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Into the Garden: Tips for planting wildflowers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A friend gave me an interesting booklet from Sherry Thaxton, state coordinator of the Adopt-A-Highway/Operation Wildflower. It's a guide to help homeowners plant wildflowers -- just like the popular plantings along our highways.

Although wildflower seeds shouldn't be planted until fall, I'm sharing this information now so seeds can be ordered and site preparation can be done. Also, summer is a great time to mark plants so that when they go to seed, you can collect the seeds for later planting.

The brochure gives these tips:

An all-annual mix generally will not reseed itself; an all-perennial mix will not flower profusely the first year. Annuals are generally more colorful than perennials. Native and naturalized species will grow better in your area. Beds near the house are usually best with plants that grow to a height of less than 3 feet. Tall plants are better suited to meadows.

The brochure goes into more detail about site and seed selection.

Some species native to West Virginia include perennials such as butterfly weed, lance-leaved coreopsis, purple coneflower, blanket flower, blazing star, blue flax, perennial lupine, prairie coneflower, black-eyed Susan. Annuals include cosmos and calliopsis.

The brochure also lists many nonnative species tolerant to our environment, including white yarrow, cornflower, ox-eye daisy, several poppy varieties and sweet pea.

A northeastern mixture will do best in West Virginia (this mix contains species native or naturalized to this area). Annuals bloom the first year while many perennials do not bloom until the second year, but will return year after year.

Most wildflower seed commercially available is suited for full sun to half-day sun and well-drained soil.

Eliminate grasses and perennial weeds before seeding wildflowers. Cut or mow a planting site as low as possible, and then treat with systemic herbicide. Sites should be allowed to stand untouched one to two weeks, and then a second coat of herbicide applied if necessary.

Seed should be broadcast by hand. Do not cover with soil or mulch, instead, tamp or roll into the soil. General seeding rates are 10 to 20 pounds of flower seed per acre. (The West Virginia Division of Highways plants seeds at a rate of 30 pounds per acre.)

In West Virginia, the ideal planting time for perennials is two to three weeks after the first fall frost, usually in late October/early November. Annual wildflower seed should be planted in late April or early May, however, the seed requires large amounts of moisture for germination. Perennial wildflower seed produces best results when exposed to the heavy moisture and continual freezing and thawing during the winter months.

To plant wildflowers in small areas, scrape away surface vegetation with a shovel, then roughen the soil surface with rake. Mix wildflower seed with sand. Spread sand and seed mixture evenly over planting surface. Press seed and sand into soil by tamping down with a shovel or pressing it in with your feet. Water liberally. Keep well watered until plants are established.

How, where to collect seed

Collecting wildflower seed is done largely by hand because native species usually do not grow in pure stands.

Basic equipment includes gloves, boots, drop cloths, pruning shears, boxes, baskets, paper or canvas bags (no plastic bags). Many plants can be stripped by hand, or the seeds can be beaten onto drop cloths. Screens with large openings are often used to sort seed or fruit from other plant's parts.

Mark native plants during their flowering season, when they are most noticeable. This is an important step. Seldom will plants growing in the wild catch your attention when they are in fruit, and dried seed stalks are difficult to find.

Always obtain permission from the landowner when collecting seed on private land. Never collect on public land. Areas scheduled to be developed or where native plants will be destroyed in the future are excellent sites for seed collection. Avoid collecting seed from rare or endangered species. Collect only from plants that you find growing abundantly in a given area so that you will not eradicate an isolated population. Never collect seed from plants that have not been identified. At the most, take only one-third of the seed to ensure that enough remains to reseed and increase the stand.

Since production of mature seed is weather-dependent, flowering and fruiting dates vary from year to year. For example, an early spring and dry summer may cause seed to set, or mature early. As a general rule, late August, September and October are the best months for collecting seed.

Collection should begin when fruit and seed are mature. A delay of only a few days can result in an unsuccessful harvest, especially of seeds that are dispersed quickly or are attractive to birds and other animals. Delayed harvesting, even of persistent pods, may also result in insect- or mold-infested pods and seeds.

Many pods or capsules dehisce (break open and expel seed) when ripe and at staggered intervals, making collection difficult. Once maturation begins, these plants may need to be checked every few days for newly matured seed. Or you may invert a paper sack over the blooms and tie the sack off with a twist-tie. Enough light and air will reach the plant to allow it to continue growing, but the sack will collect the seeds as they mature and drop. This way, you will only need to collect seed once, at the end of the seed set.

Collect seeds as soon as they are mature. Mature seeds are usually dark in color, firm and dry. Seeds that are green and moist are immature and generally will not germinate, or will produce unhealthy seedlings. Legume pods should be collected just before or as the pod turns brown, and before it dehisces. The flesh of pulpy fruit often becomes soft and changes from green to yellow to red or blue-purple when ripe. Seeds are often mature a week or more before the fleshy fruit turns color and falls from the plant. Seed maturity can be determined by cutting open the fruit and examining the seed for firmness, fullness and dark color.

Gather fruit from the ground only if it has dropped recently. After the seeds are dried, clean them either by placing in a paper bag and vigorously shaking or by placing the seed on a piece of screen stretched on a frame and vigorously shaking.

Once collected seeds should be air-dried for three to five days in a cool (50 degrees or less), dry (50 percent or less humidity) spot, out of direct sunlight. Store seed in paper sacks for optimum air circulation and to prevent molding. Do not store in plastic containers. Ideally, seeds should be planted within one year.

Unlawful to pick wildflowers

It is illegal to pick roadside flora along West Virginia highways. Here is an excerpt from the law making this act illegal:

West Virginia law §31-3-48(a) It is unlawful to break, cut, take or carry away, or in any manner damage any of the shrubbery or flowers, including everything under the title of flora, whether wild or cultivated, growing within one hundred yards on either side of any public road in this state, without the permission in writing of the owner or tenant of the land upon which the shrubbery or flowers, including everything under the title of flora, are growing.

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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