We used to see wildflowers in vacant lots, which we used to call Prairies as kids. Now they're easy to grow garden favorites.

You can have the same glorious color and sweet little visitors in your own gardens as our public gardens and Prairies.

Wildflowers have made themselves at home in all sorts of gardens over the years, moving from the vacant lots of my youth, to carefully public gardens, and now our own yards. Our front yard growing up had big lumbering evergreen bushes. The backyard had roses, bridal wreath Viburnums, and lawn. This was the case for most yards, city and suburban. Living near Chicago we would visit the tidy, well manicured rose garden at Grant Park. The wildflowers were not welcomed, because, well they’re wild. Just not pretty enough or well mannered.

From the Field . . .

Eventually Prairie Restoration projects brought native wildflowers back to public gardens and we decided we loved because they are beautiful and we really, we all like a little wild in our life. With a well planned garden, the wild becomes a natural flowing space filled with color. Lurie Garden in Chicago, created in Millennium Park, not far at all from Grant Park, is a beautiful example of a Naturalistic style garden design. Check out their website for design details along with photos of every blooming thing at the garden. https://www.luriegarden.org

. . . To Your Garden

When choosing what wildflowers to add to your garden, consider a couple of important items first-

  • A Site check list – How much sun does the area get and for how long? Is it a dry area or water logged? Assessing your site will help you figure out what wildflower would be happiest there, making your job much easier. Pick the right plant for the site, and you won’t have to weed, water or feed much, if at all. Once established the wildflowers won’t need your help at all actually. They will fill the space you’ve created, crowding out weeds. If you’ve chosen the right plants for your site, and I know you will, they will not need any fertilizer at all. It will adapt to the site and actually improve the soil in it’s new home.
  • Size matters – Wildflowers can be tall or short, bushy or leggy. Whether you’re adding to a new bed or an existing one, you want the taller plants in the back, medium size in front of the taller, and then shorter plants in the front. If you’re planning a circular bed, put the larger plants in the middle and then surround them with medium sized plants, and border the bed with the smaller plants.

Choosing Your Plants

You’ve done your homework and now you’re ready to pick your plants. Here are a few options. All are low-maintenance and drought tolerant, are best suited for sun but will tolerate some shade, and range in size. A few you’ll see in nearly every garden, but I’ve added a few that are just as reliable but will make your garden uniquely beautiful as they are not often found in the home garden.

Purple Coneflowers, Echinacea purpurea

These Echinacea, Purple Coneflowers are between two flowering bushes in my front yard garden bed. It’s long lasting blooms appear mid summer to fall, needs no special care and is drought tolerant. Coneflowers grow up to 3ft tall. For a fuller, rather than taller, plant, cut the buds back in early summer. 2 to 3ft tall means this is a middle or back of the bed plant. Leave the flower heads on their stems after the bloom is spent to feed the birds. Mix Purple Coneflowers with Yellow Black-Eyed Susans for stunning color contrasts.

White Indigo (Baptisia)

This graceful beauty is a White Wild Indigo, Baptisia Alba, from the wildflower fields at The Little Red Schoolhouse, Cook County Forest Preserve. They are showy plants with upright spikes of bright white flowers above the foliage, blooming in May through July. Leave their brown seed pods on the plant for winter interest in your garden. The plant grows 2 to 5 ft tall and 2 to 3 ft wide, and is best in full sun, although the white flowered type does better in part shade. Surround White Indigo with purple Coneflower and blue Bellflowers for a striking color combination.

Black Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia)

The Black Eyed Susan, a very popular wildflower, fills fields and gardens from June to October. The “black eye” is named for their dark, brown-purple centers of the daisy-like flowers. Members of the hardy aster family, Asteraceae, they can grow to over 3ft tall, with leaves of 6 inches, stalks over 8 inches long, and flowers with a diameter of 2 to 3 inches. The original yellow is the most common color but new hybrids range from lemon yellow to rust-brown and also come in a range of sizes .

Purple Salvia, S. x superba

There are oh so many different kinds of Salvias, both annual and perennial. Whatever your zone, you will find a hybrid. The Salvia in this photo is from the pollinator beds which I designed for our community garden. It blooms from late spring to early summer. It is mid-size, 12 to 18 inches tall and 8 to 10 inches wide, which makes it a good front of the bed border plant. Cut the spent blooms off to get a second bloom from this hardy drought tolerant plant.

Coreopsis Verticullata

This perky perennial is a Threadleaf Coreopsis with delicate, dark green feathery leaves and a profusion of yellow blooms. Ranging in height from 8 inches to 18 inches, plant this beauty in or near the front of your garden bed. There are more than 80 species of coreopsis. Most have yellow flowers, but some have red or rust colors in the center, and there are some smaller Threadleaf varieties that have pink or red flowers. Many more are the Grandiflora variety with larger flowers and leaves. Part of the Aster family, they are reliably long bloomers. Shearing the plants back by about two-thirds once the initial blooming is finished will refresh the plant and set new buds for more blooms.

Butterfly Milkweed

Everyone loves butterflies and loves them even more in our yards. The Milkweed was a perennial that filled bare spaces in urban areas and fields everywhere else, but was rarely planted on purpose in our gardens. Today it’s popular in gardens because we understand that this bright beauty is a favorite of butterflies, and especially the Monarch butterfly. It has an unusual flower structure with a long lasting bloom. 2 to 3ft tall and 1 to 2ft wide, plant it among other mid-sized perennials. It takes a couple of years before it blooms, but once established it will last for years. It is prone to aphids; you can leave them for ladybugs to eat or spray the insects and foliage with soapy water.

Bleeding Heart Dicentra Spectabilis

This Bleeding heart is under our spring blooming Red Bud tree. It too is a spring bloomer, with pink or white flowers blooming May to late June. They like moist well-drained soil in shade or part-shade. The plant typically grows to 18 inches to 3 ft tall with either large leaf or fringe leafed bushy plants. They have tiny heart shaped “locket” blossoms, with up to 20 on each arching stem. By mid-summer, as the heat sets in, the foliage dies back, going dormant until the next Spring. Plant them in combination with other plants, such as Astilbe, that can fill in the space once the Bleeding Heart fades. It is an old fashioned plant that has been over looked by the contemporary gardener. Adding these beauties to your garden bed will give you unique fabulous spring color while other gardens are still waking up.

Geranium Brookside

There are hundreds of perennial Geranium cultivars. This one is my favorite, planted in the front of our front yard garden bed. It has a well mounded, compact growth habit at 2ft tall x 2ft wide, on large, deeply cut, rich green leaves. Prolific blue flowers grow on long stems with many blooms to a stem. They will fade slightly as they mature. Once the blooms are spent, cut the stems all the way back to the leaves, a good hard cut. This will leave a green mound of interesting, textured leaves which will turn a gorgeous burgundy red in the fall. There are larger and much smaller cultivars in shades of pink, purple, blue and white, that grow in sun and part-shade. They are all very easy to grow.

A Little Wild Goes a Long Way

Planting just a few wild flowers adds more than color to your garden. Wildflowers do not require fertilizer or pest control. Once established, usually after just a few months, they do not need extra watering. They adapt quickly, growing deep roots fast, which improves your soil quality by attracting beneficial bugs and microrhizomes, and they prevent soil erosion. They attract all kinds of pollinators, from bees to birds to butterflies. Create a bed just for your wildflowers or add one to a bed that needs that something extra you can’t put your finger on. You won’t regret it. If you need any more convincing, here’s a few more photos. I have taken every one of these photos from our gardens or gardens I have designed and installed, with a few of the “out of the ordinary” wild flowers photos taken by me at the spectacular prairie fields at the Little Red Schoolhouse in the Cook County Forest Preserves the past June. From the prairie to your yard, they really are that easy to grow and they will be just as beautiful in your own yard, front or back.

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