While spring is a popular time of year to plant wildflowers, fall is increasingly becoming the planting season of choice. The flowers bloom a few weeks earlier the following spring (or summer) once the temperature is just right. All you need to get started is a bare patch of dirt and some wildflower seeds.
Related: How to Maintain a Wildflower Garden
Despite their delicate appearance, wildflowers can handle tough growing conditions, such as poor soil and adverse weather, on their own. With a little preparation we can bring these flowers of the wild into our gardens and enjoy our own shows of colorful spring blooms.
Although wildflowers can grow in nature without help, they need a little assistance to get started in a garden setting. Let’s start at the beginning with the best time to plant, then move on to where to plant, how to prep the site, which wildflowers to grow and, finally, how to sow, water and care for them.
When to plant. We look to nature when deciding the best time to sow seeds, and in nature the seeds of dried wildflowers fall to the ground in autumn and come up the following spring when sufficient rain and warm temperatures are present. The same timeline can also work for planting wildflower seeds in the home garden. Depending on where you live, the exact time to plant wildflowers in fall can differ.
USDA zones 1 to 6: This area includes the Northeast, Midwest and Mountain States. In this region there is a short interval in which seeds should be sown — after temperatures dip below freezing (32 degrees Fahrenheit, or 0 degrees Celsius) and before the ground freezes.
USDA zones 7 to 11: These regions experience milder winters and include the Southeast, the Southwest, California and coastal northwestern areas of the United States. In these zones, wildflower seeds can be sown anytime between September and December.
Where to plant. Select a site that is relatively flat or tucked away among rocks, which will prevent the seeds from being swept away by storm runoff. Consider planting wildflowers in the outer areas of the landscape where it transitions to natural surroundings. A parking strip between the street and sidewalk in front of your home is another great place to add wildflowers. A small patch of wildflowers next to a courtyard or patio can also be enjoyed from a seating area.
The amount of sun or shade that your planting site needs depends on what types of wildflowers you decide to grow. However, in general, wildflowers do best in areas that receive at least six hours of sun. Make sure that you have a water source nearby, as a wildflower garden does best when provided with supplemental water.
Which wildflowers to grow. The choice is yours as to whether you plant a single type of flower for a dramatic color statement or a mixture of several types. Here are some guidelines to help you decide.
- Observe the wildflowers that grow naturally in your region. These will be the easiest to grow, as they are adapted to the soil and climatic conditions where you live.
- Check with your local cooperative extension office or Master Gardener program for a list of wildflowers that do well where you live.
- Visit WildflowerInformation.org for a list of wildflowers that grow well in your region.
Preparing the planting site. While you can simply throw some seeds on the ground and hope for the best, potential obstacles include lower-than-average rainfall, birds and other animals, as well as rock-hard soil. A little preparation will help maximize the amount of flowers that will grow and help remove these obstacles.
- Clear the site of any vegetation that might choke out or compete with future wildflowers.
- Lightly rake the soil to 6 inches in depth, which will help the seeds to germinate more easily.
- Incorporate 4 inches of compost into the native soil, which will improve the soil texture and add nutrients that make it easier for wildflowers to grow.
- Water the prepared planting site to a depth of approximately 12 inches just before spreading the seeds. This will create a moisture bank for the new seeds as they germinate and help prevent the seeds from drying out.
Sowing wildflower seeds. You can spread seeds by lightly throwing them with your hands over the prepared area. However, to make it easier to evenly spread seeds, mix them with sand (one part seeds to 10 parts sand) so you can see where you have spread them and what areas need more.
Lightly rake the seeds into the soil, or simply walk over the newly seeded area, to help press them into the soil, where they will receive the sun they need to germinate. It’s important to keep the seeds within the top quarter-inch inch of soil, or they may not germinate.
If birds suddenly descend on your newly seeded area, you can add temporary protection. Create a 2-foot-tall fence made of chicken wire attached to stakes and cover it with bird netting.
Watering your wildflower garden. After sowing seeds, water every day or two with a sprinkler or light spray of water. The goal is to keep the soil evenly moist, but not soggy, until the seeds germinate. Once tiny seedlings appear, gradually extend the time between watering from one day to two days, then to three or more. The goal is to not allow the young plants to dry out. Once each wildflower plant has more than five leaves, watering once a week or less is usually enough until the flowers begin to fade.
Caring for wildflowers. As your wildflowers begin to germinate, you may need to thin out those growing in thick clumps, which involves removing excess plants. The goal is to have an average of 2 to 3 inches of space in between each plant.
Once the flowers begin to droop and fade, you may be tempted to pull them out, but don’t. They need to dry out completely so that they will drop new seeds onto the ground for the following year’s wildflower garden. After your wildflowers have dried and the seeds have had a chance to fall to the ground, you can cut them down with a lawn mower or string trimmer and rake them away.
Preparing for next year’s wildflowers. Once you have gone through the entire growth cycle of the wildflower garden — from sowing all the way to removing the dried-out flowers — the following year’s garden has already been planted with the seeds resting on the ground until the time is right during spring to germinate.
In the following years, begin the process in fall with watering the wildflower garden where the seeds from last year’s flowers have already been sown.