Best practices to begin a small wildflower garden?

kurchian(6A Massachusett)March 21, 2004

I have a small plot about 100' x 100'. I converted it to a "wildflower garden" about 3 years ago and now it looks like a weed patch. I know that many admire weeds as natural, and that is true. But the problem is that it looks terrible and has become an eyesore to me and my neighbors.

When I originally created the garden I made the typical mistakes that are chornicled in this forum and I want to start from scratch this time and do it right. So I am asking for suggestions for "best practices" to accompish my goal.

My goals are as follows:

1. low maintenance (no watering, no fertilizing, infrequent mowing)

2. as attractive as possible, but doesn't have to be a show garden

3. as much seasonal color as practical

I am willing to use Roundup or other appropriate herbicides.

The only color I have at this point in the garden is some daisies in the spring followed by some lupines. Both are very attractive but they are vastly outnumbered by a variety of grasses and thorny weeds that have no color.

So here are my questions:

1. What is ideal season to attempt a renovation of this space?

2. What are the order of events?

3. Should I use a tiller or not?

4. What is the best seed to use here in New England?

5. Any suggestons for seed sources?

Thanking you all in advance!

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ahughes798(z5 IL)

Well, first I'd say put Round-up on everything you have. Let it all die down, I remove the dead plants. Water the now bare soil. Another flush of growth will appear. Round up that bunch, too, when it's about 8 inches high. Repeat another couple of times. What you are doing is trying to deplete the seed bank a little. In the fall, you will end up with a bare patch of land. Check out the New England Wildflower Society ( native plant seed and grass mixtures appropriate for your area, type of soil, moisture level and sun/shade level. Or, you can also get the seed mixes from Prairie Moon. They also have native seed for your part of the country. Both catalogues give very good bed and propagation information, and what to do after stuff starts coming up. Plant the seeds late November at the earliest, as you don't want them to sprout until spring.

You other guys are the experts, let me know if I've left anything out.

Starting a native garden is a bit of work at first, but I think the results are going to be worth it. I started mine last fall.

Here is a link that might be useful: Native Seed Resources:

    Bookmark   March 22, 2004 at 4:49PM
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John_Blakeman(z5/6 OH)

All of the site preparation info above is good. Do it. Get rid of everything with Roundup (or any glyphosate herbicide).

Then, next fall, in Nov or Dec, after the ground has cooled and nothing will germinate, spread an appropriate mixture of native grasses and forbs ("wildflowers") on the site. Let the winter rains and frosts work these into the ground (unless its sloped).

The problem (as IÂve mentioned in several previous posts some time ago) is that "widlflowers" are never, ever found by themselves in nature. In every meadow example there are supporting and weed-suppressing grasses surrounding each forb. The reason your patch looked so bad was because it was a weed haven. If you can, at any time, look down and see bare soil (as you could when the flowers were there), weeds will take over the site.

Consequently, youÂve got to plant proper grasses along with the flowers. And you need to plant a lot more grasses than forbs. You have a quarter-acre site, and I strongly recommend the planting of the grass below at a 10-15 lb/acre rate. ThatÂs about 4 lbs. The forbs are secondary and can be planted in ounce-sized quantities.

But the key to accomplishing all that you wish is the proper selection, planting, and management of the supporting grasses. And there is really (in my experience  and IÂve done a lot of these professionally) only one grass to consider, little bluestem. It will provide all that you want: support for forbs, no requirement for water, fertilizers, or sprays, is gorgeous in all seasons (especially fall and winter in a remarkable russet red), and if properly managed, will persist until the next glacier gets here.

The variety of little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) to use is ÂBlaze. A number of Midwest native grass suppliers have it. I recommend Ohio Prairie Nursery ( They can supply this variety.

Spread the seed, mixed with sand, over a light snow in Nov or Dec. By this, you can see where this fluffy seed lands.

In spring and summer, simply mow the entire area at 3-4 inches. The little bluestem grows downward the first year or two, and is hardly visible (except to an experienced expert). This first-year mowing keeps any weeds from getting the upper hand. In the second year, mow again in May and June, but then back off and let the little prairie grasses begin to shoot up. You will see very little and believe that youÂve wasted your time and money. But after Oct frosts you will see a scattering of reddish small clumps. In the third year, these will become nice clumps of grass of wonderfully thin leaves that toss nicely in the wind. The forbs will be growing between these little bluestem clumps.

In the fourth year you will have what you envisioned, a "wildflower" meadow (not a garden  gardens require constant weeding, watering, and other continual messing -with)

If you think you are planting a Midwestern prairie in New England, you are correct. But as it happens, most of the uplands surrounding what later became Boston was a little bluestem prairie meadow landscape in the early 1600s at the time of settlement. New Englanders erroniously believe that all of the region was ancestrally all in dense forest. Not so. Many large areas, especially near the Coast, were little bluestem prairies created by annual Native American landscape fires. The heath hen, a bird which became extinct on MarthaÂs Vineyard in the 1930s, was actually a New England version (same species, different subspecies) of the Midwestern prairie chicken.

Unless you plant some native prairie grasses, you will not be able to accomplish all that you envision. The finest thing would be to attempt to restore this rare 16th century habitat.

    Bookmark   March 24, 2004 at 4:18PM
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Pharmed(7 va)

I am in NM just off the Sierra Balanca MTs. I have about 3/4 of an acre to the north of my house. A portion of this area has and can be irrigated with a sprinkler system. I am posting a picture of my terrain. I would really like to do a mt wildflower thing there. The big problem will probably be the pesky deer! could anyone give me some advice? I am new to this and plan on turning most of this soil which is pretty rocky and using round up as the herbicide. Thanks

    Bookmark   March 24, 2004 at 6:19PM
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kurchian(6A Massachusett)

I appreciate the thoughtful responses to my question. To tell the truth I had never considered planting grasses along with the wildflower seeds. After all, it is the grasses that ultimatey take over the wildflower plot.

But John's logic has me thinking. Since it is almost impossible to have a 100% wildflower plot, one might as well mis in soemthing that is acceptable.

I take it that the bluestem wil tend to keep out other native grasses?

Theere is still [atches of snow on the ground here and the ground is startign to thaw. As soon as I see some growth out there I shall trop out the Round-up and begin the process of killing the plants in preparation for the late fall seeding.

Another question - After I kill the existing plant material there will be a lot of dead plant matter. the area would be very time-consuming to rake, as the growth is pretty thick and the area is large. Since I sense that tilling is NOT a good idea, I am wondering how to get down to bare earth for my November seeding.

    Bookmark   March 26, 2004 at 10:40PM
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John_Blakeman(z5/6 OH)

The best way (but probably not allowed, nor recommended without having previous experience) would be to burn off the dead grass. But you may have to actually till or cultivate the stuff. You can't plant prairie and wildflower seeds on top of exposed dead vegetation. Again, has to be bare soil.

Check the site preparation instructions at the several prairie seed suppliers' websites.

    Bookmark   March 27, 2004 at 10:31AM
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ahughes798(z5 IL)

John, do you still have last year's weed stalks standing? If so, you could weed whack them down and just give everything a light need to knock yourself out. Then when the weeds start coming up this spring, let them get about 8 inches high, and round-up. Let the little dead weeds just lay there, they will go back into the ground. Keep doing the round-up thing everytime the plants get about the 8", and just let them die back. That's what I did with my little plot, and by November, it was fairly bare ground.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2004 at 10:56AM
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if you plant seedling plugs into holes in the dead grass it will eliminate weeds from invading bare soil. if you plant seeds then dead foliage has to be removed. native grasses planted with the flowers support seedlings and provide less area for weeds. mow the garden in late summer early fall to stop weed seed drop.

    Bookmark   April 7, 2004 at 4:13PM
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