How To Start Growing Wildflowers

Hello, my fellow Dirty Wormy!  If you’re new to growing wildflowers and native plants of North America, this page was made for you.  It contains all the basic information you need to get diggin’ and growin’ quickly, so you can start your own wildflower garden with ease.

Is it a wildflower, native plant, or weed?

Before we grow a wildflower garden, it helps to understand why it’s important and the differences between a wildflower, native plant, invasive plant, and weed.

A wildflower is a flower that grows without the presence or aid of humans.  A wildflower can be a native plant, an invasive plant, or a weed.  Sometimes, varieties of wildflowers are even cultivated by gardeners.

sunflower close-upNative plants are natural to the region they are grown in, and have been there for a very long time!  They live in balance with the existing ecosystem.  In contrast, an introduced plant is NOT natural to the region and often damages the existing balance of the ecosystem.  These plants are typically introduced through humans and may thrive so well in their new environment that they crowd out beneficial native plants, becoming invasive.

We want to avoid planting invasive wildflowers in our gardens for two reasons.  First, they weaken the delicate balance of the ecosystem, and may even cause native plants or animals to become endangered.  Second, they will go so crazy in your garden that you won’t be able to keep up with the work!  Less is more, right?

Finally we come to the sad, forlorn, well-hated weeds.  Weed is a term that was probably coined by  “civilized” society.  It’s  a plant that is simply unwanted in the location it grows.  It could be a native plant, an invasive plant, or even a cultivated plant that has sprung up in a place the gardener deems unfit for their design.

At Dirty Wormy, we encourage you to grow native wildflowers.  These plants are beneficial for the insect and animal populations, and are hardy enough to withstand pest infestations and weather changes.  By visiting the Identification section from the menu, you can view our growing database of wildflowers.  Each post will tell you whether the plant is native to your region of North America.  Just take a look at the little map and see if your state is shaded in.

How To Plant & Grow A Wildflower Garden Fast!

There’s an old saying, “Mother knows best.”  At Dirty Wormy, we say “Mother Nature knows best.”   If you’re just starting out, and even if you’re experienced, the simplest route to having a stunning wildflower garden is to emulate what Nature does herself.

  This brings us to our first step in growing a wildflower garden:

Observation.  This is probably the step requiring the most work, but the pay off is huge.   Observe what grows in your area, when, in what conditions, and what combinations.

If you live in a wooded area, take a hike through some of the neighboring woodlands to familiarize yourself with the local flora.   Or, if the site you selected for your garden is sandy, hot, and located in the desert, then visit a nearby national, state, or local park where plants grow wild in the desert under the same conditions.

For example, in northern Arizona purple lupines and red penstemon jointly cover the grounds of ponderosa woodlands during the summer months.  If I lived in a ponderosa forest in Flagstaff, these would make a great starter selection of wildflowers for me.

Red & Purple Wildflower Garden
Wild Red And Purple Penstemon

Last, be sure the plants you choose are native, and avoid planting anything invasive.  As you do your observations, you will learn that some of the plants you observed and may have admired, are NOT native to the area.  This step is really important!  A little bit of research beforehand will save you a lot of frustration down the road.

I suggest picking up a wild plant identification book, or using Dirty Wormy’s growing database of wildflowers to figure out the names of the plants you see, or to help you learn what grows wild and is native to your area.  Audubon Society’s field guides to wildflowers are a great place to begin.  You can choose between eastern and western, depending on your location.  I’ve included links for these books at the end of this article.

Selection.  I recommend starting with 1 – 3 wildflowers to begin with.  Choose your wildflowers based on the observations you made in the step 1.  If you purchase seeds, I recommend buying from Sustainable Seed Company.  They are extremely responsible and won’t sell you genetically contaminated seeds from Monsanto or any other company.

Prepare Your Garden.  Prepare the area by clearing out any weeds and garbage, or anything that may hinder the growth of your plants.  Then, rake the soil out, only working about 1 inch deep.

Planting.  For seeds, follow the planting instructions on the packet you receive.  Some have special needs, but often they will require 2 – 4 weeks of steady moisture after planting in order to sprout.  It is usually best to plant in the spring, but fall often works too.

If you have purchased wildflowers that are already growing, or transplants you have dug up from another location, it helps to water them thoroughly a few hours before planting to prevent root shock.  Root shock weakens and stresses the plant, inhibiting growth.

Dig a hole that is a little bit deeper and wider than the pot the plant is already in.  While the soil is still moist, you can cut out the bottom of the pot with a knife or gently remove the plant from the pot by hand.  Place it in the hole you dug, and gently push the soil back over the plant.  There’s no need to pat the soil down tightly.  Plants require oxygen pockets for healthy growth, so it’s better to leave the soil loose.

Water the plant again, and be sure to give it extra water for the first year to alleviate some of the stress of the move.  

Wildflowers don’t usually require any added fertilizer.  As long as you choose flowers that could grow naturally under the selected sites (according to soil, sun, and water), the garden will be relatively low maintenance.

Great Realistic Expectations

A wildflower garden is not care-free!  Although they ARE low-maintenance, they also require some attention.  Here are some common things you can expect with your wildflower garden:

Weeding.  Weeding is just one of those things that every gardener has to deal with.  They are tough, resilient, and persistent, and they keep coming back!  It’s easier to accept it and find ways to deal with it.

Bugs.  Although pests are much less likely to wipe out your garden, you can still expect to see them eating and crawling on your plants.  The relationship between bug and plant is part of the delicate balance of life.  Your wildflowers NEED insects for pollination, so they can grow fruits and seeds.  Some bugs will even eat pests they find on your plants.

Watering.  A wildflower garden is particularly hearty and low on water use.  However, IF your wildflowers look wilted, it means they’re thirsty and need water!  It’s plain and simple: if you don’t give them water when they need it, you will likely lose the plant.

Plant Thinning.  If you selected a good site for your wildflowers, they will come back thicker each year, as they self sow their seed or multiply.  For some this is great news, since it lessens the work you need to do to create a beautiful and full garden.  However, if the garden becomes too full the flowers will compete for nutrients and water.  At this point, it’s a good idea to dig up the weaker plants.  You can move them to another part of your garden, gift them to friends, or add them to your compost pile.

Essential Tools

Identification Book.  I highly recommend purchasing an identification book to help you learn the plants in your area.  Audubon Society’s field guides for wildflowers are great for beginners.  You can purchase the Eastern North American or Western North American depending on the region where you reside.  With over 900 wildflowers, each with a corresponding photo, the flowers are grouped by color and shape; making it very easy to search.

Weeder or Hoe.  The type of weeder you should purchase depends on the type of soil you have.  Rocky and rich soils have very different compositions.  A tool that works well in rich soil, may be ruined or ineffective in rocky soil.  Some of the best hoes and weeders include Fiskars Weeder, Flexrake Hula-Ho Weeder (this one is great for established garden beds and mixing in compost too), and CobraHead Weeder.  It’s useful to have both a standing weeder and a smaller handheld weeder, depending on the job.

I also want to point that it’s much healthier for your soil if you weed, than if you spray chemicals.  It’s true that the chemicals may make your job seem easier, but they also poison the soil, any future plants growing in the soil, along with the bugs and animals that eat those plants.

Rake.  Fan rakes are great for cleaning up leaves and spreading out mulch.  A hard rake works better in rugged environments where stones, garbage, large tumbleweed, or massive amounts of pulled weeds need to be moved and cleaned.  If you have tight spots you need to work in, a shrub rake is helpful since the sizing is more compact.  But most people will do fine with a fan rake or hard rake.

Shovel.  A shovel will be needed for digging holes.  A run of the mill shovel from your local hardware store will work for most jobs.  If you need a better shovel for slicing through tree roots or clay, then Fiskars Transplanting Spade is a great choice.  I’ve heard the AMS Sharpshooter Shovel is a good choice if you are digging in rocks and clay.

A few additional items you may consider include hat/gloves for sun and skin protection, and a sturdy pair of scissors for cutting flowers and snipping off dead blooms.

Where To Get Wildflower Seeds & Plants

One of the best places to purchase seed and plants is your local Arboretum.  Many Arboretums have special events and sales dedicated to native plants suited for their region.

Next, check your local nurseries.  Most nurseries sell some native plants suited to their region, in addition to a variety of cultivated plants.  Ask for assistance if you’re unsure whether a plant you like from their selection is a native wildflower or if you’re unsure what conditions it needs for healthy growth.

My all time top choice for purchasing seeds is Sustainable Seed Company.  They are an environmentally responsible company that is against genetically modified seeds.  They even enlist random testing to ensure the seeds they sell are not contaminated.  Another option for purchasing seeds and plants are online or mail order catalogs.  High Country Gardens offers a wide selection of native wildflowers with photos, descriptions, and details on plant needs.  You can also purchase wildflower mixes of classic combinations.  American Meadows is another extensive mail purchase source.

One of my personal favorites for acquiring wildflowers doesn’t require any purchase at all, but does involve some elbow-grease.  If you know somebody who has wildflowers growing on their property, politely ask if they would allow you to dig some up.  Remember to respect their wishes either way, always clean up when you’re finished, and avoid damaging any of their plants or property.  They’re much more likely to allow you to dig up flowers in the future if you make things easy on them!

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Talk To Me!

Dirty Wormy always welcomes your comments, suggestions, and feedback. I’m committed to providing you with the best resources on growing wildflowers, so if you have information that would be helpful for DW readers, please share, either by leaving a comment or sending me a private message.  If you’d like to contact me directly, use the form on the contact page up above.  I always respond to comments and emails.  If you have any questions, I can’t promise I’ll have the answer, but I will do what I can to find it and get you the best information available.

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