Keeping it wild

Wildflowers add untamed beauty to landscape

Whether you see them along the roadside or in a home garden, wildflowers brighten any landscape with their colorful variety and sheer unstructured joy. They require little, deliver much and can answer the “what on earth am I going to plant here?” question all gardeners confront.

The strip between fence and sidewalk has been the land of opportunity and heartbreak for this gardener. You’ve got sun, shade, decent drainage and potential swampland all in that one yard-spanning strip. I’ve tried to plant coral bells, calla lilies and other eye-catchers in a wide spot by the gate. One year, the plants drowned after the water from heavy early-spring rains didn’t drain well. Other times, bunnies, kids and other cute-but-destructive beings posed a challenge. It just never achieved that colorful, informal look I wanted.

It was time for a little controlled wildness in that troublesome strip. A wildflower garden was created from 1) a prepared mix, 2) seeds left over from other plantings or seasons and 3) a few others I scattered in for fun. We were blessed with a colorful array of lush foliage and blooms, including tall cosmos you could see from a few houses down.

The main challenge the first year was weeds; when you have a hodgepodge of wildflowers, it can be hard to tell the interlopers from the insiders until things get ugly. It’s best to pull them when they’re small – and carefully, so as not to uproot the flowers you want to keep.

If you have a spot in mind for a wildflower garden (granted, a lot of gardens are looking a little wild about now), the best time to prepare the site – fall – is just around the corner. Otherwise, prepare it in March or April.

Allen County Extension Educator Ricky Kemery has written a publication, “ACH-180: Meadow in a Can.” (I could give you a long web address to download the publication, but typing “ACH-180 Purdue” into your search engine will get you there just as easily.) In it, he cautions that establishing a wildflower garden is not as simple as scattering the contents of the can on the ground and having a beautiful, colorful garden magically appear. Site preparation, seed selection and weed control are important, and wildflowers are no fonder of heavy clay soil than their more domesticated counterparts.

Other caveats: Make sure your wildflower garden won’t violate any weed laws established by the city or your neighborhood association, and start small. It’s better to start a small wildflower garden and discover it’s totally not what you wanted than to have a large area go wilder than your wildest, weediest nightmare.

You can’t walk very far into any garden center without seeing wildflower mixes in cans and bags, or even as mats you just roll out. Before you know it, you’re trying to decide whether you want a wildflower garden that attracts butterflies and/or bees, doesn’t mind shade, grows tall or short or blooms in a particular color. Or you’re wandering over to the seed rack to create your own mix. This is usually where you go into a trancelike state and begin tossing anything with a pretty picture of a flower on it into your cart. Or your circuits get overwhelmed with colors and choices, and you quietly skulk off to look at patio furniture.

Instead, here’s some guidance. The publication recommends a few garden wildflower species for our area:
• Cornflower
• Black-eyed Susan
• Cosmos
• Lance-leaved coreopsis
• Plains coreopsis

The cosmos is one of my all-time favorites. The most common variety (Cosmos bipinnatus) grows several feet tall, has feathery foliage and produces pink, white and magenta flowers for most of the season. Cosmos sulphureus, or yellow cosmos, blooms in shades of yellow, orange and red. These self-seeding annuals are a great addition to any wildflower garden.

Unlike other wild things, a wildflower garden doesn’t take off on its own with no help from you. You’ll need to re-seed every two or three years, which gives you a chance to try new species or a different type of mix. So you can not only keep it wild, but keep it evolving.

First appeared in the August 2015 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.

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