Floridata Article

How to Plant Your Wildflower Garden

Jack preparing a wildflower plot
Jack spends November clearing a 25 x 7 ft strip along the fenceline for a wildflower garden. He's removing debris, pulling blackberry brambles and hacking out woody beautyberry and yaupon holly. Here in North Florida, winter invariably brings a couple of freezes so he'll wait to plant until after the first frost.

Soil Preparation and Ground Clearing

This subject is all-important to your meadow's success. You must clear your area of all existing growth. For a small area, the project is the same as preparing for a new vegetable garden, and a shovel is usually all that is needed. Simply dig out everything that's growing there, turn the soil, and rake the area flat and free from rocks and roots. By the way, here's one advantage of meadow gardening over vegetable gardening. A few rocks and some uneven spots won't bother a wildflower planting, so there's usually less to do. Old grass roots are important, be sure to remove them or they'll grow back along with your new flower plants.

For larger areas, usually a rototiller is used to bare the ground. It's important to "till" only as deep as necessary to remove old roots-don't dig deep just because you can. The deeper you till, the more dormant weed seeds you'll turn up near the surface where they can sprout along with your wildflowers. If your area has been an old field that has grown and seeded itself for years, expect plenty of weed seeds in the soil. If you're tilling a lawn that's been mowed for years, chances are your weed seed count will be low.

Careful rototilling works well for three reasons. It opens the soil and allows a "soft" space for emerging flower plants. It creates a good seedbed for germination and promotes good "seed-to-soil" contact. And, of course, it removes almost all the existing grasses and weeds which would otherwise compete with your seedlings.

Unless you're trying to create a prairie environment which includes certain grasses, it's important to understand that grasses and weeds are the enemy in establishing a wildflower meadow. Your objective is to get the flower seedlings dominant over the grasses instead of the reverse. No matter how you work on your site, some grasses will return in time and that's fine. After all, the "natural look" you are seeking is created by the companion growth of flowers and grasses. So success is a matter of degree: More flowers than grass plants. If you end up with the opposite you've created a hayfield.

A good tilling of the area is all most wildflower gardeners consider necessary. But if you have particularly heavy old growth and are willing to invest a little more time, you may want to do more, including the removal of the weed seed that is in all soils. There are several ways to eradicate old weeds and grasses completely, usually involving herbicide.

About Fertilizer...

Wildflowers do not demand fertilizer to grow well; take a look at the healthy wildflower plants along most country roads-no one fertilizes there. But if you want to give yours a boost, you can. Be sure to use a fertilizer that is low in nitrogen. Because high nitrogen fertilizers, used for lawn care, do just what you don't want-they encourage grass growth. Fertilizers formulated for perennial flowers are usually fine. If you fertilize on the day you plan to seed, you must work the fertilizer into the loose soil before you spread your seed. This usually means raking it in.
How Much Seed?

The amount of seed you sow depends on the sort of display you want. Your seed package or sack will arrive with a coverage rate printed on if for you. However, many want to sow up to two, or even three times the minimum coverage rates to assure a heavy bloom and that's fine. But there is a limit. Seed sown too densely can inhibit growth. Also, to determine the seed quantity you want to use, you'll have to have at least a rough idea of the square footage of your site.

Sowing Your Seed
Once your ground is bare and loose, here are a couple of tips many wildgardeners use that make the whole process simple and successful.

First, choose a nearly windless day, for obvious reasons.

Second, sow seed the simple way with the "split and sand method". Beyond simply sowing the seed as it comes from the package, many wildgardeners use this surefire method. Separate the seed you're planting, no matter the amount, into roughly two equal parts. Put the first half in a clean bucket (or coffee can or anything else handy), and then add in roughly ten parts of light sand or vermiculite to your one part of seed. (Do not use beach sand.)

There are two good reasons for the sand. First, it "dilutes" the seed and helps you spread it more evenly. More important, since it is lighter colored than the soil, you'll be able to "see where you've been" as you sow.

Once you have the sand and seed evenly mixed in your bucket, walk to your site and simply sow it. You can hand-sow as most do (practice in advance with just sand if you like.), scattering the seed mix by the handful as evenly as you can. Or you can use a hand-crank "cyclone" seeder if you're working with a large area.

Sow the first half of your seed/sand mix over the WHOLE area to be seeded, as evenly as possible. Then go back, mix the second half of your seed with sand the same as the first and then spread that half over the whole area. This is a great way to avoid bare spots.

» next page: Maintaining Your Wildflower Garden

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Ray Allen 11/18/02; updated 10/18/03, 2/18/04, 9/19/04, 4/15/05

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