When should you start planting wildflowers?

Analysis by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Wildflowers are a natural, low-maintenance option for meadows, fields and even small areas of your garden; when you plant will depend on your hardiness zone and climate
  • Planting in the fall may mean the plants flower earlier than those planted in the spring; areas where there is little to no frost may be able to plant year-round, but refrain from planting during the hottest months of the year
  • The distinction between wildflowers and weeds may be in the eye of the gardener, but entomologists believe one reason insects and birds are disappearing is because flowers being developed are not nutritionally adequate to support wildlife
  • Flowering plants provide nearly 25% of the basic ingredients in modern drugs; some you may plant in your garden with medicinal value include feverfew, yarrow, coneflower and betony

Wildflowers are important to the health and growth of pollinating insects, and attract a variety of bees, birds and butterflies, depending upon the flowers planted. You'll discover some of the varieties of wildflowers available and how they may benefit your yard in this short video.

Wildflowers provide a natural and low-maintenance option for meadows and fields. Since they're normally native plants to your plant hardiness zone,1 they don't often require much care through the growing season.

You don't need a large area to enjoy wildflowers. You may have a strip of ground within your garden or within your yard where you'd like to plant wildflowers. If you have a vegetable garden or fruit trees, attracting pollinators using wildflowers is a great way to ensure a good harvest.2

An additional bonus are the insects they attract to help ward off the bugs that might otherwise feed on your crops. Many wildflowers have also been used for centuries to provide medicinal products, which you may now be able to harvest directly from your garden.

These include echinacea and chamomile, both of which are especially popular as tea. If you have unsightly areas on your property, wildflowers are a great way to fill in the area with beautiful flowers while benefiting from their medicinal uses.

Is it a weed or wildflower?

The Encyclopedia Britannica3 defines a wildflower as any flowering plant that has not been genetically manipulated. Although most are native to the region where they flower, some are descendants from other countries. For example, the flowers native to the Hawaiian Islands are found in other parts of the tropics and subtropics but were taken to the islands for purposes of cultivation.

The distinction between the two may be in the eyes of the beholder. However, this is not the case for the insects and birds living in your geographical area. As noted by Douglas Tallamy, Ph.D., professor and chair of the department of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware,4 "Insects and birds are disappearing because we're starving them with the wrong kinds of plants when we landscape."

While you may be looking for new and different types of flowering plants for your garden, those not native to your area don't contribute as much toward the care and feeding of wildlife. Tallamy says insects are not adaptable and compares it to Monarch butterflies that primarily get nourishment from milkweed.

If the milkweed disappears, the Monarchs cannot simply start feeding on trees or other plants. Miriam Goldberger, who owns and operates Wildflower Farm near Coldwater, Ontario, describes it another way, saying,5 "A lot of my hybridized plants are like junk food compared to the natives. They don't have much dietary value."

This is one more reason to seek out native plants indigenous to North America. Beautiful wildflowers may also become weeds if they begin growing where they're not wanted. For instance, lamb's ear is an attractive addition to your flower bed but spreads easily and may be perceived as a weed in your lawn.6

Dandelions are considered weeds by nearly everyone with a large expanse of green lawn, as the seeds are airborne. They also have long taproots and are difficult to eradicate. However, they are also full of vitamins A, B, C and D. They can be used to flavor salads, sandwiches and teas, fermented for wine and used as a remedy for fever, boils, diarrhea and diabetes.7

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When you plant determines how many flowers you enjoy

The question of when the best time to plant is answered depending on your location or climate. For the most part, wildflowers may be planted during the spring, summer and fall, but the best time will depend on your winter temperatures and availability of water in your area.

For instance, if you live in an area where there is minimal or no frost during the winter months, wildflowers may be planted nearly anytime. It is best to steer clear of the hottest times of the year, though, as this is often when you receive the least amount of rain.

If you live in areas with bitter cold winters, spring or fall planting works well. Some gardeners prefer to plant in the fall, as these will bloom earlier in the spring. If you choose to plant during the fall, it's best to wait until after you have received a good hard frost to sow the seeds, so they do not sprout until the soil has warmed enough for germination in the spring.

If you plant in the spring, put the seeds in the freezer for a couple of weeks before planting so they germinate quicker. Planting in the spring will give you a chance to clear away the weeds before planting but it will delay getting your seeds in the ground.

Planting your wildflowers in the fall

In this video from Peaceful Valley Grow Organic, Tricia Boudier demonstrates how to plant your wildflower seeds in the fall for a bountiful harvest in the spring, pointing out seeds for most flowers are naturally distributed by the plant in the fall.

One package of seeds from the store will cover 10 square feet of garden, and 4 ounces will cover about 1,000 square feet. When using a mixed packet of seeds, it's important you don't add too many seeds to the soil since the larger plants will force out the smaller ones. Look for seeds that are native to your geographical area and not invasive.

For instance, Tricia points out the California poppy thrives well in California but may become an invasive weed on the East Coast. Many wildflowers prefer full sun and thrive in areas of your garden that have not been well fertilized. However, if you do have shady areas, there are species for that too.

You may sprout weeds before planting your wildflower seeds to clear the area. Turn the soil just 2 inches deep and then water in the early fall. After two to four days, many of the weed seeds will sprout, allowing you to pick them. Consider using this process at least twice, but you may choose to do it a couple more times depending upon your area and how many weeds you sprout.

Once you have a good hard frost, split the seeds into two parts. Mix an inert material, such as sand (not sea sand) or vermiculite in a ratio of one part seeds to 10 parts of inert material. Add this to a spreader or spread by hand over your chosen area. You should be able to see the sand or vermiculite to know where you spread the seeds.

Repeat this process over the same area with the second half the seeds. Next, press the seed into the soil by walking over it or placing a piece of plywood and walking on the plywood.

How to prepare your soil

Wildflowers native to your geographical area will appreciate native soil. In other words, if you're planting cattails, they enjoy being around creek beds and heavily watered soil. But for the most part, wildflowers don't like soggy soil. If your area is not well draining, consider amending it.

The essential element to well-drained soil is oxygen, and the best way create well-drained soil in clay is to create a raised bed.8 Additionally, when the soil does not drain it compacts easily and dries out in the sun, making it extremely hot.

MIGardner9 recommends the addition of one of five different amendments to help to improve drainage. These are perlite, sand, compost, mulch or vermiculite. Vermiculite and perlite are absorbent volcanic rock and help to break up the soil.

While compost may help drainage, it may provide too many nutrients for your wildflowers. Mulch may take some time to add to your soil, but it can be effective as it holds water, breaks down slowly and protects the soil. Sand (not sea sand) may be one of the cheapest things you may add to break up the soil. Each of these amendments must be worked in well to the area where you want to plant.

Your garden may be a source of flavorful and medicinal flowers

Flowering plants provide nearly 25% of the basic ingredients for modern drugs. North America has tens of thousands of native plants that have yet to be studied. However, there are a list of flowers to grace your garden with known medicinal properties, including the dandelion.10,11

  • Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) — This is perhaps one of the most famous medicinal species of the native plants to North America. The flowers are brilliant purple to pink and are often found in fields and thickets. Now known as echinacea, it's used as an herbal remedy and supplement to stimulate the immune system and reduce the length of the common cold.
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) — This herb is famous in folklore for use in anticoagulation of wounds and nosebleeds and considered in the care of acne prone skin. The plant is distilled to make an essential oil with anti-inflammatory and anticholinergic properties.
  • Betony (Stachys officinalis) — The flower has spikes of red and purple and is well loved by bees and butterflies. It has been used as an anti-itching remedy to soothe the skin and treat dermatological disorders.
  • Feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) — A traditional flower, feverfew is often found in old gardens and thought to relieve inflammation from insect bites. However, it does contain parthenolide, which may cause contact dermatitis. The extract has the chemical removed and may be beneficial for the skin as an anti-inflammatory.