Trash Talk on Aliens

Prairie Dropseed and Pale Purple Coneflower utilized in a formal walkway

Native grasses, like this prairie dropseed, mingle well with flowers for a stunning effect.

Invasive alien plants (a.k.a. aggressive plants from somewhere else) have been pillaging and plundering our landscape for a long time. Since humans began exploring new lands, plants have been traveling the world with them. Settlers would bring the plants they loved and were useful to them when they migrated.  And, of course, not every plant that comes from somewhere else becomes invasive.  Many of the annual and perennial plants sold at retailers in North America are not North American natives but plants from Europe and Asia.  And, in fact, the majority of the food you eat, the food you want to eat locally, is not native to North America.


Not all non-native plants become invasive.  The ones that do, though, have certain characteristics in common:

-     Few or no predators/diseases
-     Can reproduce quickly and through multiple methods
-     Easily out-competes native plants
-     Tolerates winter as a perennial plant or seeds can persist through freezing temperatures

I’m not going to get into naturalized plants or hybrid sterilized plants today.  Rather, I’d like to discuss a specific invasive plants that impacts our landscape both economically and environmentally and then provide some excellent native alternatives.

Phragmites (Phragmites australis)


Phragmites is an attractive grass producing large billowy seed heads in the fall. It is very aggressive, though, and has taken over in many areas across North America.


You’ve seen the strikingly attractive plumes of this plant decorating wetlands along highways and bi-ways. Also known as European common reed, phragmites most likely came to North America in the early 1800s in ballast water from ships (a common form of transport for non-native species).  Spending its early days on the Atlantic coast, it has spread across North America in the last few hundred years.

North America does have its own native strain of phragmites (Phragmites australis americanus) but the non-native species has displaced many of the historical native stands.  And it’s expensive: about $4.6 million across North America every year for a five-year study period was spent on just managing the problem.


How You Can Help

Phragmites was not brought here to ensure settlers could feel more at home.  It was an accident and our native species are suffering great declines because of it.  And while most counties have a good handle on their phragmites population, you can do your part by reporting stands of the stuff to your local authority.  In Ontario we have the Invading Species Hotline, or you can submit a sighting online. Each region will have their own way of reporting such findings.


On the left you can see the spread of the native phragmites (Phragmites australia americanus); on the right is the spread of Phragmites australis, the non-native, invasive species from Europe. These maps were created during a 2004 study. You can see how easily the non-native species can spread across the continent with no natural enemies.


How Wildflower Farm Can Help

logo_wildflower_farmWildflower Farm is here to offer you a native alternative to the plethora of non-native grasses available these days.  Non-native grasses are always a risky decision: they produce so many seeds that aren’t easily controlled and there’s a good chance your small, planned plot will spread further than you had hoped in less time than you thought possible.  Native ornamental grasses, on the other hand, are a great accent to any garden: they provide wildlife habitat, food for birds, and that winter interest us northern folk are always seeking.  Some are even tall enough to provide privacy screens.

Check out the twelve native grass species we have at the Farm.  I’m sure you’ll find one that will work for your space.  Here’s a quick reference guide to help get you started:

Short (1-2’): prairie dropseed, junegrass, sweetgrass

Medium (2-4’): sideoats grama, northern sea oats, bottlebrush grass, Virginia wild rye, switchgrass, little bluestem

Tall (4-8’): big bluestem, indiangrass, Canada wild rye

I’ve also created a sort of pseudo-matrix that combines height and soil type. Plants typically grow shorter in clay since their roots can’t penetrate quite as easily.  The following is just a guideline, however, and there are people who have big bluestem growing 7-8’ down in their clay soil.  So, take this with a grain of salt but it may help you get started. The numbers after each species represent the potential height that species will reach growing in each type of media.


Finally, most native grasses, unlike many of the native flowers we sell, don’t need to experience winter to germinate.  They don’t need cold, moist stratification, and they will do well to be planted in the spring (with the exception of sweetgrass).

Consider adding some native grasses to your garden plot or even just to accent your humble abode.  They are stunning features and I’m glad I can see them still standing at Wildflower Farm despite the feet of snow we have already accumulated.

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Sow Wild ~~ So Easy!


Wild Lupine seedling (Lupinus perennis)

Wild Lupine seedling (Lupinus perennis)

Years ago –30 years, to be precise, I casually stumbled into an obsession that has since ruled my life. An impulse purchase of a pack of zinnia seeds was to blame. I took the seeds home, planted them in potting soil, covered them up, watered them and waited.  On the 7th day a tiny lime green cotyledon poked its nose up through the soil.

I was hooked. Multiple times a day found me counting exactly how many new seedlings had appeared that day, that hour! The dramatic growth and daily progress of these tiny beings drew me in and held me captive.

Baby Purple Coneflowers

Baby Purple Coneflowers

All these years later I stand before you, a humble horticulturalist with a simple message:

Growing wildflowers from seed is EASY.

It's ridiculously easy to grow your own wildflowers.

It’s ridiculously easy to grow your own wildflowers.

Thousands of dollars worth of wildflower plants can be yours.

It’s SO easy, once you try it you will laugh the hardy laugh of triumph!!! HA! You will say to yourself! If I’d known it was this easy to grow thousands of dollars’ worth of wildflower plants on the cheap I would have started YEARS ago!

Snow 'em and Grow 'em. Many wildflowers are programmed to experience winter before they will germinate.

Snow ‘em and Grow ‘em. Many wildflowers are programmed to experience winter before they will germinate.

Why am I talking about sowing wildflower seeds this time of year? Many people mistakenly assume springtime is the best time to start wildflowers. In fact, lots of wildflowers need 6-8 weeks of the freeze thaw action winter provides to soften up their tough outer shells before they’ll germinate. December, January and February are ideal times to start growing wildflowers outside.  Just plant the seeds in pots, leave them outside and winter handles the rest. This process is called winter sowing or cold, moist stratification. If you happen to be reading this blog in late winter, spring or the summertime, fear not!!!Just ready your wildflowers to germinate with the “The Pretend It’s Winter Process” in your fridge for 6-8 weeks and you’re off to the races!!!

Fake out your wildflower seeds. Plant them in the fridge for 6-8 weeks.

Fake out your wildflower seeds. Plant them in the fridge for 6-8 weeks.

After winter or the 6-8 weeks in the fridge it’s time to give your seedlings the warmth and moisture they require to germinate. For a healthy boost of powerful nutrients I often water my seedlings with manure tea.

My buddy Annie Haven produces nutrient-rich Moo Poo Manure Tea on her organic cattle farm. Perfect for wildflower seedlings!!!

My buddy Annie Haven produces nutrient-rich Moo Poo Manure Tea on her organic cattle farm. Perfect for wildflower seedlings!!!

So let’s get started.

You don't need many supplies to grow wildflower seeds.

You don’t need many supplies to grow wildflower seeds.

Enjoy music and visual learning?  Here’s an entertaining Animoto video on “Growing Wildflower Babies.”

Here are straightforward DIY wildflower seeding instructions with corresponding photos

Or, perhaps you’re an old fashioned learner? Here are super helpful written instructions from Wildflower Farm’s seed starting link:

For the most thorough, step by step version, check out chapter 5 in Taming Wildflowers .

Making Babies - Chapter 5 gives the straight goods on wintering wildflower seeds outside or wintering wildflower in the fridge.
Making Babies – Chapter 5 gives the straight goods on wintering wildflower seeds outside or wintering wildflower in the fridge.


Entitled,  “Making Babies,” this chapter offers twelve pages of detailed instructions on how to grow and care for wildflower seedlings. You’ll find critical information on getting started, purchasing the correct supplies and how and when to transplant your young plants into the garden. Check out Taming Wildflowers.



Which wildflowers shall I grow???Ok, so how do you know which wildflowers will grow best at your place? Just check out Wildflower Farm’s Seed Selector Tool.

Not only is growing wildflowers from seed INSANELY easy and inexpensive, it’s hugely gratifying.  In your very own home, without traveling anywhere, growing wildflowers from seed rewards you with a front row seat at Mother Nature’s perennially fabulous show – new  life unfolding before your very eyes.

Enjoy your winter wildflower journey!

You can grow Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) for the Monarch Butterflies.

You can grow Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) for the Monarch Butterflies.


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Pod Parade

The last blog for meadow month may seem strange to some.  Generally when one thinks of a meadow, the early spring greens and mid-summer colour pallet are what come to mind.  The fall meadow is, I believe, overlooked.

Fall is an important time for a meadow: songbirds are feasting away on seeds, insects are laying eggs in and on stems, and those last few straggler blooms are hanging in to provide pollen and nectar for those last few straggling pollinators.

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New England aster are still in bloom at the farm putting on an incredible show without much competition at the moment.

Beyond that, though, seeds from clustered seed heads and exploding seed pods are falling to the ground and making their way to the soil.  Over the next few blustery months, these seeds will work their way into the soil, succumb to the freezing and thawing that is winter, and germinate after all threat of freezing again has passed.

Seed Heads vs Seed Pods

There are two distinct ways that wildflowers hold their seeds: heads and pods.  The seeds on flowers with seed heads develop with individual coverings to protect the seeds.

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Purple coneflower seed heads are filled with spiky seeds that fall away or are eaten by birds.

The pods, on the other hand, provide protection for all of the seeds together as they are developing. They will break open once the pod has dried sufficiently, allowing all seeds to fall out or blow away in the wind.  There aren’t as many wildflowers that create pods, but let’s discuss a few.


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Blue false indigo seed pods are long and bulbous. White false indigo are more rounded but still work to the same effect.

Baptisia, a member of the legume family, develops pods as a snap pea would (other members of the legume family).  The seeds are round and each individual seed is attached in a row along the edges of the pod.  Baptisia pods are a multipurpose machine: protecting the seed and providing a visually and aurally pleasing piece for bouquets, weddings, or kids.  Shake a dried out baptisia pod and you get a little something like this:



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The milkweed pods burst open revealing a layered seed display.

Milkweed pods look like something from a sci-fi flick.  With their curved tube pod and the layers of seeds that lay within, I keep waiting for an alien baby to burst forth.  Unlike, baptisia seeds, the milkweed seeds are meant to travel a good distance from their parents.  While baptisia seeds are heavy, milkweed seeds are light with a tufty wisp of fluff attached to each one.

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Each seed is attached to its own individual first class flight. The seeds are light allowing them to be pushed around easily by the wind.

After the pod breaks open, the seeds begin to fall and are carried by the wind.  This creates less competition between the parent plant and its offspring once the seed germinates.

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The empty seed pod revealing the seeds’ method of attachment.

Wild Senna

The last pod producer I’ll show you is wild senna.  Another legume, this one develops pods that are more like a snow pea: where the pod encases the seeds more tightly as if it has been shrink wrapped.  Wild senna produces a yellow flower and a leaf structure that I find quite attractive.  The leaf stems produce multiple leaves that sit opposite one another.  They remind me of tiny rounded walnut leaves, actually.

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Wild senna pods are intriguing: one can’t help but look twice.

The pods, too, are stunning in the fall.  Turning a mix of deep brown, orange, and yellow, they certainly provide that winter interest we’re always seeking for our gardens.  I should mention that the plants can grow to about 2 meters (6 feet) in perfect conditions.  Most will grow to just over a meter (4 feet).


Two of these pod producers are members of the legume family meaning that they will return nitrogen to the soil: beneficial to a meadow and to a meadow-style garden.

They add colour, texture, and interest in the fall meadow or garden when the flowers have mostly died back.  Don’t be afraid to bring them indoors, either.  Use them in arrangements for something a little different.

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The bucket of baptisia pods used at Anne and Nick’s wedding. Natural maracas and a stunning display.


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An Ocean of Wildflowers

Painting with Wildflowers

A giant swath of Purple Coneflowers against a blue sky. Life is good.

A giant swath of Purple Coneflowers against a blue sky. Life is good.

I’ve been a flower junkie for more than a quarter of a century. I am a passionate garden designer, garden tourist and student of nature. I love it all.  But for me, nothing thrills more than large swaths of flowers in bloom en mass in a meadow or garden. I wouldn’t be surprised if you share my sentiment. Colorful oceans of blooms light up our brains and lift our spirits.

Swath with Abandon in the Garden

A swath of Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) in a rockery garden.

A swath of Harebells (Campanula rotundifolia) in a rockery garden.

Plantings look more natural in odd numbered drifts so I always plant in odd numbers  ( 3, 5, 7, 9). When space allows I include a sizeable quantity of each species. What’s the right number of plants? That depends upon the size and dimensions of your garden, of course.  My rule has always been to force myself to plant at least 9 of most perennial wildflower species.  If possible I’ll plant 15 or more.  Planting in ones or twos of a species isn’t going to register visually as much as large groupings will. Go for the wow factor!  The eye is drawn to large masses of colour and form.  Of course, I am generalizing here. Certain wide, almost shrub like wildflowers such as Blue or White False Indigo (Baptisia australis and Baptisia alba, respectively ) I tend to plant more sparingly.

Swaths of Monarda or BeeBalm (Monarda fistulosa) in a Claybuster Meadow Mix

Swaths of Monarda or BeeBalm (Monarda fistulosa) in a Claybuster Meadow Mix

You and I both know that buying lots of plants gets expensive! The most convenient, economical and eco-friendly way to get that large swath look is to grow them yourself. Growing wildflowers from seed will give you the freedom to swath with abandon and it’s not hard to do!!!  Learn more.

A Swathing We Will Go

One of the great joys of living with a prairie or meadow is observing the ebb and flow of the wildflowers and native grasses from season to season and year to year. As meadows mature the plants decide for themselves where  they best like to grow. Over time large swaths of healthy looking plants will place themselves in beautiful, softly rounded configurations ; ovals, semi circles, swirls. You can speed up this process and at the same time personalize this natural process by swathing the wildflowers or native grasses of your choice.

Phase I – The Meadow Seeding

All meadows are a combination of wildflowers and native grasses. Once you’ve chosen the correct meadow mix for your conditions (amount of sunlight, moisture and kind of soil) you will have the amazing opportunity to paint with flowers. First, read up on choosing the correct meadow mix, site preparations, seeding your meadow and how to care for your meadow.

Phase 2: Choosing the Best Icing for Your Wildflower Cake

Now you are ready to choose the wildflowers and native grasses you wish to emphasise or “paint.”  Be sure to choose species that work in your soil, sunlight and moisture conditions.  Check out the Wildflower Farm Seed Selection Tool .

Which wildflowers to swath? That depend; Perhaps you are passionate about pollinators!


Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida )are pollinator attractors in the mid-summer meadow.

Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida )are pollinator attractors in the mid-summer meadow.

and  Bright Orange Butterfly Milkweed  (Asclepias tuberosa)

Bright orange Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) an essential plant for Monarch butterflies.

Bright orange Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa) an essential plant for Monarch butterflies.

If you tend to vacation in August and adore Yellow Coneflowers you may wish to swath your vacation property meadow with the beautiful wildflower blooms of late summer.

Ratibida pinnata or Yellow Coneflowers add brightness to the summer landscape.

Ratibida pinnata or Yellow Coneflowers add brightness to the summer landscape.

 Or perhaps you are a birder and simply adore dramatically tall Cup Plants (Sylphium perfoliatum)

Cup Plants provide sustenance to Yellow Finches in the fall!

Cup Plants provide sustenance to Yellow Finches in the fall!

that produce seed gobbled up by Gold Finches in fall.

The amount of seed for each swath depends upon the dimensions of the area.  My partner in life and Wildflower Farm, Paul Jenkins, is a wiz at calculating exactly how much seed you’ll need for your swathing project.  Or if you wish, Paul can collaborate with you to create an entirely  custom meadow mix.

Ozark Coneflowers (Echinacea paradoxa) swathing up a yellow storm of summertime beauty.

Ozark Coneflowers (Echinacea paradoxa) swathing up a yellow storm of summertime beauty.

To swath or not to swath that is the question! Whether ‘tis nobler to paint with wildflowers and native grasses that sway softly in the breeze or to suffer the slings and arrows of a missed opportunity to add a personal touch to your wildflower experience! It’s entirely your choice, of course but why miss out on the fun? I say go for it!!!



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Curtis Prairie


The Curtis Prairie Arboretum is located in Madison, Wisconsin. Curtis Prairie is the oldest prairie restoration project and its success hinged on the knowledge of a few conservationists and the hard-working attitudes of hundreds of workers.

For the second installment of meadow month, I thought I’d talk about one of the most famous meadows in North America.  Famous not only because it was such a successful restoration project but also because one of the most famous conservationists, Aldo Leopold, played a significant part in its creation and success.

Before the Prairie
Prior to the creation of Curtis Prairie, the area (a 25-hectare plot), located in Madison, Wisconsin, had a long history of agricultural use.   It was first farmed in 1836 and after running through eleven owners in twenty-four years, it was purchased by the Bartlett family who began to farm it regularly until 1920.  A rotation of corn, oats, and pasture were planted on two-thirds of the property where excessive moisture did not make plowing dangerous. One section was left as it was found and another mowed down regularly.

Between 1920 and 1926, the land was left untouched.  The Bartletts were finished with cultivation and it wasn’t until the land was sold to a veterinarian in ’26 that it was once again used.  This time, however, there was no farming: thirty-five horses used the entire 25 hectares as a pasture.

University of Wisconsin
In 1933, the land was sold to the University of Wisconsin and by 1936, the Curtis Prairie restoration project was underway, having recruited Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps to help with the labour.

The Civilian Conservation Corps dug, hauled, and planted many of the species that are currently living in Curtis Prairie. The severe droughts experienced during this era were a persuasive factor in Roosevelt’s support for the project as the importance of environmental health gained recognition.

And that’s where our good friend, Aldo Leopold, comes in.  He was part of the first planting which took place over four years from 1936 to 1940. As a supervisor, it was Leopold’s job to oversee the project in terms of best practices and make decisions about plant species.  During this first planting phase, clumps of prairie were dug up from railway right of ways and other areas destined for construction.

Between 1950 and 1957, a second major planting took place.  Seeds were planting using a variety of methods – everything from hand planting large seeds to broadcasting smaller seeds after a prescribed burn.

The Curtis Prairie is just one prairie restoration at the University’s arboretum…an arboretum that spans over 500 hectares.  Pretty impressive.

Learning Along the Way
The Curtis Prairie isn’t just the oldest restored prairie but a scientific research site.  Over the past 78 years, students and researchers from the University of Wisconsin have been studying how best to seed a prairie, restore farmland, burn a meadow, reduce alien species, prepare the soil, and reduce negative plant competition.

Burning the Curtis Prairie was a learning experience in the beginning. Today, the prairie is burned each spring to combat invasive weeds and encroaching trees and shrubs.

It is research that has been done at the Curtis Prairie that helps us at Wildflower Farm not only plant meadows here but help you with your meadows and meadow-style gardens.

If you have ten minutes, I encourage you to watch this stunning video with landscape architect Darrel Morrison.  He talks about Curtis Prairie, Aldo Leopold, and Jens Jensen and how the three have impacted his design work.  It really makes you look twice at a prairie or a meadow and think harder about growing your own.

How many native wildflower species can you identify in this video?  Let us know in the comments below!

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Meadow Month

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The late fall meadow is a vast expanse of drying grasses going or gone to seed and plenty of spent flowers dried and gone to seed. Some of the flowers stand tall, like these Echinacea seed heads and others go to seed beneath the protection of the grass.


Last week I introduced Meadow Month.  For this week and the next three, Miriam and I will be discussing concepts related to meadows: why they’re important, famous meadows, how to have (and personalize) your own,  and hopefully you’ll learn something new along the way.

Fall is a great time to get out, look at, and photograph meadows.  Of course, summer time meadows are filled with blooms, but the fall meadow is when the grasses really shine.  Take some time to search for a meadow in the next few months.  I encourage you to take a moment while you’re there just to listen to the birds and rustling grass stems.



Now…let’s get started…

What is a meadow?  Simply put, a meadow is an open area with no trees but filled with a dense combination of grasses and flowers.  Ideally, these are native grasses and flowers but often times, non-natives will sneak in.  Typically, grasses will outnumber flowers.

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A particularly floriferous section of a small meadow that sits at the edge of Wildflower Farm. Pale purple coneflower (Echinacea pallida), yellow coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) and some non-native but naturalized Queen Anne’s lace.

What are they good for?  Ecologically speaking, meadows are extremely significant.  Not having trees and being open in terms of sunlight, meadows offer a different ecosystem than, say, a forest.  Having native flowers and grasses offers habitat, protection, and food for a distinct group of species that are radically different from those you would find in a beachy dune setting.

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Grasses and flowers grow together. Often, flowers will grow in clusters as one seed head will drop many seeds in close proximity to itself. The result is a natural swath – in this case, a swath of black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta).

The combination of grasses and flowers occupy different levels of the soil, holding it in place when rain and wind would easily move soil down the same hill if it were bare.

How does a meadow occur?  In nature, meadows are the result of recurring fires or other disaster.  The species that grow in a meadow are tolerant of these disasters and, often times, the disaster is how the meadow stays healthy.  A fire will rip through a dry meadow in the fall, burning away alien species that cannot withstand the temperatures and tree seedlings that would compete for resources.  The native species, however, may burn to the soil level, but will bounce right back in the spring.

What species are attracted to a meadow?  It will depend heavily on where you live but you can expect a wide variety of songbirds looking for nesting opportunities, seeds from grasses and flowers, and protection from predators.  The number of insect species attracted to a meadow is incredible as they look for food, shelter, and a place to lay eggs.  Some insect species have very specific relationships with certain plants (the classic monarch-milkweed example).  If the meadow is located in a more remote area, you can expect deer, rodents, owls, and sometimes large cats to use the space for food, protection, and sleep.

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The cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) will attract birds and plenty of insects. The birds are attracted to the seeds in the fall but throughout the year will use the water that collects in their cup-like leaves.

The benefits of a meadow landscape are huge in terms of ecosystem services.  They filter water, house numerous species, hold and protect soil, and keep out invasive species.  Aesthetically speaking, they are beautiful in their own right and even more so if you think about the benefit they bring to the natural landscape.

Your Meadow, Your Garden
You don’t need a vast expanse of land to grow a meadow.  Of course, if you have a large space, you should probably consider it.  For the rest of us, the meadow-style garden is a great way to create a stunning space with minimal work.  The close-knit community of grasses and flowers that is a true meadow keeps weeding to a minimum and watering once established to nothing.  Imagine, a garden that looked great and didn’t need more than 20 minutes a year of maintenance.

A meadow doesn’t have to be a huge expanse. But if you have one, wouldn’t you want it to look like this?

Like a large-scale meadow, a meadow-style garden is planted in the fall. The seeds need winter and winter (fall) sowing can be a fun experience.  One you can share with the younger generation to teach them the details of seed germination and patience.

If you are not too picky, we can offer you a predetermined mix chosen by you to match your soil conditions.  If you’d like certain species, you can use the seed selector tool to determine which species will work for your area.  You will need to know a little about your soil and the sunlight your area receives for both options.  Our meadow growing instructions should be able to point you in the right direction.

Start thinking about it now.  If you want to grow a large wildflower meadow, some planning is needed.  If you want to start introducing native plants into your garden and slowly convert it into a meadow-style garden, start your plants this winter for planting next year.

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