Landscaping with la wildflowers

By Julia Sanders


              Many wildflowers do well in cultivation, and can be grown in planned formal beds with beautiful results.  Yarrow, Stokes’ aster, purple cone-flower, and Indian pink are some wildflowers that excel when grown in good garden soil.

              Black-eyed Susans, native sunflowers, and other composites will develop long, weak stems when planted in rich soil.  Butterfly milkweed and bird’s-foot violet need well-drained, sandy soil, and many woodland, marsh, and ditch wildflowers need constant moisture.  Because these and other wildflowers have exact sun, soil, and moisture requirements, you should know the needs of a wildflower before planting it in your garden.  Study how it is growing in the wild, consult persons who have successfully grown this particular flower, and/or refer to a wildflower growing guide such as GROWING AND PROPAGATING WILDFLOWERS by Harry R. Phillips.

              A large area can be landscaped as a natural garden instead of in formal beds.  When planning a natural wildflower garden consider soil type, shade, moisture, desired color scheme, and blooming schedule, and select flowers accordingly.  The addition of native ferns in shady, damp areas will promote the natural look.

              Bulbs and rhizomes will need to be planted, but many annuals and perennials can be sown either in individual colonies or as wildflower mix.  A higher percentage of seeds will germinate if existing vegetation is scant.  Some perennials will not flower the first year, and annuals will die after blooming but will reseed each year.

              It is important that your natural garden does not overgrow with grasses, vines, and undesirable plants because they will crowd out the wildflowers.

 TRANSPLANTING FROM THE WILD - Before digging a plant in the wild and transplanting it to your home garden, certain questions should be answered. 

              1.  Identify the plant since some plants should never be removed (e. g., rare and endangered species).  Catesby’s lily and wild orchids look exotic and desirable, but are scarce and will not survive the transfer.  Butterfly milkweed and other plants with a deep tap root usually cannot survive being dug up and replanted.

              2.  Check the soil in which the plant is growing and ask if this soil type is in your garden or can be created quickly.

              3.  Is the plant abundant in the area from which you are removing it?  If not, leave it alone.  If it is abundant, take only one or two plants.  *Seeds or cuttings from one plant will yield many plants for the next growing season.

              4.  It is best to transfer a plant before or after it has flowered.

              5.  Damage the roots as little as possible.  Select a small plant and dig around the outer edge of the root system, keeping soil attached to the roots.  Add water to the container or bag in which you have placed the plant.

              6.  Relocate the plant to your yard or garden as soon as possible. 

              Be on the look-out for areas that are going to be cleared.  Check with the owners of the property and rescue wildflowers, shrubs, and young trees.

              *One blue lobelia (LOBELIA SIPHILITICA) plant was transfered from the Bonné Carre Floodway to L.N.C.  Seed from that plant yielded seventy-five healthy lobelia plants.

 FERTILIZER  - In proper soil most wildflowers do not need additional fertilizer unless their leaves are lighter in color than usual or the plant is not growing.  Do not fertilize native ferns.

 PESTS - Aphids, beetles, and caterpillars love wildflowers as much as they do cultivated species.  It is the option of the gardener to attract these with pesticides or natural means of pest control.  Remember that pesticides kill beneficial as well as harmful insects, and that certain caterpillars are butterfly larvae.  The monarch larva feeds on milkweed and the gulf fritillary on passion flower vine.

 MULCHING - Mulch aids in moisture retention and provides nutrients as it decays.  It is best not to mulch directly around some plants as this will cause crown-rot.  Mulches will also possibly prevent annual wildflower seeds from reaching the soil.

 WILDFLOWERS FROM SEEDS - Wildflower seeds may be collected from wild plants, obtained through the Louisiana Native Plant Society seed exchange, or purchased from the Louisiana Nature and Science Center in New Orleans.  The LNC sells Louisiana wildflower seeds in individual packets and a Louisiana roadside and field mix.  The mix contains a variety of wildflowers for each season which will return year after year.  In addition to roadsides and fields, the LNC wildflower mix is suitable for forest edges and tall open stands of pines, although the bloom will not be as profuse there as in open sunny areas.

              A seed mix can be used to begin a seasonal variety of mixed flora or individual species can be sown in plots to begin colonies of varying color and size.  Seeding can be done in the spring if they have been stored in a cold place.  Planting in the spring reduces the loss to bird consumption and rain wash-off.  The seeds should be mixed with a light soil or mulch before sowing and may be dispersed by hand or machine.

              Wildflower seeds should be collected when they have reached maturity and the plant is ready to disperse them.  Collect seeds in a paper bag or envelope.  (Plastic will hold in moisture and encourage mildew.)  Remove the seeds from the dried flower heads and allow them to dry thoroughly.  Sow immediately or store in the refrigerator for spring planting.  Store in sealed and labeled freezer bags or jars.  Most wildflowers seeds need a couple of months of cold to break their dormancy.

              Percentage of seeds germinating and seedlings surviving will be greater if seeds are planted in flats and transplanted into the garden as young plants.  Flats can be plastic trays or aluminum roasting pans with holes punched in the bottom for drainage.

              A commercial seeding mix can be used, or a mix can be made by combining:

                            1 part good garden soil, 1 part peat moss, & 1 part coarse sand OR

                            2 parts peat moss, 1 part perlite, & 1 part sand.

The garden soil should be sterilized in an oven at 140 degrees F for ninety minutes.  The second mix will require a mild fertilizer once the seedlings begin to grow.

If seedlings are crowded, they should be transplanted to larger flats or pots with four inches between plants.  Information about sunlight, soil, and moisture requirements will be available with seeds purchased, or may be found in the afore-mentioned book by Phillips.

 ROADSIDES AND FIELDS - Wildflowers not only add beauty and color to roadsides and fields, but they eliminate the need for frequent mowing and expensive herbicides.  Once the wildflowers are established, the area will need to be mowed only twice a year.  Herbicides should never be used on an area planted with wildflowers.

The distribution of wildflowers in a field, begun with a commercial seed mix, will vary with progressing years since some  wildflowers will be better adapted than others to the soil type.  Also, some wildflowers are more aggressive and will colonize, crowding others out. 

It is important not to let a roadside or field overgrow with brush, tall grasses, or undesirable aggressive plants because the wildflowers cannot compete.  The area should be mowed in November.  It may also be necessary to mow in July.  This is between blooming seasons and will allow many fall flowers to reestablish in time to bloom.

PREPARATION - Wildflowers seeds will not germinate in an area with established thick vegetation.  The area to be planted should be closely mowed and shallow-disked in the late fall.  It can be disked again before planting.  If the area is very overgrown, applying an herbicide may be necessary.  However, this will kill existing desirable flowers.  Herbicides which will kill only grasses are available.  Do not fertilize, as most wildflowers do not need it and it will encourage weedy overgrowth.