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Echinacea, commonly called “coneflowers” for their cone-shaped inflorescences capped by a prickly dome of seedheads, grow well in the home garden, when provided with the right conditions. Echinacea are important sources of nectar for butterflies and many birds (particularly goldfinches), who flock to the plants to devour the seed. Echinacea are, in this way, “two for one” plants. You get to enjoy the gorgeous flowers, as well as the colorful wildlife they attract.
Light: Echinacea thrives in full to partial sun. Plants need at least four hours of sunlight per day. The plants grow natively along the edges of woodlands, so they will thrive in spots with morning shade and afternoon sun or vice versa.
Soil: Echinacea will tolerate poor rocky soil, but will not grow in wet, mucky soil. Mulch plants with compost at the time of planting.
Spacing: Coneflowers are clumping plants. One plant will tend to get larger, but it will not spread and overtake the garden via roots or rhizomes. The eventual size of the plant clump depends on the cultivar, so check the mature size listed in the plant description to help you decide on spacing. If a plant is estimated to grow to 18 inches wide, leave 18 inches between plants. Because Echinacea establish deep taproots, you need to plant them where you want them. They do not like to be moved once established.
Planting: Plant Echinacea plants in the spring or the fall, in well-drained soil in full to part sun. Echinacea is easy to grow from seed, as well, but requires a cold, moist period—called stratification—in order to germinate. Sow seeds thickly in the fall (after hard-frost in the north and before winter rains elsewhere), covering lightly to discourage birds from eating them. Seeds will germinate in the spring. Most plants will bloom during the second year—one reason it’s advantageous to start with transplants.
Growth Habit: Echinacea are clump-forming perennials that grow to a mature size of between 12-36 inches wide and up to four feet tall. The size depends on the variety. Plants have an upright habit with large flowers with cone-shaped centers borne on tall, straight stalks.
Staking: These plants are sturdy and rarely require staking. Occasionally, plants growing in partial shade will become tall and floppy. You can stake plants using a single stake and connecting individual stalks to the stake with soft twine.
Watering: Echinacea is a low-water plant; however, you’ll need to water young plants to help them establish new roots. That is usually a sequence of every day or every other day right after planting, moving to a couple of times per week, to once per week, to every other week, to watering only when your area is experiencing extreme drought. The second year after planting and beyond you should not have to water Echinacea at all unless you’ve gone eight weeks or more without rain. They are that drought-tolerant.
Fertilizing: Most perennials like to live lean, and don’t need seasonal fertilizer applications. Mulching Echinacea plants in the spring with compost should be enough unless your garden has specific nutrient deficiencies. If your plants are growing lots of leaves but no flowers, or the leaves are strangely colored (purple or yellow) get a soil test to determine which nutrients plants are missing and fertilize accordingly.
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Mulching: Do not bury the plant stem, but mulch in the spring with compost to improve soil fertility around the plant.
Trimming & Pruning: You can prolong the already- long bloom period of Echinacea plants by deadheading them. Cut dead flowers back to a leaf where you can see a bud ready to swell and break. Toward the end of the bloom, leave some flowers on the plant to dry and go to seed. Birds love to snack on the seeds, which is enough of a reason to keep them, but the plants will also self-sow, allowing you to end up with some freebies during the next growing season.
Control size and delay blooming of the entire plant by cutting plants back in June to 30 inches tall. If you prune some of your plants, but not all of them, you’ll have a nice, long, staggered coneflower bloom season.
Let plants stand until they are fully dormant and dry. Seeds are an important wildlife food source. Cut back in mid winter when you’re tidying up the garden.
Dividing & Transplanting: Echinacea plants do not like to be divided or transplanted. Because they establish taproots, it’s difficult to fully remove the plant from the ground, and once re-planted they have a difficult time re-establishing. If you must transplant, do so in the spring, and dig as large of a root ball around the plant as you can manage. Replant immediately.
Echinacea has been used medicinally to treat a variety of ailments, including infections and wounds. It is still a popular herbal supplement. In addition to this use, Echinacea is almost unmatched in its garden utility. It is equally at home in the formal garden setting or a wildflower meadow. Pair it with salvias, catmint, and other cottage garden plants for the former, and with Gaillardia, Asclepias, Goldenrod, and Rudbeckia in the latter.
Is there an easier plant to grow in the garden than an Echinacea? Hardly. These plants have few pest and disease problems. Japanese beetle, leaf spots, powdery mildew, and vine weevils sometimes affect the plant. There isn’t much you can do about any of those issues, but they’re rarely such problems that they would require treatment.
One issue with Echinaceas is that they do reseed fairly prolifically. If you find this is an issue, deadhead the plants immediately after the petals fade to cut down on “volunteers.”
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