Wildflowers occupy a particular place in landscape design and for most of us there seems to be something rather appealing about a profusion of native plants growing in a natural setting.
For many people, the idea of being able to enjoy the feel of the countryside within their own garden has tremendous attraction. Whether the wildflower element dominates the whole garden’s landscape design, or only forms a part of it, done well, the result can be very effective in creating a rural illusion in the most urban of environments.
However, the true wildflower garden is not the same thing as a “wild garden” and creating one is not simply a question of allowing nature to take its course. It is perhaps one of the biggest ironies that producing something which is so evocative of unspoiled countryside requires such a surprising amount of management and effort to achieve.
Wildflower Landscape Design
Since the main aim in planning this kind of garden is to recreate the look and feel of a real wildflower meadow, the overall garden design needs to be kept informal. Although there are similarities between this and the landscape design elements of a cottage garden, there are a number of key differences in the planting scheme.
The need to manage the apparent wilderness to keep it looking good is the same for both, but beyond this, things differ. While the cottage garden reflects the old-time country dweller’s approach to year-round self-sufficiency – growing culinary and medicinal herbs, vegetables for the pot and flowers to attract bees for pollination – the wildflower garden only comes into its own for a brief period. In truth, even a well established wildflower garden can look rather uninspiring, outside of the short flowering season – although when everything is in bloom, it does make an incredible sight.
The flowers themselves, of course, form the main feature of this type of garden design –native species, typically producing large numbers of relatively small flowers in pastel hues. The hard landscaping elements should be chosen to be in character with the whole rural meadowland theme – rustic poles and seats, woven willow fencing and the like – to maintain the illusion of a small haven of countryside within the garden.
As strange as it might seem, wildflowers will only thrive and return year-on-year in fairly poor conditions, so the first step for most gardens is to prepare the ground by digging out the top 2 inches (5cm) or so of fertile soil. Treat any perennial weeds and persistent grasses with glyphosate weed killer to ensure that they don’t compete with you new seedlings as they start to get themselves established.
Although small areas can be planted with seedling plants – obtainable from a few specialist suppliers – its more usual to sow seed to create the wildflower garden.
Many garden suppliers and specialist seed companies have suitable ranges, but it’s important to pick a selection which is appropriate for your type of soil – there’s a world of difference between the flowers naturally growing on open chalky soils and damp clays. Many attempts to establish a new wildflower garden fail simply because of this fact – so it’s worth getting a little advice as to what’s best suited to where you live.
Fertilisers can be another common cause of failure, especially where the wildflowers form just one component of the wider landscape design.
Our native flowers are adapted to growing in naturally fairly impoverished ground; feed the soil, either directly or by allowing nutrient-rich run off from the rest of the garden to reach the plot, and you’re in for trouble. In all probability your prized wildflower seedlings will be rapidly out-competed and ultimately swamped beneath an explosion of nettles, couch grass and other undesirables, never to be seen again. You really have to be very mean for successful wildflower gardening – and even then, it’s a bit of a gamble as to how well everything will work out.
If you’re after a little of the natural look in your garden, there are few ways which capture it quite so well as adding a little wildflower corner to the design – but success isn’t guaranteed and unfortunately, many new wildflower areas simply dwindle away within three or four years. It’s a harsh truth, but it’s as well to know what you’re up against at the outset – at least if the worst happens you won’t automatically assume it was something you did wrong!