Mother Nature hates bare spots. If a place is unplanted, she will plant something there. In the case of my backyard, her choice is weeds — grasses and stickers and other problem plants. Those are not all she knows, however. Her choices in areas untouched by man can be spectacular. The panorama of colors, sizes, shapes and heights changes throughout the seasons and the results are worth a special trip to see.
There is a part of us that wants to capture the look of pristine parts of our mountains and bring them home to our yards. Keeping in mind that a wildflower will grow naturally in our climate and soils without human intervention, we can make choices of plants that will thrive in our yards. However, do not believe for a moment that they are truly care free. They may flourish in the mountains but a look around the countryside outside our cities will tell you that some help will be in order to have a lovely blooming garden.
Mixtures of well-adapted native flowers can be planted to cover large, open areas or even to replace turf. My personal experience in my own landscape makes me inclined to suggest starting small and experimenting a little. Plants that are exceptionally well adapted may become weedy or escape to areas where they are unwanted. Some of the noxious weeds in our area were imported and planted because they grew altogether too well.
Many of the wildflowers that are favorites in America have been growing in European gardens for centuries. They had their own flower favorites prior to the discovery of America but when early explorers came here, they found plants that intrigued and inspired. They took samples of these plants back to Europe where they caught on quickly. Ironically, some 400 years after the flowers left this country, settlers tended to ignore these same plants in American gardens.
In the beginning of colonial times, settlers were focused on survival and food gardens were of utmost importance. As they became settled, however, they began to plant pleasure gardens. George Washington’s gardens at Mount Vernon included flowers and he avidly exchanged plants with contacts in Europe. However, his primary passion was trees and shrubs.
Thomas Jefferson may have been an even more avid horticulturist than Washington, if that is possible. The two corresponded regularly about the plants they were growing and shared information and plant materials. Jefferson collected and tested plants and saved seeds to grow wildflowers in his garden.
Many of his garden plants were started with plants collected by Meriwether Lewis during the Lewis and Clark Voyage of Discovery in the early 1800s. They discovered some plants that are very familiar to us such as scarlet globemallow, blanketflower and purple coneflower.
Early colonists created manicured and formal designs that were popular in Europe. The publication of William Robinson’s “The Wilde Garden” in 1870 changed all that.
Robinson celebrated the looser, less formal designs that grew plants that would flourish in a home landscape. Designs included peonies, hollyhocks, phlox, roses and other plants that we still consider grandma’s old-fashioned garden plants. As I mentioned, start small and experiment before you go whole hog into this kind of garden. This does not mean scattering the contents of a cute packet of wildflower seeds. Too often this results in a nice-looking garden the first year, but the next year many of the original plants will have died and the stronger plants will take over.
It’s good to know what you are working with. If you do choose a packet of pre-mixed wildflowers, choose something geared to our climate. If you choose one that is designed for east-coast gardens, you may find that the flowers don’t do very well after the first year or so.
Carefully planned and properly chosen flowers require less maintenance than traditional landscape plantings. This does not mean no maintenance. Irrigation will be required the first year and some weeding may still be required.
Using native plants carefully planted can result in an attractive result that requires less watering, fertilizing pest control and mowing.
Flowers have other ecological benefits. They provide nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies and other pollinators, and they provide food for birds and wildlife. Research points out that bees may be more attracted to native plants than to imported flowers.
Plants with deep roots help control erosion and withstand drought. They bring earthworms and beneficial soil microorganisms that make the soil healthy.
By selecting plants carefully, you can achieve a balance so that one plant won’t take over everything else. Plant them so that they are mixed, but keep in mind that Mother Nature tends to plant in clumps rather than totally mixing plants up. A small clump here and a larger one there with other flowers and clumps intermixed might be just the ticket.
When you choose wildflowers, you might want to consider some of the following. You may already have some of these in your flowerbeds because they do grow well here: purple coneflower, California poppy, columbine, butterfly weed and black-eyed or brown-eyed susans.