Want to get away with using wildflowers in your urban garden?
There are daunting biases to overcome -- not the least of which is decades of neatness and order in our yards, as well as the feeling that landscapes should be both a reflection of personal pride and our society. A wildflower garden, no matter how well-planned, sometimes appears messy. In spite of these and other hills to climb, it's possible to enjoy our native and imported wildflowers, even in suburbia.
For one thing, understand that wildflowers don't have to look wild. Some of our very best garden plants are actually raggedy wildflowers in other parts of the world, and vice versa. Blackeyed Susan, purple coneflower, perennial sunflowers, summer phlox, Joe Pye weed, goldenrods (especially the tamer kinds), ironweed, coreopsis and even wild grasses -- all meadow plants -- are used routinely in European gardens. They are interplanted with daylilies, irises, roses, vines and other highbrow plants to create all sorts of garden vignettes -- cottage or formal.
In other words, it ain't the plant that's important. It's how you use it. Work your favorite wildflowers in with other plants in some sort of design (as opposed to just letting the landscape go wild), and they will be more acceptable.
You might even be able to slip in some really invasive stuff as filler flowers. I've seen Mexican primrose (showy evening primrose, the rapidly spreading roadside groundcover with huge pink blossoms) for sale both in England and in New York City (at $25 a pot!). They grow it because it's pretty; we snub it because it's common.
Mix groups and drifts of acceptable flowers in with your wild stuff to catch the eye of discerning neighbors. A six-pack of salvia here and there, a mass of zinnias, a handful of daylilies, some daffodils in the winter -- you get it.
Another way to work a generally less-manicured garden into a larger, neater landscape is to edge it. By using brick, rock, monkey grass or other defining material, you give a distinctive look to the garden. Hard features, such as large stones, driftwood, birdbaths, statuary, ornaments or even art can carry the garden through the entire year, even when flowers are absent or scraggly.
I wrote a publication for the Mississippi State University Extension Service titled Wildflowers for Mississippi Meadows and Gardens. The list includes the very best for the Southeastern climate and explains how to plant and care for wildflowers. Basically, you should treat them like ordinary annuals or perennials, not like wildflowers.
The main thing is, in your garden, wildflowers don't have to look or be wild.
Felder Rushing is an eighth-generation Southern gardener and regional writer for Garden.com. For more gardening information, visit garden.com.