NC Cooperative Extension

A Way with Wildflowers

This article by Nancy Marlowe, Associate Editor, was published in the Sunday, September 4, 1994 edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Ever planted one of those wildflower mixes in a seed packet or a spring meadow in a can and failed to achieve the colorful, effortless results promised? If so, you are not alone according to Ed Ingle, the man who makes Western North Carolina roadsides bloom.

Ingle, Area Roadside Environmental Engineer with the state department of transportation, said such seed mixes are expensive and seldom produce the desired effect. Some contain fillers of grass seed, he said.

WNC roadside plantings blooming this fall (September through frost) include a purple and yellow tapestry of New England Aster, Narrow-leafed Sunflower and Maryland Aster. All are native to this area, Ingle said. See the showiest displays of this mix at the intersection of Interstate 26 and US Highway 64 east of Hendersonville (World of Clothing exit).

Seeds of the New England Aster cost $125 an ounce, Ingle said, and the highway department will be harvesting this “gold dust” by hand to enhance other areas next year.

Donna Garrison, a graduate of North Carolina State University’s horticulture program, has recently been promoted to the DOT’s Division 13 environmental engineer and has worked all summer on a great showing for fall, Ingle said.

How does a home gardener get the same carpet of color Ingle and Garrison achieve along the Interstate highways?

First, you have to plant a lot of seeds – a combination of annuals for quick cover and perennials to reseed themselves every year. Annual seeds are less expensive, but perennials eventually eliminate the need to plant more seed each year.

Buy the seeds for various varieties separately, in bulk if possible and mix them together in the concentrations desired. Plant the perennials and hardy annuals in the fall, the tender annuals in the spring after the danger of frost is past. Its OK to plant annuals and perennials together in spring, but the perennials will be slower to bloom, Ingle said. Together they’ll make a good showing the first year. The perennials will come into their own the second summer and keep reseeding themselves each fall.

Although some premixed wildflower packets would have you believe that all you have to do is scatter the seeds over a vacant lot and stand back, soil preparation is necessary. A good plowing and raking creates a receptive environment for your expensive seeds. Department of Transportation crews plow and prepare the roadsides for planting.

Ingle says that getting a head start over grassy weeds is essenial if wildflowers are to thrive. Once grasses like crabgrass and bermudagrass begin growing in the wildflower plantings he suggests using a grass herbicide like Vantage or Ornamec to kill weedy grasses. Both products will eliminate the grasses while sparing the broadleafed wildflower plants.

Home gardeners should be aware that the same mixture of seeds sewn on different sites will sometimes yield different results, due to competition from weeds, different soil and moisture conditions.

Again, plant the perennials and hardy annuals in October. Any other perennials you want to encourage, such as Queen Anne’s Lace will have reseeded themselves by then and benefit from a good stirring of the soil.

Just prior to planting, mix the tiny wildflower seeds with fine, dry sawdust, Vermiculite or Perlite, a half cupful of seed to a buckel full of dry mix. Broadcast the seed on the diagonal, then walking in the opposite direction, broadcast on the diagonal again, making an X pattern and thereby assuring good coverage.

After the seed is sewn, tamp the soil down lightly and mist the area with a fine spray from the garden hose. A light mulch of pinestraw is helpful, with approximately 25 percent of the ground left showing. This light coverage protects young plants, but allows sufficient sunlight to encourage growth.

For a mixed planting of annuals and perennials, try the following: Plains Coreopsis(yellow flowers), California Poppy(orange), Corn or Flander’s Poppy (red, pink, purple & white), Sweet William(red, pink, white, magenta), Purple Coneflower(tall lavendar perennial), Lance-leafed Coreopsis(yellow), Blackeyed Susan(golden yellow w/ brown) and Catchfly(pink).

Ingle said this is a successful mix for the roadside, but home gardeners might collect their favorites this fall from pastures and existing meadows.

Full sun, often in scarce supply in many homeowner’s backyards, plus soil preparation are the secret to wildflower success.

The North Carolina roadside wildflower plantings are financed by the vanity or personalized license plate program and a program the Department of Transportation calls “TEA-21” funds.

Reprinted with permission by the Asheville Citizen-Times, March 22, 2004

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