A strategy for planting wildflowers should be based on the gardener's level of expertise. Annual gardens are easy and teach many valuable lessons necessary for successful perennial gardening. Annual and perennial strategies can be combined. The following suggestions are listed in order of difficulty.
Annual Wildflower Gardens
Planting annual wildflowers is the easiest and fastest method of "naturalizing" yards and gardens.
Annuals bring brilliant colors as early as mid-summer that last until the first hard frost. After the soil is prepared, the garden planted and germination occurs, the only maintenance needed is watering, which is easily automated.
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.
Choose wildflowers that act as annuals in your climate. Fortunately for gardeners in harsher climates, the list of acceptable wildflowers is long because many of the perennial varieties that result in weedy problems in other climates can't survive sub-zero winters. Precisely because of their weedy nature, these perennials make excellent additions to mountain gardens. They are quick to bloom and hardy enough to survive sudden changes in environmental conditions including dry, hot weather and sudden cold spells.
Divide garden space to be planted into separate, small areas. Devote each area to one wildflower. This makes identification of weed seedlings easier when wildflowers first germinate, and allows each variety to form its own colony in a specific area. Different groups of these small areas can be "painted" with varieties selected for the color of their flowers. By dividing areas a rainbow look can be created.
Annual Wildflower Mixes
Beginning wildflower gardeners can get acquainted with many new wildflowers at one time by planting a wildflower mix. A properly chosen wildflower mix can create a strikingly beautiful, mix of colors in record time. Favorite flowers can be identified and selected for next year's garden.
Newly sprouted weeds and the numerous wildflowers in a wildflower mix are difficult to distinguish. Weeds must be controlled before wildflowers are planted.
Check the labels of out-of-state cans of wildflower mixes promising instant and long-lasting success. Many contain weedy perennials that are difficult if not impossible to remove.
Perennial Wildflower Gardens
An established, perennial, wildflower garden is not unlike an English, cottage garden. Though the challenges are many, the rewards have been extolled for centuries.
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 coordintate and fine tune color and texture sequences as different perennials come and go each season. New seedlings to give away or plant in new areas of the garden are a natural by-product as the garden is thinned. Mature perennial flowers are often more drought-tolerant because their roots have had a number of years to grow deeper.
Gardeners are often disappointed in efforts to create a dream perennial wildflower garden because of the amount of time necessary to establish one. Unfortunately, some of the native perennials adapted to the Mountain West take more than one year to germinate. Most take between two and four years to begin blooming.
Successful, perennial wildflower gardeners must learn to master a large number of challenges including propagation of difficult varieties, succession management (planting additional wildflower seeds and plants) and the weeding or trimming of 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. She sums up her practical, tested philosophy by saying, "Turn down the water and turn down your problems."
Florence's garden in Ketchum, Idaho was a laboratory with one major goal: maximize season-long color with a minimum of labor.
Florence combined a life-long passion for native landscaping with the necessity of "cutting back on the amount of work that has to be done." The single most important component in her success was the planting of drought-tolerant flowers, shrubs and grasses. Once established, these varieties needed little extra water. In our desert, mountain climate (average 12" rainfall per year) little or no natural, surface moisture is present in the summer. 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 Annuals and Perennials
We often recommend a strategy that takes advantage of both annuals and perennials. Planting annual wildflowers is the easiest and fastest method of "naturalizing" yards and gardens. Perennial wildflowers take longer to bloom and require more work, yet last much longer. Gardens divided into alternating annual and perennial sections are colored by the fast-blooming annuals the first year while perennials are beginning to establish themselves. During the second and third seasons when gardens are colored by the now-blooming perennials, areas originally planted with annuals can be re-planted with perennials.