How to Plant & Grow a Wildflower Garden from Seed
Wildflowers enliven the garden with colorful blooms and swaying textures. They are an essential source of food and shelter for pollinators and wildlife and provide valuable ecosystem services. With a few sound steps to prepare, you can create a flourishing wildflower garden from seed. Explore best practices for growing a wildflower garden with garden expert Katherine Rowe.
Wildflowers bring exceptional blooms and textures to the garden, creating drifts of visual interest and variety for visitors. They introduce the element of surprise season after season and give us a chance to have fun experimenting in informal growing spaces.
Wildflowers buzz with native bees and other pollinators, essential to the production of many fruit and vegetable crops and plants in the surrounding environment. These gardens provide valuable habitat through nectar and pollen resources and nesting sites. They offer protection for hundreds of bee species, moths, butterflies, and other insects.
These flowers also provide essential ecosystem services like stormwater management, carbon storage, and soil-building. They require minimal maintenance and make a low impact on the landscape.
Wildflower areas create the perfect transition space between formal and naturalized garden zones. Their delightful aesthetic appeal, easy care, natural weed suppression, and ability to nourish wildlife make them valuable additions to the garden.
Orange California Poppy Seeds
Rocky Mountain Blue Columbine Seeds
Colorado Blend Yarrow Seeds
Starting a Wildflower Garden
According to the National Park Service, wildflowers are “flowers of an uncultivated variety or growing freely without human intervention.” These can be native or non-native plants, depending on the species. Opt for natives that grow naturally in your area for best growth and ease of care. By choosing plants indigenous to your area, you ensure they won’t harm or displace surrounding plant communities. Natives are adapted to area soil and climate conditions, as well as the needs of local wildlife species.
While wildflowers are low-maintenance once established, following a few key steps ensures their ability to thrive. These foundational aspects include choosing the right garden site, selecting the best species mix, and preparing the area for seed sowing.
Choosing the Garden Site
Wildflowers adapt to many site conditions if they meet necessary cultural requirements according to species selection. Wildflower gardens can be any size and scale; your garden will thank you with successional blooms at any scope if you plant correctly!
Create a micro-meadow wildflower garden in a small garden bed, or go bigger with large borders, rows, or fields. The larger the swath, the more biodiversity and garden benefits.
You know you want to incorporate wildflowers into the garden – now, evaluate your site. Does the area receive full sunlight, dappled light, or full shade? Is it wet, dry, or well-draining?
These conditions determine the best seeds to select for your garden. If your site is mixed, experiment with different species for each area or try a blend to see what thrives. Remember, experimenting is part of the fun of wildflower gardens.
Many wildflower species flourish in full sunlight (with six to eight hours of sun per day). Growing wildflowers in full sun allows for diverse plant species and abundant flowering. It attracts numerous pollinators who rely on sunlight for warmth and for locating food sources. Some wildflower seeds rely on direct sun to germinate.
Full sun brings a vibrant bloom show, but wildflowers grow in all sorts of conditions. If your location experiences part or full shade, consider species that grow best with limited sun, like columbine and foamflower.
The beauty of wildflowers (well, one of the many beauties!) is their adaptability to grow in average and even poor soils. Since wildflowers reseed naturally, they often tolerate soils that lack organic richness. The media may contain a lot of sand or clay. Disturbed sites tend to be where many proliferate. They don’t need a lot of extra nutrients to grow and even improve the surrounding soil structure and nutrient cycle.
The critical soil consideration for the wildflower garden is assessing its moisture level and ability to drain freely. The majority of wildflowers grow best in well-draining soils. Well-drained soil ensures roots receive enough water without remaining overly saturated.
If your site is primarily wet or boggy, opt for specific species that survive in these conditions, like cardinal flower, Joe-Pye Weed, and swamp milkweed.
If your site is dry, drought-tolerant wildflowers abound, including aster, California poppy, and yarrow.
Selecting Wildflower Species and Mixes
Now, the exciting part – choosing which wildflowers to grow from seed! Look for wild native seed mixes that adapt and grow well in your area. Avoid cultivars for increased plant vigor in a wildflower garden setting.
Opt for species on an individual basis to create a custom mix or pick grower mixes from a reputable seed company. A grower mix formulates seeds and species with related cultural requirements and growing situations in mind. Some of these mixes contain species that aren’t suited to your particular area. For instance, some may be aggressive, so check the plant listing to be sure you know what you’re growing.
Incorporating multiple species increases plant diversity and texture. It also improves your chances of success. You’ll observe which species shine and which aren’t as hardy in your specific garden site. The top performers take the place of those that fall behind.
Wildflower seed mixes are available in all kinds of combinations. Many include annuals, short-lived perennials, and long-lived perennials. These ensure quick, first-season blooms with annuals (often non-native), and fast-growing perennials, like Rudbeckia and Penstemon. Successive blooms also emerge from additional perennials. Some wildflower seeds take two to three years to germinate, so be patient and enjoy the early bloomers as the garden develops.
In addition to blooming perennials, add a few grasses for movement and contrasting texture in the garden. Grasses provide additional food and shelter for wildlife.
Preparing the Site
Site preparation is essential in setting up your seeds for self-sustaining success. Starting with best practices for growth makes a longer-lasting wildflower garden. By clearing the site of vegetation and amending the soil, the foundation is in place for wildflowers to provide plenty of delight.
Removing Existing Vegetation
A dense wildflower garden comes from a lack of competition among existing vegetation, including weeds and turf grass. Once wildflowers are established, they suppress weeds, but giving them a good head start involves clearing the site. Depending on the amount of growth present, there are a few methods for removing existing plants. In all cases, rake thatch and organic debris away from the site before planting.
The first method of vegetation removal is to dig up or hand-pull plants on the site of the new wildflower garden. This method is ideal for small garden beds.
If the area is full of turf, slice the grass into manageable rectangles with a spade. Then, dig and lift the turf in sheets. Compost or relocate the pieces to other areas for infill. A sod cutter makes the process easier, especially for larger areas. They are often available to rent from local equipment and hardware stores.
Consider a paper and soil layering technique if you aren’t in a hurry to plant your wildflower garden. Use overlapping sheets of newspaper (six pieces thick) or cardboard to smother existing growth. Place the sheets over the entire area and cover them with several inches of soil or compost. Paper layering takes several months but gets rid of existing plants while enriching the surrounding soil.
Solarizing uses black plastic that serves to starve the plants of sunlight, preventing photosynthesis. Solarizing takes several weeks and may only partially make underlying seeds inviable.
The same holds true for an effective growth suppressant using clear plastic sheeting. Layer the site with sheets of clear plastic anchored with sod staples or stakes. Both methods harness the sun’s rays to convert to heat the ground beneath the plastic, so choose a sunny time of year, like mid-summer.
Sustained heat kills the vegetation and dormant weed seeds. Leave the plastic in place for at least several weeks and up to a few months, depending on the thickness of the plant material.
Amending the Soil
Many wildflower areas won’t need soil amendments since they prefer non-nutrient-rich soils. A soil test from your local extension office is always a good idea, especially if the site has been disturbed by construction or industry.
If soil is especially poor or lacks certain elements, add a layer of compost or aged manure atop the site. Turn or rake the area lightly, about an inch deep, to mix in the amendment and avoid exposing underlying weed or grass seeds. Rake the soil to create a smooth surface so the wildflower seeds make the most surface contact at sowing.
In spring or fall, sow wildflower seeds directly onto the garden site. These seasons offer cooler weather and moisture that establish seedlings before more extreme temperatures. Fall is prime for sowing, as many seeds benefit from a winter chill period. If sowing in spring, opt for early spring for the chill time and available moisture.
While wildflower seeds do not need soil cover (just a little compression, noted below), you may opt to cover them lightly with straw. Straw protects drifting, damage from foot traffic, and eating by birds and small mammals.
If the forecast allows it, sow seeds just before a rain shower so they’ll be thoroughly, naturally watered in.
Sowing Wildflower Seeds
Wildflower seeds are fun and easy to sow! Broadcast them across your site according to recommended dispersal rates. Mix the seeds with sand at roughly eight parts sand to one part seeds. Wildflower seeds vary from tiny to large, and the sand carries and adds weight to the mix. It also offers a visual market that helps you track where seeds have been scattered.
I prefer to scatter the seed mixture by hand, using buckets to draw from as I go. Broadcasting in long strokes distributes the seeds evenly. For expansive areas, use hand spreaders or mechanized seeders.
If you prefer to monitor your seedlings carefully and transplant them into the garden later on, try winter sowing.
Ensure seeds meet the soil by compressing them lightly into the ground. It doesn’t take much – walk on the seeded area or use a drum roller if the area is large. This secures soil contact the seeds need to give them a jump start on sprouting. There is no need to cover wildflower seeds with soil – they will germinate with sunlight and water.
The wildflower growing process is relatively low-maintenance after the site is prepped and the seeds are sown. In the early seasons, seedlings need more attention regarding water and weed suppression. Once established, wildflowers reseed naturally and need little gardener intervention.
After sowing, water the seed bed thoroughly, taking care not to displace seeds with heavy sprays or puddles. Wildflower seeds need daily water in the first few weeks until germination so that the soil remains consistently moist. After that, cut back water to every other day.
“Wild,” seedlings are tender and need regular water in their first growing season to get established, especially in hot, dry summers.
Let flowers go to seed to enjoy even more blooming plants the following season. This also provides seeds for birds and small mammals to forage. The wildflower garden will reseed naturally.
If the wildflower garden gets weedy in the first season (where weeds emerge and grow faster than flower seedlings), cut back weedy sections to four to six inches. Cutting back dwarfs the weeds, and wildflowers continue to direct energy to developing strong roots.
After seeds have been naturally dispersed or grazed in late winter, mow or cut back the wildflower garden to six to eight inches high. The garden will reawaken in spring.
Planting a combination of wildflower species brings diversity to the garden and minimizes disease and pest problems. Problems for one plant may not impact another plant. Edit the garden to add more seeds of the thriving plants if sparse areas occur.
With a diversity of wildflower species, widespread diseases and pests are uncommon. Observe plants that seem disease-prone and remove or let them naturally die back. Let healthy species reseed to take their place.
If pests like mealybugs, aphids, and whiteflies are present, refrain from spraying pesticides as they can harm bees and other pollinators. Instead, let beneficial insects do their work. Wildflowers attract predatory insects like lacewings, ladybugs, and praying mantises, keeping other garden pests at bay.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it easy to grow wildflowers from seed?
Growing wildflowers is easy and a valuable addition to the garden. Incorporate a few critical components for best success: evaluate the garden site, choose the appropriate species mixture, and adequately prepare the site before seed sowing. With preparation and patience, a beautiful wildflower garden will grow.
Do wildflowers grow in the shade?
Many species of wildflowers grow in part to full shade. These include columbine, foamflower, and woodland phlox. Check the species’ cultural requirements to select wildflowers best suited to your garden’s light conditions.
Can you grow wildflowers in pots and containers?
Wildflowers can grow in pots and containers for a splash of color in small-space areas. Choose well-draining containers and potting mixes. Add sand to lessen organic material and improve drainage.
Wildflowers are a lovely, easy-care, cost-effective, ecologically valuable garden addition. They add whimsy and color to the landscape and buzz with the lively pollinators they attract.
Take care to prepare the garden site properly for planting wildflower seeds. Thorough preparation significantly reduces weeds and creates a foundation for wildflowers to persist for years.
Remember to enjoy the surprises wildflowers bring and to experiment with different species to see which perform the best. Some take two to three years to bloom. This is when the wildflower garden really hits its stride with glorious blooms in a self-sustaining landscape.