Best way to encourage diversity in wildflower patch?
July 28, 2016 10:59 AM   Subscribe

I have a patch of the front yard which, for the last few years, we've let "go wild" in the middle-- it started when a patch of daisies bloomed there and our kindhearted lawnmower-guy habitually avoided them-- now as you see it's home to California poppies, more daisies, some white and pale-pink yarrow, and of course dandelions. I'd love to add more colorful wildflowers-- what's the best way and time to plant or encourage this?

We are on the Washington coast, I believe it's about Zone7 here-- we get frost and freezing temps for a few weeks in the winter. The soil is pretty abysmal just there-- very sandy, many rocks. What isn't poppies or daisies (plus some daffodils in early spring) is a thick mat of grass and weeds-- it's a bitch to hack through and I'm lazy. Also, it's actually right over our septic drain field so I can't get too enthusiastic in digging, or plant anything with large invasive roots-- besides, when in late autumn the flowers stop blooming, the lawn guy mows it flat again-- so what I'm looking for is perennials or self-seeding annuals. I'd love to get some other colors in there, and of course if it's something native or something that helps wildlife, that's a nice bonus.

I've tried in the past just chucking "wildflower seeds" mixtures out there, but for the most part, they don't do much-- the grass chokes out everything. I'm thinking with the sandy soil and the grass to fight with, new seeds just don't have a chance. OH and did I mention the patch is filled with adorable bunny rabbits who will eat anything tasty? Also frequently visited by deer.

Is there some way to give some wildflowers a 'head start' against the grass? Maybe if I mixed the seeds with good-quality compost or potting soil before spreading them around? What time of year would be best to do this?

Some of the other wildflowers I've seen around here that I think I'll try to add, if I can gather seeds from them, are fireweed, everlasting sweet pea, and some kind of purply vetch-- but I'd love to get something really blue in there, like bachelors' buttons, or just buy a big bag of all kinds of seeds and let everything have a chance!

Any thoughts or advice, Mefi?
posted by The otter lady to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I've tried something similar and concluded there's no out-competing grass, you've just gotta kill it off. We did the whole yard, but I think you could have some success delineating your flower patch with some kind of edging and sheet mulching within that perimeter. Once you have a mulched and grass-free area you can punch through the mulch and plant little patches of wildflower seeds, which will then hopefully thrive and reseed on their own in subsequent years.
posted by contraption at 11:09 AM on July 28, 2016

I am not a very good gardener, so take all this with a grain of salt, but:

- I thought that most "wildflower" seed mixes were nothing of the sort
- King County has a native plant resource website that you might find useful
- The perennial sweet peas are really pretty and you should plant some
- Ditto bleeding heart and columbine (although I dunno how much they like full sun)
posted by quaking fajita at 11:24 AM on July 28, 2016

I don't know about wildflowers but one way in general to give plants a "head start" is to start them off indoors over the winter and then plant them outside at the appropriate time (whether that's the last frost date, something warmer or something cooler would depend on the plant). That way instead of a seed trying to compete with grass and sand you'll have an actual plant (along with some of its potting soil) that ought to have a better shot for the current year and then will either drop seeds or stick around for the following years as well.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 11:42 AM on July 28, 2016

Small native or Mediterranean-native bulbs. There are spring and fall flowerers.

Look for English gardening manuals for a best-tended flowering meadow or herbal ley; part of the technique is usually to graze or mow at the right times to suppress the grass but not the wildflowers. You'll always have grasses, though.
posted by clew at 12:01 PM on July 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

The grass that is mixed in with the wildflowers gets tall and goes to seed, making more grass. If you can get in there (or pay someone to do it) and pull that out, then your wildflowers will do better. You can lay newspaper down on the grass patches and then add soil and seeds on top to give them a head start.
posted by myselfasme at 12:02 PM on July 28, 2016

You may want to sheet mulch to kill off the weed seeds for a season before you seed with good things. The article I linked is just one of many recipes for sheet mulching, try whatever fits your comfort level. myselfasme's response above is one of the simpler approaches.

Here's where you can find Washington State Native Plants for your county (I'm assuming that what works for me in Zone 8b in Seattle isn't exactly the same as what works for you on the coast).
posted by matildaben at 12:07 PM on July 28, 2016

You could renovate small areas at a time. Seed needs good contact with the soil, generally, in order to germinate, so tossing seed on top of the grass really is just a waste of seeds.

If you want to go the organic way, save up some cardboard or newspaper. Pick an area that you want to renovate and lay the cardboard/newspaper over it. Dump some topsoil/manure/compost on top of the cardboard layer to hold it down. The plants underneath will be smothered out and you can plant new greenery on top.

I would encourage you to plant milkweed and butterfly weed, as the bunnies don't like those plants but the monarchs do. Seek out other plants that are native to your area. Just do a little section at a time in the fall and spring, and it will be more manageable.
posted by Ostara at 12:11 PM on July 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

The bunnies in my hood don't like allium or chives, allegedly because they are too onion-y. Zone 4 tho!
posted by TheClonusHorror at 12:18 PM on July 28, 2016

I've recommended this book on Metafilter before: Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest, by Russell Link. Appendix A has plans for how to establish and maintain grasslands or flowering meadows, and there are plant lists in the back. I am sure your library system either has a copy or can easily get one via ILL.

Also, if we're just naming plants that would be cool in your meadow: CAMAS!!! Penstemon!
posted by stowaway at 2:19 PM on July 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Borage, bachelors buttons, meadow sage, dill, radish (pretty once they've flowered) are all great plants that self-seed and manage to keep on growing through light grass cover and other weeds.
posted by bluebelle at 4:10 PM on July 29, 2016

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