Wildflower meadows are natural, colorful patches of yard that resemble walks in the mountains in summer. Although they arise naturally in many areas of the dry Southwest, growing one of your own is not as simple as seed companies might make it sound. We’ll get to that later.
Before I cover the whys and hows of growing wildflower meadows, I want to emphasize that I’m talking about any scattering of native flower or grass seeds in your garden. You don’t need an acre of land to have a wildflower meadow effect. You can make a mini-meadow or patch of wildflowers in a garden bed or a large container.
Why Plant Wildflowers?
My top reason for having big batches of wildflowers is they make me happy. There is something about the natural but colorful look of a mix of flowers – or a field of all one flower – that has no rival.
Wildflowers often occur naturally where trees and woody shrubs have trouble growing, such as on alpine slopes. It might be tough for a planted shrub to survive erosion, snowpack, wind and running water. But a tiny wildflower seed can get trapped under a rock or even a blade of grass. If you have ever come across a burn scar, you know what I mean. It can take decades for trees to sprout and grow to maturity, but with some seeding, grasses and low-lying native plants begin to fill in where everything was burned away by wildfire.
Native flowers support native insects and eventually can enrich those slopes or disturbed areas with their protection and falling or organic matter. Grasses and wildflowers can slow erosion of soil. And if you get a meadow of sorts to take, it will reward you by reseeding (or with returning perennials).
Why Planting Wildflowers Differs in the Southwest
Natural meadows develop over many years, as native plants adapt to local conditions. If you go online and look for articles or videos on growing a wildflower meadow, you will receive some good advice. But most of what you see assumes East coast or midwestern conditions. Not so much what happens here.
First and foremost, it is dry in the Southwest! In areas with more snowpack and rainfall, tiny flower seeds receive enough water naturally to sprout and then grow. Another factor is wind. Those flower seeds you carefully scatter in fall as directed can easily blow away in our dry, windy weather. Further, the soil on which you scatter the seeds probably lacks the quality needed to take hold and sprout (remember the Dust Bowl from history class? It can take hundreds of years to build an inch of fertile soil for crops, and mere hours to lose that same inch of topsoil to heavy wind).
The final factors we contend with here are deer and other critters. Even though we have tried “deer resistant” mixes and plants, they like to munch and trample.
Tips for Wildflower Meadow Success
We have four acres – plenty of room for a wildflower meadow, which has been my dream. We’ve tried lots of approaches, including weeding, prepping and planting in areas along a ditch bank, scattering seeds we’ve gathered from some of the plants that come up naturally along that ditch bank and other disturbed areas, and spreading plants we have cut or pulled up around a sunken area, then stomping on them to try to get some seeds to sow there, all with little to no success. We have, however, had some success with grassy meadows by mowing only once in spring, and then letting the grasses and native flowers tucked among them to reseed naturally.
I finally won the wildflower battle last year by not following directions. I tried the rest of our dry area mix wildflower seeds from High Country Gardens in a rock garden bed. The bed had been used to grow herbs in years prior so we had loosened and improved the soil some. It’s also up against a south to southwest facing rock wall. I dug a shallow trough for the seeds with my finger and used a soaker hose to wet the area often until the seedlings appeared. The result was fabulous, even though I should have thinned it more.
Since natural meadows depend so much on Mother Nature and change from one year to the next, you have to help Mother Nature along in many cases for wildflower meadow success here in the Southwest.
Tips for Wildflower Meadow Success
- Choose a site with some wind protection if possible.
- Amend the soil by loosening the top few inches (not tilling deeply, which turns up weed seeds) and adding some compost or similar organic matter. If you have time, try to get rid of weeds with solarization or another method before sowing your seeds.
- Scatter some seeds in fall if the directions say to do so, but reserve half to spread again in spring in case winter conditions prevent the flowers from sowing.
- Directions often say to mix the seeds with sand and scatter them, and not to cover them up (to mimic how they seed in nature). We had better luck with either a fresh layer of compost before seeding grass or flowers, or by sprinkling a light coat of compost over the seeds.
- If you want a small meadow or large container full of native wildflower seeds, take time to prepare the bed and even draw a shallow trough for the seed. I did mine in two rows, but they looked natural once they matured.
- If you can water your seeds right after planting, do so. Although I had to use more water than I like to use to start my wildflower bed, using a soaker hose prevented loss of water to evaporation and kept the seeds evenly moist until monsoons took over and helped the flowers grow. You can save water by prepping the area and then putting your seeds down right before a forecast rain.
- It all starts with having the right mix. Be sure to use seeds native to your area or a mix designed for your conditions. And include some native grasses to reseed.
Most of all, remember you’re mimicking nature, which isn’t perfect. So relax and enjoy the outcome!