Walking out the back door into a sea of wildflowers is a dream that attracts many to rural living. You’ll need a fair-sized property for a field of blooms, but you can find a space for wildflowers no matter how small your urban garden is.
Any flowering plant that grows in the wild without cultivation is a wildflower. Many, like asters, coneflowers, and milkweed, make excellent garden plants. Tuck them into flower beds or plant them as part of a wildflower meadow.
“Wildflowers and native grasses provide people with low maintenance, cost-effective solutions to their landscaping requirements as well as being a source of fresh cut-flowers from spring through fall,” says Paul Jenkins, co-owner of Wildflower Farm in Coldwater, Ontario, one of Canada’s largest online retailers of wildflower seeds.
In addition to complementing the natural landscape, wildflowers are important sources of nectar and pollen for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
“Many of the more modern ornamental plant cultivars are so highly bred that they no longer offer nectar or pollen so are useless for pollinators,” says Todd Boland, the author of Wildflowers of Nova Scotia. Native plants need to produce nectar and pollen in order to attract bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, so they can create seeds. Those seeds will fall back onto the ground for next year or feed hungry songbirds in late summer, autumn, and winter.
Before planting, survey your property to find the right site. A spot with full sun is ideal, but when it comes to design, there is no one right way to grow wildflowers. “It’s better to choose a pre-made seed mix for large areas while smaller areas can either be planted using individual seeds or by planting seedlings,” says Jenkins.
Matching the plants to your site is key. “Each species has been programmed by nature to thrive in different conditions,” says Miriam Goldberger, the author of Taming Wildflowers and co-owner of Wildflower Farm with Jenkins. “Some species require dry sandy soil, others need a rich loam, and others thrive in hard-packed clay soils.”
She recommends learning about your native soil and choosing species that prefer those conditions.
Although wildflowers are low maintenance, they’re not no-maintenance plants. They are less prone to pests and diseases than non-native plants.
Boland, who is also a research horticulturist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland’s Botanical Garden says wildflowers have strong stems that don’t require staking. They don’t need additional fertilizer because they’ve adapted to the soils in our region. “In the Botanical Garden we let the wildflowers do their thing and cut them back in late fall when we do regular garden clean up.”
Goldberger says a meadow of native grasses and wildflowers requires very little maintenance and once established, is also extremely drought tolerant. She suggests including a mixture of wildflower species that bloom from spring to fall for the longest show of colour.
4 wildflowers to grow in your garden
New York aster
Boland’s top wildflower choice is beautiful and easy to grow.
“This is a fairly compact and tidy aster that is also wind and salt-proof,” he says. “There are plenty of colours available, but even the old-fashioned wild blue asters are attractive and relished by bees and butterflies.”
Meadow Blazing Star
Goldberger calls this a monarch magnet. She says she enjoys the long-lasting display of brilliant purple blooms that also make excellent cut or dried flowers.
Boland admits that goldenrod has a bad reputation for causing hay fever, but ragweed is the real allergy culprit.
These large-growing, perennial wildflowers offer bold late-season colour to the garden. Plus bees and butterflies love them.
The larval food source of monarch butterflies comes in many varieties. While orange butterfly weed is a popular garden plant, it’s not native.
Stick to swamp milkweed also called red milkweed. “Red Milkweed captivates with its pink blossoms and intoxicating fragrance that combines cinnamon, vanilla, and honey,” says Goldberger “The flat, rich clusters are designed to be a landing pad for monarchs and many other pollinators.”
Ready to learn more?
Todd Boland’s love for gardening spills over from his job as a research horticulturist into his books. You can learn more about native plants in his books Wildflowers and Ferns of Newfoundland, Wildflowers of Nova Scotia, and Wildflowers of New Brunswick. These comprehensive guides highlight hundreds of species and allow the reader to identify flowers by colour, shape, and arrangement. Find them at your local bookstore or online at boulderbooks.ca.