Planting wildflowers in ditch full of weeds

fenixDecember 28, 2007

Behind my house I have a ditch full of weeds. I'm ususally dilligent about keeping them down until about mid-summer when they completely take over and it's no use. I'd like to eradicate the weeds somehow and get wildflowers to cover the area; can anybody help me with this? How do I keep the weeds down and what should I plant? What do you guys think about some kind of invasive flowering vine?5

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First, you should identify what you have already to make sure that it is a "weed" and not some desirable native plant. Identifying also helps you have a better idea of how to remove it if it is undesirable.

As to what you should plant ... is this a sunny area? Dry or wet? That would help to know.

What do I think of using an invasive flowering vine? Absolutely, that is NOT a good idea.

    Bookmark   December 28, 2007 at 1:37PM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

If you'd like wildflowers then I don't recommended an invasive vine. And keep in mind that establishing wildflowers takes some patience, its fairly easy, its just doesn't happen "overnight". If you do it right, it will take around three growing seasons before you see something pretty... but once you do, it should be fairly low maintenance and well worth the wait.

Seeing that you live in Iowa, I would recommend that you check out Ion Exchange Nursery. Its a native wildflower nursery in Iowa. They will have seed mixes and will provide you with advice too. You're going to probably get a mix of flowers and grasses...the flowers need the grasses. Have the nursery help you pick a mix best suited for your site.

What you need to do is kill off the existing vegetation in that area... using either a herbicide or a smothering technique. (You'll have to wait until Spring.) You can then mow off the dead stuff and plant a premium native wildflower mix right into the dead turf. (Whatever you do, Don't till the area. Tilling just brings up dormant weed seeds buried in the soil.) I would recommend that you smother the area this spring, keep it smothered this entire growing season and then plant in the fall.

After planting, the main task, is keeping undesirable weeds from taking over the area, while the wildflowers are getting started. This is usually done by keeping the area mowed for the first growing season. Its okay for weeds to grow, you just don't want them flowering and going to seed.

Once you stop mowing, you can do selective weed control by hand...and let the flowers and grasses grow.

Here is a link that might be useful: Ion Exchange

    Bookmark   December 28, 2007 at 1:47PM
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Great advice, Joepyeweed, thank you.
You recommended smothering. What does that mean exactly?

Esh_ga, yes the area is in full sun; and yes, the bottom of the ditch can get wet at times. It is not consistant.

    Bookmark   December 28, 2007 at 5:25PM
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Full sun gives you lots of choices - things like black eyed susans (rudbeckia species), cardinal flower (lobelia cardinalis), even Joe Pye Weed, and many others. Since the bottom of the ditch is not consistently wet, I think it doesn't have to be a consideration.

I second joepyeweed's suggestion that you look for a local mix of flowers and grasses. Here's a link about Iowa's roadside wildflowers that you might find interesting.

Here is a link that might be useful: Wildflowers Found Along Iowa Roadsides

    Bookmark   December 28, 2007 at 10:01PM
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loris(Z6 NJ)


Many people interested in native plants use the word "invasive" only when referring to plants that actually hurt ecosystems. I think it's a good idea to keep the distinction, but if you were really thinking of using a native plant that's also what I've heard called a "garden thug", using a vine might not be a bad idea. I know where I live, Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia creeper) and Lonicera sempervirens (trumpet honeysuckle) have been described this way, although I'm very happy with them in my yard. I haven't checked if they're also native where you are.


    Bookmark   December 29, 2007 at 10:32AM
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Lori, you made a great distinction that most posters do not when you mentioned plants being native to the posters area. So many of the wild flower mixes contain seeds that although they will do well in the suggested area are not native to the area and in many cases to the country.

    Bookmark   December 29, 2007 at 7:11PM
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ladyslppr(z6 PA)

You didn't mention how large the area is, but unless it is really large, I would recommend using plants instead of seed for your wildflowers and native grasses. Sowing seed into a weedy ditch, even if the weeds have been killed, could be a frustrating way to get started. When the seeds sprout, you won't know if they are the seeds you sowed or left over seeds from the weeds. It might be easier to smother or kill a relatively small area, then put in plants, which you could start yourself from seed. Using plants you'll immediately know which vegetation is the stuff you want and which is not. Once you see how a smaller, managable area works, you can repeat or expand to larger areas in future years.

I would select the most aggressive native wildflowers that you find attractive. Native sunflowers, goldenrod, wild bergamot, asters, and many other wildflowers can be garden thugs and therefore are often labeled "invasive" but the tendency to spread that makes them invasive in the garden also allows them to effectively outcompete most non-native weeds. Similarly, large, aggressive native grasses would also be a good idea. I suspect that you'd like to work on this for a couple of summers, but then end up with a ditch that has lots of attractive flowers, but doesn't take tons of maintenance. By planting robust natives you should be able to get them growing, keep the weeds at bay for a couple of years, then not worry too much about the weeds taking over again. There probably will be weeds (unless you are really diligent) but as long as there are enough wildflowers too, I think you'll have an interesting and attractive ditch without excessive work.

before you kill everything in the ditch, take a careful look for native wildflowers you might want to keep. My guess is that there are lots of nice natives in there, and by selectively removing the non-native weeds you can have a pretty nice stand of flowers even before you plant anything.

    Bookmark   December 31, 2007 at 5:11PM
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joepyeweed(5b IL)

Smothering to kill of vegetation involves covering the ground so the plants can't grow, they don't get any sunlight so they die. I use black landscape fabric and wood chip mulch. I cover a future planting area with the fabric and then mulch. The mulch isn't required, but I use it to hold the fabric down and the mulch looks nicer than just black fabric. You could just use rocks or stakes to hold the fabric down. And in a ditch setting you may have to use something more substantial than mulch, if it gets any signficant water flow.

When I am ready to plant I pull up the fabric and plant in the area. I try to use the fabric to contain the mulch, rolling it up, so I can reuse it.

I've heard of people using thick layers of newspaper, or black plastic, old carpeting or plywood. Use what you have access to.

For really large areas, its not practical to smother, then I would recommend using herbicide.

Personally, I've had longer lasting weed kill off using the smothering method than the herbicide.

    Bookmark   December 31, 2007 at 5:12PM
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ladyslppr(z6 PA)

As joepyeweed mentioned, be sure to pull up the landscape fabric before you plant. If the landscpae fabric is left in place, eventually weeds grow through it from the top down, roots become intertwined wtith the fabric, and the whole thing becomes a mess that must be hauled off and thrown away. This cautino aside, I agree that smothering is a more complete way to kill weeds than herbicide. Just make sure you smother until the plants beneath the material you put down are really dead, brown, and rotting away, not just yellow.

    Bookmark   January 2, 2008 at 3:11PM
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leslie123(Z8 WA)

Spraying herbicide into a ditch ... isn't that harmful to fish, amphibians, and such? The directions on herbicides generally say not to use it on areas where runoff can occur, and that it kills fish, etc.

Personally, I hate the stuff. Rural roadside maintenance sprays it on roadsides around here to control weeds instead of simply cutting the grass, so now we have ugly roadsides, dead, brown strips of grass, instead of the once-beautiful green swaths of wildflowers. Why do they do this?


    Bookmark   March 6, 2008 at 11:40PM
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My first question is, who owns the ditch? You may have to get the approval of your local government or utility to do any work in this ditch. If you own it then plug away!

As others have said, killing the existing vegetation is the first step. Since this is a ditch then I would say erosion is a concern. Therefore tilling is not a good option (though it works well with repeated disking in less erosion prone sites).

Also, as others have said, smothering for small areas, herbicide for large areas. I would use an aquatic approved form of Glyphosate, such as Rodeo, Aqua-Neat or Aqua-Master. You will need at least 2 treatments, one to kill the currently living weeds and a second to kill those that emerge after the first ones die. A third treatment may even be necessary. Give it a month between treatments and watch the weather carefully so you don't apply the herbicided when rain is imminent.

Sounds like you could put some wet prairie species in the bottom of your ditch and mesic prairie species along the sides. Rake off all the duff that has accumulated from the dead plants. Rake the soil throughly with a garden rake or dethatcher to prepare the soil as a seed bed. Then carefully distribute your seed, being sure not to spread it too thick in some areas and then run out in others! Once on the ground stomp on the or roll over them with something in such a way that will give you good seed to soil contact. This will be more effective if the ground is moist.

For erosion prone areas such as a ditch I recommend putting down erosion control matting material after you throw down your seed. If you are only slightly worried about erosion (little overland flow and little to no water flow in the ditch) a S75 material should be fine (That's Straw with a thickness/density rating of 75). If there is a fair amount of surface water run-off or if there is occational flowing water in the ditch, then use SC150 (Straw and Coir (coconut fiber) materials, and thicker). You will need to use landscaping staples to hold this in place, use as directed by your retailer.

Once all this is down, you can plant plugs right through the matting if you wish. Cut a hole in the mating with a razor knife, di stick the plugs in. You will need to add a few staples around each hole you cut in the matting to keep it matted down well on the ground.

Mixing plugs into a seeded planting is a great way to get some good progress early on (you will probably get at least some flowers in the very first year) with enough native plant material present to create a solid matrix this will cover bare earth and help fend of the influx of new weeds. Good luck.

    Bookmark   March 7, 2008 at 12:08PM
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Please anyone out there, will gladly pay postage for "ditch" or tiger lillies you want rid of. My midwestern grandmother had big orange lillies growing all over her property and we loved them, they were great, bloomed all summer long. Some had speckles, some not. Having trouble finding them in Salt Lake Utah. Please contact Pat seriously! I want them!

    Bookmark   March 22, 2010 at 11:29AM
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I would love to see your ditch. I too would like to add flowers to my ditch and live in iowa and would love any suggestions you had after you did yours

    Bookmark   June 14, 2013 at 3:33PM
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I see everyone recommending herbicides to get rid of the existing plants, but wonder if getting a burn permit and burning the area in the spring wouldn't be a better idea? In our area, the natives will withstand the burning and bounce right back while most of the non-natives will not. The natives will start popping up in the next couple weeks and then you can go in and replant. Of course, as someone else mentioned, this assumes you have permission to plant the area.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2013 at 3:27PM
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