildflowers evenly, divide a package of seed into two buckets.
  • Add a few handfuls of sand in each bucket, and mix the seeds and sand together. This process simply dilutes the seed with sand to make sowing easier.

  • Spread one bucketful evenly in one direction and the second in the other direction over the same area to prevent bare spots.

  • Use a lawn roller to press the seeds into the soil. You can also use a piece of plywood placed over the soil followed by a few good stomps. The goal isn't to cover the seed but to enhance the seed-to-soil contact.

  • Keep the soil moist until the seeds sprout in six to eight days. In six to eight weeks, blooms will start to emerge.
  • You may wonder if the birds will eat the seeds. Allen doesn't worry. "We've tilled these acres for 20 years, and birds have come every year and eaten all they wanted. And it has never made a dent in the bloom."

    According to Allen, wildflowers are famous for waiting for water because they are survivors. However, during dry spells, provide supplemental water to your wildflower garden if you want to maintain healthy, flowering plants. After plants die back at the first fall frost, mow your meadow to disperse the seeds and keep the bushy growth down.

    Once your meadow is established, there may be the occasional repair in a patch that isn't performing well. In this case, the grass is taking center stage. It is okay to have some grass since a wildflower meadow will contain both grasses and flowers. The trick to having a beautiful wildflower meadow is to have the flower plants dominant over the grass.

    When you have a mixture of annuals and perennials, some species, like this blue cornflower, may have a spectacular show while others don't seem to do much at all. But take a closer look. While one flower is in full bloom, there are several others ready to take its place when it fades. Allen calls it an enduring sense of hope because, against all odds, most species will be back the next year to dazzle onlookers yet again. And that, he says is what keeps people so bonded to wildflowers.

    Many cities and states now plant wildflowers along medians and roadsides as an effective means of erosion control. In addition to the beauty of the wildflowers, roadside planting reduces mowing, which means savings of labor and energy costs for local and state governments.