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Choosing and Growing Hardy Wildflowers in a Garden

Miriam’s Favorite Hardy, Perennial Wildflowers, Plus Her Favorite Native Grass

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I have often talked about how disappointing most wildflower mixes are, leaving you with a lot of weeds and more maintenance than if you had simply left the area grass. I asked expert wildflower grower, Miriam Goldbeger, if that was the general opinion and she agreed. She said most mixes contain a large percentage of non-native annuals. You get a lot of blooms the first year and a lot of weeds thereafter. Instead, Miriam recommends deep-rooted perennial flowers and grasses. You'll have to defer your gratification, but it will pay off in the long run.

Miriam and her husband, Paul Jenkins, are owners of Wildflower Farm, in Ontario, Canada. The farm started as a dried flower company and they later expanded, adding "Pick Your Own Flowers". Wildflower Farm has been specializing in hardy perennial wildflowers for 15 years, featuring native perennial flowers and grasses, wildflower seed mixes, natural products and a drought-tolerant turf grass they developed called Eco-Lawn™. (About.com's Guide to Container Gardening, Kerry Michaels, interviewed Miriam about the development of Eco-Lawn™.)

Growing flowers for a living leaves little time for tending display gardens. That's what initially sent Miriam looking for lower maintenance plants that would need minimal attention - wildflowers and native grasses. These easy growing plants were a hit with visitors to the farm and it didn't take long for customers to start requesting the plants that made up the store-front gardens. Here are Miriam's Top 8 Perennial Wildflowers and a bonus native grass.

1. Butterfly Weed

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Photo: © Marie Iannotti
Butterfly Weed – (Asclepias tuberosa) The vivid orange blooms of this mid-summer beauty make me crazy-happy. Easy to grow from seed in a well-drained, full sun garden, Butterfly weed provides essential nutrition for Monarch caterpillars and butterflies – and if you can bear to cut it, the blossoms look stunning in bouquets. You’ve got one year to change your mind on its location in the garden. A mature Butterfly Weed’s roots go down several feet into the soil!

2. Great Blue Lobelia

Lobelia syphilitica
Photo Courtesy of Wildflower Farm http://www.wildflowerfarm.com
Great Blue Lobelia – (Lobelia syphilitica) This easy to grow, self-sowing blue spike blooms prolifically in late summer in medium to moist soils in full sun or part shade gardens! The blue counterpart of the Cardinal Flower, it is an attractive container plant, hummingbirds, bees and butterflies will pollinate.

3. Lavender Hyssop

Anise Hyssop (Agastache)
Lavender Hyssop – (Agastache foenicilum) The licorice scented flowers and leaves of this mauve spiked beauty are irresistible to honey bees, bumblebees, mason bees and a range of butterfly species. Yet, curiously, deer detest its taste! Humans enjoy this wildflower in salads and cookies. Plant some in your vegetable garden to ensure pollination. Self-sows with ease.

4. Black-eyed Susan

Photo: © Marie Iannotti
Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) A biennial wonder that self-sows in such profusion, gardening newbies often mistake it for a perennial! Black-eyed Susans are super tough, salt resistant plants that bloom in sun or shade and grow well in nutrient depleted soils or even compacted clay soils! A single plant can produce an extravagant floral display over much of the summer and planted in masses it is simply stunning!

5. Red Milkweed

Red Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
Photo Submitted by Barbara Brander
Red Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata) This specimen plant produces rich clusters of deep rose-purple to pale-rose colored flowers from June through August that smells like a combination of honey and vanilla... One of the very best food plants for Monarch Butterfly larvae, the caterpillars will eat the leaves right off! But don't worry; the reward is all the butterflies that come later.

6. Purple Coneflower

Photo: © Marie Iannotti
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) This robust, drought tolerant perennial, is one of the very best butterfly attractors! Blooming profusely for up to two months in summer, its showy flowers are arranged individually on sturdy stems with soft purple petals surrounding an iridescent red-orange, cone shaped center. An excellent variety for cut flower arrangements and a major clay buster, meaning its roots drill right down through compacted clay soils.

7. Cardinal Flower

Photo: © Marie Iannotti
Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis) The brilliant red spires of the Cardinal Flower can bloom for a month or longer. Occurring naturally in marshes and wooded stream banks, it requires moist, rich soil and responds magnificently to cultivation. Pollinated by hummingbirds, Cardinal Flower grows best in partial shade. Short lived, it may require replanting every few years, but is well worth the effort.

8. Wild Columbine

Aquilegia canadensis
Photo: © Marie Iannotti
Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) This beloved wildflower has fascinating hollow spur-like flowers that appear to be two flowers in one; an inner yellow flower that is surrounded by an elegantly spurred red outer flower. Hummingbirds find it irresistible! Blooming in late spring, it reaches a height of 2 to 3 feet. It does best in dappled shade, but grows easily in full sun.

9. Miriam’s Top Native Grass: Northern Sea Oats

Photo: © Marie Iannotti
Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) This lovely woodland grass is treasured for its showy, drooping iridescent flowers and slender, bamboo-like foliage that changes from green to copper in the fall. One of the few native grasses that grows well in shade, I like to plant it in the border, shade garden, naturalized areas, along streams or on the edge of a water garden. It also grows well in large containers and is one of the best grasses for cut flower arrangements. Excellent both as a specimen plant and in masses.
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