By Linda Naeve
Iowa State Universisty Extension
Do you spend several hours each week mowing your lawn? Do you ever wonder what you can do to reduce the amount of time you spend on the mower without giving up your large lot or acreage? If you answered “yes” to those questions, the answer may be go wild with wildflowers. The thought of this may bring visions of a weed patch and angry neighbors, but it doesn’t have to be that way. A well planned and planted “wild” area containing native and/or wildflowers can be tidy and beautiful.
Native plants are sometimes referred to as wildflowers, but not all wildflowers are native plants. Native plants are those that were growing in a particular area before human settlement. Wildflowers are native or exotic (introduced) herbaceous plants that are capable of growing, reproducing and becoming established without actual cultivation or human intervention. Even if you decide to grow only “native” plants, do not confuse a garden of native plants with a reconstructed prairie. The process of developing a true prairie ecosystem is complex, involves specific genotypes of native plants and is difficult to accomplish with less than a quarter acre.
Native plants and wildflowers are attractive in small garden areas as well as larger expanses of land that are not cropped or mowed. As expected, a garden containing a variety of blooming forbs (broad-leaved plants) and grasses swaying in the breeze is a perfect match for our Iowa landscape. Besides being beautiful, there are several advantages to growing native plants. They adapt to our local conditions by tolerating harsh winters, summer heat, drought and wind. Once established, they require little or no irrigation. Native plants also grow well without additional fertilizer and are resistant or tolerant to most insect pests and diseases.
Plant species included in most wildflower mixes are selected for their ability to withstand the extremes of a specific climate and for their lasting flowers and variety of bloom times. Some common wildflower species found in mixes blended for the Midwest are: New England aster (Aster novae-angliae), cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea), lance-leaved coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata), corn poppy (Papaver rhoeas), black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), bee balm (Monarda spp.) and Indian blanket flower (Gaillardia pulchella).
Wildflowers can be planted in the spring, summer or fall with advantages and disadvantages with each season. If you are interested in planting a wildflower area yet this year, the best plan would be to prepare the planting area this summer, order or purchase the seed this summer and plant the seed later in the fall.
Site selection. For most wildflowers, select an area that receives full sun. The area should have a somewhat natural look to begin with, such as along a wooded area at the back of your property, along the driveway or fence, or in a large expanse in the front or back yard.
Soil Preparation. Remove existing vegetation this summer and keep it weed free until planting time. Non-selective herbicides, such as Round-up®, will make the job easier. Wait until the vegetation is nearly brown and dead -- 10 days to 2 weeks -- before tilling the soil.
Seeding. Fall planting should be done after a killing frost. Plant your wildflowers the same time you plant your spring-flowering bulbs. A late planting is important so that the seeds will not sprout before winter. If your site is a slope with risk of soil erosion and washing the seed away, prepare the soil and plant in early summer.
There are many nurseries that specialize in wildflower seeds. Select a blend that is recommended for your area and a blend that contains what you desire in your wildflower area or meadow garden. That may be a combination of grasses and brightly flowering forbs or species that attract butterflies. The seeding rate depends on the seed blend and what percent is grass seed. On average, a grass/wildflower blend should be sown at the rate of 10 pounds of seed per acre or a quarter of a pound per 1,000 square feet. Broadcast the seed evenly over the area and carefully rake the seed into the topsoil.
The most difficult aspects of establishing a wildflower garden or meadow may be distinguishing desirable seedlings from weed seedlings and waiting a couple years before you see the outcome of your efforts. During those first few years, it is very important to keep weeds from becoming established. Use the time that you would have been mowing the area for weeding.
For more information on native plants, get a copy of SUL 18, “Introduction to Iowa Native Prairie Plants” available from your local Iowa State University (ISU) Extension county office, online at www.extension.iastate.edu/store or by calling the ISU Extension Distribution Center at (515) 294-5247.