Wildflower gardens have a bad reputation. How many wildflower gardens are purchased in a can, bag, or box? With great anticipation, the seeds are scattered, tossed, or shaken onto bare ground. However, the seeds rarely grow into the sweeping meadows of color promised in the photo.
Sprinkling seeds on a patch of dirt and then leaving them to fend for themselves will not grow a native garden. Most seeds do better if you start them in pots and then transplant them to the garden. Planting is not as easy as sprinkling, but the results are far more rewarding.
Wildflowers, just like their more finicky tame cousins, grow best in amended soil with added water during drought, especially while they become accustomed to their new home. Make choices carefully to fit the garden site conditions.
Purple coneflowers could be the poster flower for wildflower gardens. Native to Eastern North America, they are carefree additions to many sunny gardens. Often, gardeners do not know they are growing a native plant. The coneflowers, also known by their Latin name, Echinacea, are hardy summer bloomers with large, daisy-like rose-pink flowers centered in orange. Strong stems hold up the large flower heads. Even the seed cones are attractive. Watching birds dine on the swaying seed heads is a bonus.
This native has undergone extensive changes in the floral industry. The Magnus coneflower was the 1998 Perennial Plant Association's Perennial of The Year. It has flatter petals and a darker cone than the native. Recently developed yellows and oranges are now part of the coneflower pallet.
Other natives mixed into the landscape create a more subtle appearance. Tommie Moody is a Master Gardener whose garden overflows with both native and non-native plants. She has created a successful mix under mature long leaf pines, white oaks, and black gum trees.
Her understory small trees and shrubs include dogwood, paw paw, buttonbush, fringe tree, Virginia sweetspire, and ornamental flowering trees. She has amended her soil so that it is a rich growing environment. She uses overhead sprinklers and soaker hoses when drought threatens her garden.
Tommie has mixed purple coneflowers with a hedge of pink and white garden phlox. Throughout her garden, the coneflowers cluster in sunny groups, adding color and butterfly landing pads to the summer greens.
A little blue flowered petunia, a native ruellia, travels around her garden. “It’s a nice little wildflower, but it reseeds like crazy,” Tommie laughed. It even comes back in the grass after mowing, sending up one little blue flower. It has its drawbacks; it closes up at noon. Devoid of its flower, it takes on a weedy look. It does not impress afternoon garden visitors.
Partridgeberry, a low growing native groundcover, fills in the shady open ground. Tommie uses it as a foil underneath her grouping of mayapples. “It will cover a bank, it will help with erosion control in shady areas,” she said. “You can walk on it some. It’s not one of those things that's going to be too shy about you stepping on it. I wouldn’t walk on maidenhair ferns but I might walk on partridgeberry when I need to weed,” she explained.
Both northern and southern maidenhair ferns thrive in the woodsy atmosphere. Fern leaf bleeding heart, more open and delicate than the maidenhair ferns, adds small pink flowers in early spring. Silent Jack-in-the-pulpits contemplate the quiet shade, adding a stalk full of bright red berries in the fall. Sensitive ferns, ostrich ferns, and cinnamon ferns do well in the moist soil of a wooded garden.
Wild ginger is another attractive, although slow, groundcover. Sometimes called little brown jug, it has heart-shaped full green or silver splashed leaves held just above the soil. The flowers, the brown jugs, are fun for children (and adults) to find underneath the foliage.
The Chinese wisteria can be very rambunctious. A better-behaved native American wisteria for the garden is a selection called ‘Amethyst Falls’. It has chunky pale blue fragrant flowers. Although it can grow to 30 feet, you can easily keep it in bounds with pruning, which also increases flower production. It blooms on new wood.
The cross vine with its trumpet flowers of reddish pink on the outside and yellow on the inside is attractive to both humans and hummingbirds. Passionflower vines draw butterflies with their unique flattened flowers.
Foamflowers are an attractive and easy care addition to the shady garden. They do well in pots or in the ground. The dark leaf patches and cut leaf forms are a distinctive addition to the front of the border.
Wild indigo is suitable for dry sunny locations. The cultivar ‘Purple Smoke’ pushes up dark stalks of hazy blue flowers atop smoky gray foliage. Another cultivar, ‘Carolina Moonlight,’ covers herself with stalks of pale yellow flowers. The foliage starts grayish green and turns silvery blue in the heat of summer. These tough plants are beautiful in or out of bloom. Butterfly weed is another sun lover for a good drainage site.
Tommie pondered her garden, “Most people would look at this and see chaos. I see nature at its best, in my opinion, because I’ve mixed some things that aren’t natural with things that are.” Far from chaotic, it is a garden full of rooms showing off unusual natives, wildflowers, foreign, and domestic treasures. The natives settle into their new homes, happily tamed.
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