Wildflower Mixes Info

Seeds Trust has been conducting trials and tests on wildflower mixes for the last twenty-three years. Our first trials in 1984 were based on information gathered from 1981-1983 by Florence Muldar Mackey and the landscape committee of the Ketchum Library. A total of nineteen years of careful, on-sight observations has taught us much about the design of wildflower mixes. We have won independent competitions against mixes from around the nation. We have received mail from around the world with stories about our mixes performing for as long as 3 or 4 years. We continue to hear success stories about the performance of our mixes at sea level in Newport Beach, California and at 10,000 ft. in Conifer, Colorado.

On the other hand, we are amazed at the extremely large number of variables involved in the design of wildflower mixes. We know that a tremendous amount of work remains. A large number of native wildflowers still need to be tested individually. Each flower needs to be combined at different percentages and planted in a range of soil, water and sun conditions.

We continue to work on the difficult, long-term goal of creating perennial wildflower mixes for each set of environmental conditions. We also continue to improve our annual mixes so that gardeners can enjoy the magic of wildflowers with a minimum of work. Our tests are structured to include flowers that bloom earliest in the spring and eliminate flowers that misbehave as weedy invaders. Our mixes are continually restructured to provide a balance of colors all summer-long.

We have learned that there is one indispensable ingredient to the successful cultivation of a wildflower garden: personal experience. Do not be deceived. Often the carefree appearance of a well-designed wildflower garden can belie the hours involved in achieving a natural look. Devoted wildflower gardeners know well the soil that nourishes. They are familiar with local rainfall and temperature variances. Always they are keen observers, noting the first seeds to germinate, watching for the identifying green foliage and delighting in the buds that follow.

The new millennium will be remembered as a time of landscaping naturally. Through ecologically sensitive seed saving and quality seed production, there has never been a better opportunity to enjoy the magic of the wild in your home garden. Join us in the endless adventure of planting wildflowers. Feel free to experiment. Try your woodland, meadow or mountain favorites. Select by color, height, and time of blossoming! Unknown successes await you!

CHOICES

Gardeners should make a number of decisions before proceeding to buy or plant any new wildflower mix.

SIZE OF AREA TO BE PLANTED

Size of area to be planted is most important in narrowing the number of options available to wildflower mix gardeners. Mixes with a wide range of prices can be designed because of recent improvements in the availability of wildflower seeds. Depending on the size of the area to be planted, a number of different mixes can be designed with different costs.

Large areas planted properly can be expensive. We usually recommend tests on small plots in each new area before acres of ground are committed to wildflower mixes. If small test plots are not possible, risk can be reduced by planting mixes designed with less expensive varieties.

Stress often results from planting too large an area that cannot be maintained as the season progresses. Low maintenance mixes are an option, but usually more expensive.

ENVIRONMENTAL REQUIREMENTS

A complete environmental assessment of the area to be planted is important. Gardeners should have a good idea about the sun, soil, and water conditions in areas to be planted with wildflower mixes. Different mixes will be necessary for each different set of conditions.

Gardeners usually know enough to plant shade tolerant wildflowers in shady locations. Many wildflowers are adapted to other specific conditions including clay, alkaline or acid soils or extremely high or low elevations.

PERSONAL REQUIREMENTS

Because of the tremendous amount of options available, gardeners need to have a good idea of what they desire from their wildflower mix garden before committing money and time. For example, we have designed mixes to provide cut flowers for dinner table centerpieces, edible flowers for salads and dried flowers for wreaths. Mixes can explode with bold, primary colors or shimmer with light and fanciful pastels. Some gardeners prefer tall borders for fences and walls. Others want low growing meadows as a transition between lawns and surrounding natural environments. We stopped planting Heart of Idaho next to the road in front of our house because so many people stopped to ask where they could buy such a beautiful garden. Our personal requirement is more privacy.

PLANTING STRATEGIES

Gardeners who plan a strategy before planting have the greatest chance for success. A strategy for planting wildflowers should be based on the gardener's level of expertise. We now think planting an annual wildflower mix is the easiest and fastest method of "naturalizing" yards and gardens. Annual wildflower gardens teach valuable techniques, many of which are necessary in successful perennial gardens. Perennial wildflower gardens offer advantages, but at this point, require much more than a randomly scattered mix of seeds.

ANNUAL WILDFLOWER MIXES

Annuals bring brilliant colors as early as mid-summer that last until the first hard frost. After the soil is prepared, the garden is planted and germination occurs, the only maintenance needed is watering, which is easily automated. A properly chosen wildflower mix should create an absolutely beautiful, rainbow of colors in as little as 5 weeks. Beginning wildflower gardeners can get acquainted with many new wildflowers at one time, and favorite flowers can be identified in the mix and included by themselves in subsequent gardens.

Although annual gardens must be planted every year, many gardeners have decided that annual planting is much easier than the planning and long-term commitment necessary for a successful perennial wildflower garden. Once established, many annual wildflowers reseed themselves reducing the recommended amount of seeds that must be planted each spring to maintain a balance of colors.

PERENNIAL WILDFLOWER MIXES

As natural gardening sweeps the country, myths about growing wildflowers are beginning to flourish. In the past few years, we have received hundreds of letters from people who believe that since wildflowers grow spontaneously in nature, they flourish without maintenance year after year in gardens where nothing else will grow. This widespread misconception helps to explain the astronomical increase in sales of wildflower seeds and plants to people who have never gardened.

New gardeners are disappointed in efforts to create a perennial wildflower garden because of the amount of time necessary to establish one. Some of the native perennials adapted to the Mountain West take more than one year to germinate. Most take between 2 and 4 years to begin blooming. Weed control and succession need to be managed.

A serious gardener, with care and observation, can cultivate a natural perennial wildflower garden even if perennial wildflower mixes have not been perfected. This is done by planting additional wildflower seeds or plants as well as deliberately weeding and trimming the very vibrant varieties. In the end, this process is not unlike maintaining an English cottage garden. Given the extra commitment, perennial flower gardens present a number of advantages.

Mature, perennial wildflowers are the first to bloom each spring in any garden, and, of course, perennials do not have to be planted every year. The familiarity that comes from seeing the same plants in the same garden year after year allows gardeners to coordinate and fine-tune color and texture sequences as different perennials come and go each season. The required thinning produces new seedlings to give away or to plant in new areas of the garden. Mature perennial flowers are often more drought-tolerant because their roots have had a number of years to grow deeper.

LIMITS

We have learned to limit our expectations about wildflowers. In doing so, we have learned to avoid costly mistakes still plaguing many gardeners.

WHAT IS A WILDFLOWER?

At one time all flowers were wildflowers. Long ago some of the wild varieties made the transition to domestic gardens and parks. Over the years, selections were made, resulting in the beautiful, large, uniform flowers found in today's seed catalogs. The important question for new wildflower gardeners is, "Why were some flowers chosen through the centuries to be domesticated while others were left to remain wild?" In other words, "What is a wildflower?"

Today's wildflowers are generally either those varieties that grow "too easily", quickly taking over as uncontrollable "weeds" or those varieties that are difficult to grow and have resisted efforts over the centuries to be grown outside their natural environment.

While it is impossible to group all wildflowers into these two categories, the exercise begins to point out some of the limits gardeners face when planting wildflowers for the first time.

WEEDY WILDFLOWERS

Gardeners in the mountains must learn to avoid weedy varieties like morning glory and yarrow which overtake yards and lawns as well as flower gardens. Check the labels of out-of-state cans of wildflower seeds promising instant and long-lasting success. Flowers not "weedy" in one area may be noxious in another. One of our local clients paid more than $4,000 over 3 years to remove weedy wildflowers included in an out-of-state mix. Look to local experience for the best information. Noxious weed lists are available from state agriculture departments and county extension agents.

On the other hand, noxious wildflowers in one area may be fine in another. Even though Ox-eye daisy seed sales are unlawful in the state of Washington and bachelor's buttons cause problems in northern Idaho, both can be used in wildflower gardens above 6,000 ft. In fact, we now sell a number of naturally aggressive wildflowers including African daisy and California poppy because sub-zero, mountain winters prevent uncontrolled invasions.

DIFFICULT WILDFLOWERS

Many of the West's most popular, native wildflowers are classified as difficult to domesticate unless helpful "tricks" are learned. For example, lupine seeds can be put in boiling water to coax early germination. Indian Paintbrush is a partial parasite to surrounding native plants and may take 18-24 months to germinate. Many other natives need to be cold-treated (stratified) before germination takes place.

Obviously, special precautions are needed if difficult varieties are included in a wildflower mix. If a variety is especially slow to germinate, separation from other fast germinating varieties is necessary. Varieties that need stratification need to be separated in the mix and planted in fall or early spring. Seek advice for regional varieties by asking local, experienced gardeners, nurseries and regional seed companies.

A number of good books about wildflower propagation are now available with more on the way. Collecting, Processing and Germinating Seeds of Wildland Plants by James A. and Cheryl Young is an encyclopedic approach to collecting and germinating seed from tiny, fragile annuals to tall trees. Another useful manual has been Gardening with Native Plants of the Pacific Northwest by Arthur R. Kruckeberg. This marvelous book identifies 250 wild ornamentals in the Pacific Northwest and describes their natural habitat as well as methods of propagation and cultivation.

STRATIFICATION

One of the more useful "tricks" for successful germination of wildflower seed is to "stratified" them . The best explanation of stratification came to us from Jim Borland who works for the U. S. Forest Service in Denver, Colorado.
"Stratification is a term which was in common use at least as far back as the '30's and '40's and was used to describe a process whereby seeds, usually of trees, were placed alternately between layers of moist sand in a wooden container. After this layering process was complete, the entire container was moved to a refrigerated room where temperatures were usually held between 34°F and 41°F. for the duration of the prescribed period for that species, usually between one and three months.”

Although the dictionary word 'stratification' means only 'layering', foresters have long used the term to mean the subjection of seed to both cool and moist conditions, even if the seed was not actually layered with sand or peat moss. Today, seed is commonly mixed with a moist medium and held in a variety of containers in refrigerated storage.

Most importantly, the term has nothing to do with freezing and thawing or the temperatures associated with them. Having done a great deal of literature searching and some experimentation of my own, I have yet to find a documented case where freezing and thawing has had any benefit on the germination of seed of any type, including hard or thick seeded types.

If you buy wildflower seeds that need to be stratified, you might try planting them outside in early spring (March or early April). Often mountain gardeners have six or more weeks of spring weather allowing seeds to be exposed to cold temperatures and damp ground without subjecting them to prolonged stressful conditions associated with dry, sub-zero mountain winters.

Sawtooth mt. mint and Colorado columbine both germinate exceptionally well using this method. You can stratify artificially if you live in a warmer climate or want to plant during summer months. Place seeds in moist compost, wrap securely in plastic and place in the refrigerator (not the freezer). Leave for at least 4 weeks.

SUCCESSION

The process in which plants come and go in specific ecological settings is called "succession". An understanding of "succession" helps to explain why randomly scattered wildflower seeds will not create (in one or two seasons) what botanists call "a stable climax community" of flowers. The varieties of plants in any plant community naturally change over the years. The presence of one variety creates the conditions for others to be established. Depending upon the changing conditions in your garden, different flowers will be more successful at establishing themselves at the expense of weaker or less-adapted varieties.

The rate of change in a succession is most intense for several years at the beginning of a new cycle when a wildflower garden has first been planted. The successful wildflower gardener manages these natural changes in perennial wildflower gardens by planting additional wildflower seeds and plants as well as deliberately weeding and trimming the very vibrant varieties.

Overly aggressive, weedy varieties dominate early succession and become difficult to remove or control. Where seeds were originally planted, yarrow, black-eyed Susan, ox-eye daisy and most native grasses dominated every three-year-old, wildflower garden we investigated.

LIFE HABIT

Beware! Descriptions about the life habit of wildflowers in mountain gardens can be deceiving. The fact that a gardener has planted "perennial" wildflowers may mean little in producing a perennial garden. For instance, the vibrant orange California poppy is listed in wildflower books as a perennial. In many places in the upper Wood River Valley it is not. Rarely does this beautiful flower return for a second season and hardly ever a third. On the other hand bachelor's buttons, usually listed as an annual, is one the wildflowers that often reseeds itself to reappear year after year.

Seek advice from experienced, local gardeners in your area. Our chart illustrates varieties' life habits and various characteristics at 6,000 ft. in the mountains of central Idaho and other high elevations.

GRASSES

We are asked often to suggest wildflowers that can be planted with grasses to create a lasting, natural, meadow. Our only answer so far is dandelion. In other words, we have yet to design an acceptable wildflower mix that includes grass seed. In fact, grasses completely dominated every three-or-more-year-old, perennial wildflower garden we investigated where grass seed was included in the original mix. Unless pure grass is an acceptable outcome, areas planted with wildflower mixes should be separated from areas planted with grasses. Gardeners can combine wildflowers and grass seeds to create a meadow as long as they accept the fact that the wildflowers will disappear over the years.

Bunch grasses such as sheep fescue are Indian rice grass allow more spaces for wildflowers to become established and delay the eventual domination of grasses.
Universities and botanical gardens are attempting to produce stable, wildflower meadows that contain grasses.

Burning and mowing are the techniques most tried. Our experience burning and mowing has been disappointing. Burning allows the invasion of weedy, pioneer species. Native grasses, mowed to a height of 4", completely dominated wildflowers instead of encouraging them.

Complete segregation of grasses and flowers is recommended. Segregated areas can be small and intermixed to create a meadow look. In nature, grass meadows often contain segregated colonies of pure flowers. We think our mixes, given enough time, evolve into this segregated pattern. By planting segregated patterns in the beginning, wildflower gardeners can skip years of unacceptable changes brought on by natural succession.

PLANTING INSTRUCTIONS - ANNUAL WILDFLOWER MIXES

Choose wildflowers that "act" as annuals in your climate. Fortunately for gardeners in harsher climates, the list of acceptable wildflowers is long. Many of the perennial varieties and self-seeding annuals that result in weedy problems in other climates can't survive sub-zero winters. They make excellent additions to mountain gardens because they are quick to bloom and hardy enough to survive sudden changes in environmental conditions including dry, hot weather and sudden cold spells.

PLANTING INSTRUCTIONS -PERENNIAL WILDFLOWER MIXES

Gardeners must learn to master a number of challenges in order to create a successful, perennial wildflower garden. Identify and avoid weedy varieties. Learn the tricks necessary to propagate difficult varieties. Manage succession by planting additional wildflower seeds and plants. Weed or trim vibrant varieties.

Gardeners in the arid West can minimize labor in perennial wildflower gardens by employing what we call "The Muldar Method" after Florence Muldar Mackie, our teacher. She summed up her practical, tested philosophy by saying, "Turn down the water and turn down your problems". Once established, drought-tolerant flowers need little extra water. With no surface moisture, weed seeds and seeds from self-seeding wildflowers don't germinate. The time necessary for weeding and thinning is greatly reduced. Maintenance is further reduced because established plants tend to "behave themselves" and spread more slowly. As a bonus, Florence noticed that the beautiful blossoms that graced her yard from early spring to late fall lasted longer because they were not being prematurely disturbed by sprinkler spray.

COMBINE PERENNIALS AND ANNUALS

We often recommend a strategy that takes advantage of both annuals and perennials. Gardens divided into alternating annual and perennial sections are colored the first year by the fast-blooming annuals while perennials are beginning to establish themselves. Color is provided during the subsequent seasons by second year perennials while areas originally planted with annuals are systematically perennialized.

SOIL

Although many wildflowers do fine in marginal soil with low-nitrogen content, performance for most wildflowers is best in well-drained, composted, garden loam. Simply put, the better the soil, the better the display of flowers.

At high altitudes, soils reach their extremes and are inherently more fragile, more alkaline or more acidic and more deprived of organic matter than soil in more moderate climes. Top soil is often non-existent, or subject to rapid degradation by being exposed to severe wind and intense sun. We encourage gardeners to build up and care for soil by:

  1. Adding organic matter. We continually obtain the best yields in our gardens after focusing upon feeding first our soil and secondly the plants growing in it. Feed soil with copious amounts of fully decomposed compost. Be aware that overly fresh manure and other undigested organic matter may take too long to decompose in cold, spring soil, aggravating already acidic pH levels and lowering nitrogen levels. If necessary, add overly fresh manure as early in the fall as possible.

  2. Adding nutrients. The optimum method for building a supply of available nutrients in garden soil is to add organic soil aids each spring. Organic soil aids decompose slowly over the years thereby preventing overdose damage. The necessary macro and micro nutrients are assured. Testing and fine tuning for specific nutrients becomes unnecessary. Balance between nitrogen and phosphorous is preserved when both are added at the same time at recommended amounts.

WATER

Many wildflowers, once established, are drought-resistant. However, it is mandatory to keep soil moist 3-4 weeks while germination takes place. Seeds must be kept moist during the fragile stage when they swell with water until the time when new little roots have grown deep enough to find soil moisture. Important: do NOT let the seeds dry out! This may require watering 2 to 4 times each day.

Sunny, hot, windy days and sandy soil conditions may require a short watering, as often as every hour. (Note: Most automatic sprinkler systems can be adjusted to this demand.) After wildflowers have been established, water less frequently but consistently to prolong season-long blossoming.

PLANTING

Divide the area to be planted into a number of equal areas. (We draw lines in the soil with sticks.) Divide the seeds equally and place in separate bags. Using one bag for each area will prevent under-seeding some areas or over-seeding and running out before every area is planted. Lightly rake seeds so they are covered with approximately ½" of soil; or mulch with straw or compost. Note: we have seen no distinct advantage in germination using expensive hydro seeding techniques in areas that can be watered.

WEEDS

Weeds should be "managed" rather than "eradicated". Before rushing out to destroy every weed in sight, remember that they can help prevent erosion and help keep soil moist. Certain weeds provide habitat for beneficial insects. Pulled and left on the ground or moved to a compost pile, they become an important source of organic matter.

Minimize weeds in wildflower gardens by minimizing or preventing soil disturbance. Anytime soil is opened, tilled or turned it becomes vulnerable to invasion from new plants. Plants most often to appear first are what botanists call "pioneers". Unfortunately, most of the rest of us know them as the most troublesome weeds including thistle, mustard and mullein.

Rushing to plant wildflower seeds in the spring before weeds emerge is not always a successful strategy. If weed seed is in the soil (some varieties can be dormant for up to seven years), weeds can successfully out-compete wildflowers. Densely planted, established wildflowers will help prevent the germination of new weed seeds blown or washed into a garden.

Ideally, weeds should be controlled before wildflowers sprout; newly sprouted weeds and wildflowers are difficult to distinguish. When planting a newly disturbed area, we suggest waiting until the first crop of weeds has come up and been removed before sowing wildflower seeds. In some cases, we have seen a second and even a third crop of weeds that needed to be removed.

DESIGN CRITERIA

Seeds Trust has been conducting its own wildflower mix trials and tests for over twenty-five years. We continue to work on our long-term goal of a perennial, mountain, wildflower mix. We also continue to improve our annual mixes so that gardeners can enjoy the magic of wildflowers with a minimum of work. Our goals in order of importance are as follows:

  1. Wildflowers that do not take over gardens and yards and result in time consuming, "weedy" messes.

  2. Wildflowers that bloom earliest in the spring or fit into a sequence with other acceptable flowers to produce a balance of colors all season-long.

  3. Wildflowers that are easy to germinate and require a minimum of maintenance.

  4. Wildflowers that are drought-tolerant.

  5. Wildflower mixes that remain balanced perennially with a minimum of subsequent labor.