Flowers seem to pop up all over Pennsylvania. Why can't they pop up in my garden? Through research, I have learned that wildflowers flourish because they are in an ideal location, and if I can recreate these conditions successfully, flowers will thrive in my garden as well. I am going to explain to you the different types of flowering plants and discuss the basic requirements needed for healthy happy flowers. While I am mainly interested in wild flowers, I will also include some garden varieties.
Flowers like Pennsylvania, thanks to the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean we have plenty of humidity and rainfall, and if there is one thing flowers love, it is water. Although winters are long, the growth gets underway, it progresses rapidly. "Flowers are vividly colored and last longer than in the western or Midwestern sections do to a predominance of favorable days and cool nights" (Givens 11,13).
What is a wildflower? "A wild flower is a plant that has always been it's own without any human intervention." Native plants "without assistance from a gardener in the area where they originated. Although all native plants are wild, not all wildflowers are natives" (Loewer 6). Where did the non-native flowers come from and how did they get here? "Probably the largest number of plants accidentally introduced in this country arrived in ships' ballast. Because the early merchant ships that sailed from Europe were empty of goods on the trip over, their hulls were loaded with dirt so that they would float properly. When they arrived in America, the dirt was removed and left onshore. The seeds it contained then began to spread, bloom, produce more seed, and eventually spread" (6). Interesting enough, I have learned that another gift from the Europeans is the honeybee, which came to America in the 1600's (8).
Not all wildflowers that are attractive in field or forest are recommended for gardens. These invasive varieties grow so aggressively that they overwhelm most of the other flowers in their vicinity. Purple loosestrife for example, seen growing along the Susquehanna River, has become a serious problem at wildwood park, where the use of herbicides are vast areas of New York, Pennsylvania, and New England are covered with loose strife plants blooming in late July and August. While all the flowers in our garden derive from wildflowers, garden varieties are the result of human intervention. Research in cross-pollination and genetic engineering has resulted in brighter colors, larger flowers, more varieties, and disease resistance. These advantages make some garden varieties easy to grow while other hybrids can be very fussy flowers.
Wildflowers and garden varieties can be classified as perennial, Annual, or Biennial. Perennials have a strong root system that survives the winter and enables the plant to reappear year after year in the spring. "Annuals usually die after on full season. Occasionally you'll find that some annuals' come back the next year. Annuals have a single stem or root, which usually doesn't store up enough food to keep the plant alive over the winter" (Baker 126). "Normally, the life span is completed in the cycle from seed sowing to seed setting and natural death" (Oravetz 10). Biennial wildflowers require two years of growth to bloom. Then they, too, set seed and die" (Sperka 18). "Biennials, as a class, produce a nice plant the first year, but do not bloom until the second year; then they usually die away. Some biennials will surprise you by coming back for years like perennials, but with decreasing abundance of blooms" (Baker 126).
"Mature perennials ' are the mainstay of an established natural garden" (Sperka 3). Because they survive cold weather and bloom year after year, they often increase in number and size of blooms, and a minimum amount of work is required once they are planted; however, they should be dug up, divided, and transplanted every four years. Since perennials take longer to develop from seed, they are almost always planted from dormant stock - roots, rhizomes, stolons "nodes", or bulbs. "Left in the ground, the root system will spread and the plants will reappear each spring. Some may be transplanted in their entirety provided they are past their period of bloom. It is usually best to start with stock from mature plants" (4).
"Often the annual and biennial wildflowers can be used to fill in the bare spots until perennial wildflowers mature. As well as being interesting and useful, they are an inexpensive way to naturalize a large open area" (18). "Most of them are grown directly from seed" (3). "Seeds can be sown directly outdoors in beds where the plants are to bloom or can be started early indoors and set out when the weather becomes mild" (Oravetz 10). "Seeds scattered after the plant has bloomed will usually germinate at the proper time. An open area where grass is sparse is an ideal spot, as most of these wildflowers need sun to complete their short life-span" (Sparka 18). "Common practice by many gardeners is to purchase annual plants at a local source such as a garden shop" (Oravetz 10). "Normally, the life span is completed in the cycle from seed sowing to seed setting and natural death" (10).
"Don't think that wildflowers are easy to grow. They must be treated along special lines in order to thrive in your home garden. Even then, they may not do will in their strange environment, but you learn as you try growing them. That's part of the stimulating challenge and fun of gardening. Do reproduce in your garden as much as possible, the original environment where the wildflowers were growing-if you get them from a friends field, a forest, or other "wild" place. Try to duplicate the kind of light and shade that exist where you found them. Check for conditions of weather, wetness and dryness of the soil area, location on a hill or valley, other such factors" (Baker 153).
"The first step to preparing beds should begin weeks before your spade lifts the soil' A soil test is necessary to determine the relative alkalinity/acidity of the soil, what is known as the pit level" (Powell 14). "The pit used to measure the relative acidity and alkalinity of the soil. It ranges from 0 to 14, with 7 indicating soil that is neutral. Soils with a pit less than 7 are acid; those above pH are alkaline. Swamps and bogs have a high percentage of peat and are very acidic. In humid regions, including most forests, the soil is moderately acidic to slightly alkaline. Acid regions range from moderate to strongly alkaline. It is important to test your soil pit; some wildflowers can tolerate a range, but others are very particular" (Loewer 60). "A neutral soil in this respect, with a 6.0 to 7.0 is ideal, because one can then grow almost anything" (Bloom 17). "The simplest and most efficient method of having soil tested is through the local cooperative extension service. A quick phone call to your extension agent will provide you with details on how to proceed with the operation, as well as the cost" (Powell 14). I called my Cooperative Extension Service and my extension agent sent me a pH test soil kit, which cost six dollars and comes with a full set of instructions. I also called Master Gardener Barbara Swider and she told me that Pennsylvania has predominately clay soil, which makes gardening difficult.
"Friability or general looseness of soil is of first consideration. Clay soils usually contain a plentiful supply of plant nutrients but, because of their nearly impenetrable condition, much of the food remains inaccessible to the growing plants. Clay is the most perplexing soil problem. It's particles are so small and adhesive in action that they tend to pack and become almost impervious to moisture" (Givens 110). "If your soil is pure clay, adding organic matter will help it drain better while still holding moisture. So start a compost heap and gather leaves to shred and then add to the soil" (Loewer 24). "Do get the flower beds ready as soon as danger of frost has passed in your area, and the soil is ready to be worked" (Baker 127). "Clay soil can also be improved by adding peat or sand mixed in when digging, but winter sogginess can only be overcome by drainage, with an outlet to a ditch or swamp" (Bloom 16). "As a simple test of whether the earth's consistency is adequate, grab a handful of soil and squeeze it into a ball in your palm. If the soil sticks together too firmly, stays in a tight mass, the earth is still too wet. ...