Saturday, July 17, 2021

Plan Next Year’s Perennial Wildflower Garden Now

rudbecka hirta black eyed susan

Look at the wild flowers. See how they grow. – Luke 12:27; International Children’s Bible

You belong among the wildflowers. – Tom Petty

Love is like wildflowers; it’s often found in the most unlikely places. – Ralph Waldo Emerson

As I walk along the fields, meadows, and roads or hike through the forests of northern New York, I often come across wildflowers and think, “those would look great in my yard.” Native wildflowers are hardy, low maintenance, and attractive to pollinators, which makes them very desirable for cultivated landscapes. And, because they’re adapted to the climate and soils of the region, when grown under similar conditions they’re generally well-suited for use in home gardens and landscapes.

If you’ve been thinking about planting a new flower garden or adding a native wildflower garden or sowing native wildflowers into an already existing garden, now is the time to start planning. With a little preparation, using nature as your model, you can easily design an appealing native wildflower landscape on your property.

Aquilegia Canadensis wild columbineBut you should avoid removing and transplanting growing plants. Many wildflowers have faced extinction at the hands of well-meaning gardeners. Instead, wait until the flowers have gone by and collect seeds. Keep in mind however, that seed collected too early won’t be viable. Wait too long, and the seedpods will be empty. Collecting seed at the correct time is crucial, if propagation is going to be successful.

Mature seeds and / or seedpods will be dry, firm, and dark colored (brown, black). Seeds that are moist, pliable, and green, white, or yellow are most-likely immature and not ready for collection. Seed heads and pods should pull or fall away from the plant easily. If they’re firmly connected, they’re not ready for picking.

Seed harvesting should be done on a dry, sunny day. Never harvest damp or wet plant material.

Keep in mind too, that it’s better to collect seeds from plants throughout the area; a few here, a few there; than to collect intensively from plants in just one place. This helps maintain genetic diversity and ensures that your seed will have a wider variety of characteristics (e.g. tolerance for different soil types).

Never collect more than a small percentage of the seed from a wild population, so that enough seeds are left to reseed and perpetuate the stand. And avoid taking seed from areas where the plant population is not well-established.

Place collected seeds in durable, secure cloth or paper bags, or envelopes. Never use plastic. Very tiny seeds tend to cling to plastic. And while paper and cloth absorb moisture, plastic tends to keep plant material damp, which may cause condensation to form, thereby preventing the drying process from occurring and possibly even promoting mold and / or rot.

Lobelia cardinalis cardinal flower

You can immediately plant harvested seeds. Or you can thoroughly air-dry them first, which usually takes two or three days, but may take longer, depending on the humidity. Even seemingly dry, ripe seed will benefit from additional drying, which lessens the likelihood that the seed will become moldy. Just be sure that you leave the seed heads in a cool, dry location with good air circulation, either in an open paper bag or spread out on newspaper or a screen to allow them to fully dry.

The seeds should then be removed from the pods. Fully dry heads will break open easily and the seeds will feel completely dry.

Wildflower seeds can usually be stored relatively safely for a year, as long as they’re kept in a cool, dry place. A temperature around 40°F (5°C) is frequently recommended.

But sowing in September or October seems to work best. Although seeds may become susceptible to loss, should heavy late-season rains or prolonged dry spells occur, it’s more likely that the seeds will benefit from exposure to autumn rain, followed by cold winter temperatures and the spring thaw, which may actually increase the percentage of germination. What’s more, waiting until spring to sow will most likely delay the emergence of perennial wildflowers until the following season.

Collecting your own seeds can be rewarding and fun and certainly insures that the seeds are fresh. (The fresher the seed, the better the germination.) And growing wildflowers from seed is not only easy, it’s thrifty and prudent, as well. Once you have the method down, you’ll have an inexpensive way of ensuring a garden full of beautiful blooms year after year.

But, should your initial efforts prove unsuccessful, or less successful than you’d hoped, don’t give up. Try again next year. Over time, patience and experimentation will lead to better results.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

One Response

  1. Boreas says:

    Great article Richard!

    Another important note – don’t just collect seeds from any old showy flower. Sometimes they can be invasive species! Make sure what you are harvesting are native species.

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