Grow a Wildflower Meadow - January 3, 2018
Jeff Schalau, Agent, Agriculture & Natural Resources
University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, Yavapai County


Wildflower meadows are perfect for creating informal, low-maintenance landscape areas. They provide habitat for butterflies, bees, and other desirable insects as well as wild birds, reptiles, and animals. Each year, the seasonal color changes, the textures vary, and plant species subtly shift their locations. Given the informal appearance of a meadow, one would think that creating one would be easy, but this is false. Meadows can be difficult to establish in areas that have been neglected and weedy.

It is best to start small so that you can nurture the meadow and keep weeds out. Wildflowers prefer a sunny location with good drainage. First, you should reduce the weed population in your meadow area. Perennial weeds should be managed to prevent them from choking out desirable plants. Annual weeds should be pulled before they go to seed. The soil can be tilled if necessary, but depending on the weed species, it may be easier to simply pull the annuals. By watering and observing, you will also learn to recognize juvenile weeds.

If you have bermudagrass, bindweed, Johnson grass, or other tough perennial weeds, the surest course of action is to apply a non-selective, systemic herbicide. Glyphosate is a common, reliable herbicide that will control most perennial weeds when the directions are followed. Most critically, the weeds must be actively growing and green when sprayed. Two or more applications and regular irrigation (even some fertilizer) may be necessary to eradicate tenacious perennials. If you are averse to using herbicides, then select a meadow area free of perennial weeds, cover with black plastic for a growing season, or apply another non-herbicide treatment.

Soils should be amended with a small amount of compost or other weed-free organic matter to improve water holding capacity and aeration. Rake it smooth and irrigate thoroughly. After the amended soil has settled and become friable, it is ready for seeding. Do not apply nitrogen fertilizer as it can be detrimental to wildflowers.

Wildflowers, like grasses, are either adapted to grow in the warm season or cool season. Cool season plants germinate in winter or early spring and die out when it gets hot. Warm season plants rely on warm soil temperatures to germinate and thrive in hot weather. Beware of inexpensive wildflower seed mixes. They may not be well adapted to our local climate and elevation. Native grasses are also a pleasant addition to a wildflower meadow.

High quality wildflower seed is often expensive and should be broadcast sparingly. Read the label to ensure the seed you purchase is free of weeds and suitable for your area. Beware of mixes that contain cosmos, bachelor buttons, and sweet alyssum. These are not really wildflowers and are often used as filler in low quality seed mixes.

Broadcast the seed sparingly and rake it lightly to ensure soil contact. Do not bury the seed deeply. During the first two months, moisture is very critical. Timing the seeding with a moist season is the best way to get seeds in synch with their environment. After two months, the seedlings should be up. You may also need to protect the area from rabbits and birds especially during periods of drought.

The plants listed below should do well in the Verde Valley, but are merely a starting point. Some cool season wildflowers are: Penstemon (many species), California or Mexican Poppy (Eschscholtzia sp.), Blue Flax (Linum lewisii), Desert Marigold (Baileya multiradiata), Blue Dick (Dichelostemma puchellum), Lupine (Lupinus sp.), Clarkia (Clarkia sp.), Columbine (Aquilegia sp.), and Phlox (Phlox sp.). Most of these can be planted in January and require cool, moist exposure to the soil to germinate. This is called stratification.

Some warm season wildflowers are: Four-O-Clock (Mirabilis sp.), Evening Primrose (Oenethera sp.), Blanketflower (Gaillardia sp.), Paperflower (Psilostrophe bakerii), Blackfoot Daisy (Melampodium leucanthum), Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa), Rocky Mountain Bee Plant (Cleome serrulata), Verbena (Verbena sp.), and Globemallow (Sphaeralcea sp.). Two attractive grasses are Indian Ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides) and Blue Grama (Bouteloua gracilis). These are best seeded in June before monsoon rains.

Be patient as wildflowers can be slow to establish and plan on weeding your meadow for at least the first year or two. Pull the weeds before they go to seed and remember to give the meadow some water during our typical May/June warm dry period. All of the species listed above are included in the on-line Yavapai County Native and Naturalized Plant Database (http://cals.arizona.edu/yavapaiplants/.

Follow the Backyard Gardener on Twitter use the link on the BYG website. If you have other gardening questions, call the Master Gardener help line in the Camp Verde office at 928-554-8992 or e-mail us at verdevalleymg@gmail.com and be sure to include your name, address and phone number. Find past Backyard Gardener columns or provide feedback at the Backyard Gardener web site: http://cals.arizona.edu/yavapai/anr/hort/byg/.

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Arizona Cooperative Extension
Yavapai County
840 Rodeo Dr. #C
Prescott, AZ 86305
(928) 445-6590
Last Updated: December 21, 2017
Content Questions/Comments:
jschalau@ag.arizona.edu
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