Flowers, Garden Helpers, Seeds

How to Grow Wildflowers


INDIGENOUS PLANTS DEFINED ~ a plant that lives or grows naturally in a particular region without direct or indirect human intervention.

When it comes to sowing wildflowers, the most common misconception is that you can wander out onto your lawn, shake one of those pretty cans of wildflower seeds into the wind, and nature will take care of the rest.  After all, that’s the way it works in the wild, right?  But nature is both patient and diverse.  When nature sends its seed heads flying in the wind, most get gobbled up by birds, squirrels and other wildlife leaving only a fraction behind, and of those, only a very few will actually take root.

Photo by Mina-Marie Michell on

Nature doesn’t mind waiting years or even centuries for the ideal conditions to strike to slowly fill a meadow with a scattering of blossoms. It’s all part of Nature’s great plan. But who else, besides Nature, has that kind of time? Certainly not gardeners!  Whether you want a front lawn or an entire meadow frothing with wildflowers, you have to approach it the same way you would when establishing any kind of perennial.  At least in the beginning. . .

Preparing the Site – Everything starts from the ground up!  A large site with lots of well established weeds or grass might take an entire summer to prepare, so now is the time to get started for next year! First remove all existing vegetation by either smothering or tilling or a combination of both.  

Smothering – This is an easy, environmentally friendly method to rid an area of vegetation, but it takes one full growing season to accomplish.  Depending on the size of your project you can use straw, well rotted hay, plastic, carpet, plywood or anything at all that blocks out the sun.  Using straw or hay has the added advantage of giving back organic matter to the soil, but may also “give back” a few weed seeds at the same time.  

Tilling – Tilling the ground is another chemical free method of site preparation, but you still might require an entire growing season to completely kill all the perennial weeds and grasses.  Begin in the spring and keep working the site every couple weeks until all existing vegetation stops resurfacing.  

If you are only creating a small wildflower meadow and can easily hand weed it all, you can start planting over one season the same way you would any new garden.

Starting from Seed – Nurseries are the perfect ethical seed source and fortunately finding one that caters to your area is usually an easy online search.

If you own land that is already home to native plants you might want to try collecting a few seed heads in the fall.  Never take more than 10 percent of the seed heads from any one area to ensure nature’s balance.  For this reason refrain from collecting seeds in public places since you have no way of knowing how many others are doing the same

In the fall lay seeds or seed heads onto well worked ground where you want them to grow and then cover the heads with a couple shovelfuls of compost to keep them from being blown away over winter and you’re done!  Fireweed and Goldenrod respond particularly well to this method. 

Goldenrod Seed Heads
Fireweed in full bloom!

If you prefer, you can sow seeds in flats and then leave them outdoors over the winter to allow for the necessary freezing and thawing to stratify the seeds.  Keep the soil moist and come spring you will hopefully have a flat full of wildflowers ready for transplanting!  Cover to protect the seeds from critters.

Clay Seed Balls   Born in 1913 Masanobu Fukuoka author of The One-Straw Revolution, The Road Back to Nature and The Natural Way of Farming devoted his life to developing a farming system that does not require weeding, pesticide, fertilizer or tilling.  He is credited with re-introducing the ancient technique of seed balls.  

Clay seed balls are perfect for sowing wildflowers.  Simply take some red potters clay, roll it out into a pancake, and cover with a layer of compost or potting soil and sprinkle on some seeds.  

Roll into balls no bigger than a quarter and allow to dry.  When you’re ready to plant you just toss the balls onto a tilled surface.  Fall or early spring works best.  This method protects the seeds from birds and rodents until the rains come, breaking down the clay and allowing the seeds to take root in the compost.  

Seed balls are the preferred ammunition of Guerrilla Gardeners.  Some even use sling shots and tennis racquets to launch the balls where they want them to go!  

Cuttings are yet another propagation possibility.  In the early summer take a cutting from a vigorous plant just below a node (where a leaf grows from the stem) making sure the cutting is at least five to 10 centimetres (two to four inches) in length.  Dust the end with a rooting hormone (available at most garden centres) and place in a flat of damp sand, loosely covered with plastic.  Warmth, humidity and low light are keys to success.  Wait 10 days to two weeks and then gently tug on the cuttings to see if they’re taking root.  When the cuttings start to thrive, you can plant them out, taking care to keep them well watered for at least the first few weeks.  

Transplanting – Plants can be ordered as plugs or in pots from many reputable nurseries.  Transplant in early spring while the ground is still wet and the weather cool for best results.  Don’t forget to water for the first few weeks.  Even though they’re native plants, they’re not used to being transplanted so you will need to treat them as you would any transplant – at least for the first season!

Transplanting from the wild can have a devastating impact on the environment especially since most plants fail to survive their first year.  Digging up wildflowers from public property not only messes with nature, it can also get you a hefty fine.  The only time transplanting from the wild is worth a try, is when land is about to be excavated and the plants would be lost anyway.  If this is the case, get permission, take as much root as you can, water thoroughly and hope for the best.

Maintenance – In the fall you can mulch around your new wildflowers and native shrubs with leaves or compost; this added attention will repay dividends next summer.  After a few years native flowers respond well to being mowed.  Cutting the tops off about six inches from the ground mimics the grazing of animals that would normally take place in the wild and rejuvenates the plants.  Other than that, once a native garden has been established there really isn’t much for you to do except pull the odd weed and enjoy!


“If we throw Mother Nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork.” ~ Poet Horace

A monarch caterpillar crawling over milkweed blossoms.

Insects and Wildlife require the complex properties of indigenous plants for their survival.  A lot of the showy hybrids have such tight petals insects are unable to access them.  Many butterflies rely on specific plants for food and reproduction.  Those little blue butterflies you see around mud puddles every summer depend on wildflowers such as the Showy Locoweed for their nectar supply.  Milkweeds are the only plants that the Monarch butterfly caterpillars feed on!  If Milkweeds disappear, so will the Monarchs. Goldenrods are a vital source of food for the larvae of Lepidoptera, a group of insects which includes many moths and butterflies.  The Goldenrod forms a ball around the larvae in an attempt to confine the invader to a small part of the plant, creating a sort of cocoon for the insect-to-be.  

Goldenrod with its “insect ball” surrounding the larvae of a Lepidoptera

Humans depend on plants as a valuable source of medicine.  Wild species of plants account for half of all prescription drugs in North America.  We continually turn to nature to find new sources for medicine and it is up to us to ensure the plants are there when we need them.  An estimated 654 plant species have disappeared over the past 400 years and hundreds more may now be in danger of extinction.  The loss of a single species can set off a devastating chain reaction. The Castilleja or Paintbrush, for example, needs to obtain its nutrients from a complex balance of plants that surround it.  If one plant dies, it can take countless other plant and animal life down with it.  

Less Work More Enjoyment   Native plants are designed for the climate you garden in.  All those crazy conditions that have hybrids shrieking with horror and tumbling over at the knees are all in a day’s breeze for a wildflower.  Native plants are used to getting by on that great watering can in the sky, so after the first year you can put away the hoses and score one for the environment.  With their deep root systems wildflowers fit perfectly into Xeriscape gardens. As for pesticides and other such chemicals – forget about it!  Native plants are naturally disease resistant.  

Who knows?  Grow wild and you might be able to stop using that garden bench for displaying plants and actually sit in it yourself!

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