Fall is the best time of year for a lot of things. Walks in the woods, hot apple cider and puffy vests just to name a few. Fall also happens to be the best time for planting wildflower seeds. At first, many gardeners might question why sowing wildflower seed right before the cold, snowy winter is a good idea. This concern is understandable. Even schoolchildren know that seeds need sunlight, warmth and water to grow. Sitting in frozen darkness all winter may seem detrimental for a wildflower seed, but Mother Nature has a method to this madness. So grab your puffy vest and head outside. It’s time to plant those wildflower seeds.
Mimicking the Natural Life Cycle
To understand why fall is the best time to plant wildflower seeds, it’s best to observe how Mother Nature does things in her garden. She seems to know exactly what she’s doing. In nature, most wildflowers bloom in the spring and summer. Come fall, wildflowers begin to drop their seeds with the arrival of cold weather. By planting wildflower seed in the fall we mimic this natural life cycle. Some wildflower seeds require the cold winter months for proper stratification. Stratification is the process a seed goes through to soften its seed coat, trigger the seed’s embryo and eventually emerge in the spring. The freezing and weathering action inflicted on the seed during the winter accomplishes this nicely, as well as further working the seed into the soil. Not all wildflower seeds require stratification, but many of our native perennials do.
Soil Moisture and Fall Planting
In areas of the country without freezing temperatures, fall is the ideal time to plant wildflowers for another important reason – moisture. In nature, wildflowers only establish during the wettest parts of the year. In the southern United States the wet season usually occurs during the cool winter months. This provides plenty of time for the wildflowers to germinate and become well-established before the hot summer months arrive.
Selecting a Site and Preparing the Soil
To start a new wildflower garden in the fall, first select an area that receives six or more hours of direct sunlight per day. Avoid low wet areas with poor drainage. Prepare the site by removing all existing vegetation. Existing vegetation can be removed manually by hand pulling, hoeing or tilling. If this isn’t possible, a broad-spectrum herbicide can be applied to the area two weeks before planting. After the site is clear of vegetation, till or rake to loosen the soil for planting. You can also apply a low-nitrogen organic starter fertilizer to provide the best start possible for the wildflower seeds. Organic matter such as compost and grass clippings can also be added to increase soil fertility.
Sowing Wildflower Seed
Once the site has been selected and prepared, sow the seed directly on top of the soil. DO NOT bury the seeds as this is one of the most common reasons for wildflower seeding failure. For small areas seed can be sown by hand. For larger areas a seed spreader is more efficient. When seeding extremely small wildflower seeds, you can blend the seeds with sand for a more even distribution. A ratio of three parts sand to one part seed is recommended. Lightly compress the seeds into the soil by walking on them or using a board. A roller can be used for larger areas.