The optimum planting time depends upon your climate and dependable rainfall. In areas with colder winters, spring or early summer seeding is best. Spring plantings should be done as soon as the planting area can be worked. Early summer plantings should only be done if rainfall patterns are anticipated or supplemental irrigation is available. “Dormant” seeding can be done in late fall when temperatures are low enough that the seeds will not germinate until weather warms the following spring. Perennials can also be planted in late summer if they have a few months for the crowns to develop before the weather turns cold. In mild climates, plant fall through spring, to take advantage of winter rainfall. A fall planting allows the plants to develop and provide an earlier display of flowers in the spring. If planted in spring, make certain rainfall is expected; otherwise, supplemental irrigation will need to be supplied.
During their initial establishment, wildflower seedings require similar site preparation as any lawn planting. Seed to soil contact is extremely important, so best results are obtained by sowing on a cleared area. Begin with the spraying of existing vegetation with an herbicide such as glyphosate (Roundup), followed by the removal of dead vegetation. It is best to lightly till or scratch the soil, and then irrigate the area to allow any existing weed seeds in the soil to germinate. A second spray of herbicide is suggested to kill the weed seeds that have sprouted. It is very important to eliminate sod forming grasses as they can come back to invade your plantings in future years. It may take a complete season of repeated spraying and tilling to rid these sod forming grasses. Use of a starter fertilizer, with low nitrogen, is recommended. In addition, lime may be recommended if soils are known to be acidic, as most wildflowers prefer a neutral soil pH.
Wildflower seed varies greatly in size and weight, so blending the seed with an inert carrier such as sand or kitty litter, will help ensure a more even distribution of the seed. A ratio of 3 parts inert to 1 part seed is recommended. For small areas, broadcast the seed mixture by hand or use a drop or cyclone spreader. Rake lightly to maintain proper seed to soil contact, covering seeds to a depth of only ¼ inch. One major cause of germination failure is planting too deep.
Hydro seeding is also effective, especially for larger areas and steep slopes. As the initial step, it is suggested that a small amount of mulch be applied with the seed, followed by the balance of the mulch, as a second step. The idea is NOT to allow the seed to become suspended in the fiber.
Planting rates average 10 pounds per acre or 4 to 6 ounces per 1,000 square foot for separate species or mixtures that average 400,000 to 500,000 seeds per pound. Smaller seeds should be planted less, and larger seeds a bit more. When hydro mulching, double the seeding rates.
An adequate supply of consistent moisture, the first 3 to 4 weeks after sowing is extremely important in the establishment of wildflowers. Annuals will normally germinate within 7 to 14 days, with perennials often up to a week later. In areas where irrigation is not feasible, plant when consistent patterns of rainfall are anticipated. As wildflowers become established, less moisture is needed although supplemental watering has been shown to extend a display, especially during extreme heat, where plants can easily become stressed.
Weeds are often a major problem with wildflower plantings, and many think that weeds are brought in with the wildflower seed. The truth is that most planting sites already contain thousands of weed seeds that lay dormant in the soil, waiting for favorable conditions to germinate. It is extremely important during the site preparation phase to address this issue by removing existing vegetation, encouraging the dormant weed seeds to sprout by lightly tilling the site, and then irrigating. Spray the new growth with an herbicide such as Roundup, wait a week, and sow the wildflower seed. As your wildflowers grow, periodic hand pulling or spot spraying of any weeds should be done as soon as they are identifiable. Aggressive grasses may reappear and compete with your plantings. Certain herbicides such as, Ornamec can be used to control grasses at a young stage.
A fall cleanup is suggested to help your wildflowers reseed themselves year to year. It is suggested to mow the site to a height of 6 inches to maintain a neat appearance and to aid in the distribution of the mature seeds. It is often beneficial to reseed with your favorite species, whether they are perennials for low maintenance or annuals that give a blast of color with a larger window of bloom time. Good seed to soil contact is a must, so it is often beneficial to scratch the soil surface. Mother Nature plays a significant role in the success or failure of all wildflower plantings, so it often takes a number of years to make a display that Mother Nature has taken lifetimes to achieve.
Most people that envision a wildflower planting share a common goal; no mowing, colorful flowers, low cost, and above all, low maintenance. Truth is, many questions need to be addressed before any wildflower plantings are done. While wildflower plantings offer an alternative to the traditional garden, they also provide a dazzling array of color in large-scale areas where cost effectiveness is a concern. However, to think that the same wildflower meadows that Mother Nature has taken a lifetime to create will be established overnight, especially with the “Johnny Apple Seed” approach, is a one-way ticket for failure. During initial establishment, wildflower plantings require as much careful planning, site preparation and maintenance as traditional landscaping. Simply put, if there is little or no effort to prepare soil properly, apply seed, and maintain the site through proper weed control, disappointment will surely prevail.
Other concerns that need to be addressed beyond the proper steps for success are the expectations of the “look” of your wildflower planting. Plantings can and do look noticeably different after the first year of establishment. Most mixtures contain annual and perennial species; the annuals ensuring instant gratification with a quick burst of color that lasts well into the growing season, while the perennials will bloom the second season with a much smaller window of bloom. The second and subsequent years will have the perennials established with minimal maintenance needs, but the colors will not be as vibrant without the annuals nor will the perennials bloom as long. The overseeding of annuals each spring can produce that original burst of color throughout each season. Regardless of what you expect from your plantings, we are blessed with many options in providing maximum color if we only can remember that the final, but most important ingredient is patience.
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