Wildflower meadows for the busy superintendent

By |  August 27, 2018 0 Comments
Poppies on the 9th (Photo: Hannah Schrum)

Poppies on the 9th (Photo: Hannah Schrum)

As seasoned veterans of the turf industry, superintendents rightly pride themselves on pulling off one of the most deceptively simple yet challenging feats of agriculture: cultivating acres of pristine turf. Then, just when you think you have a grasp on the ins and outs of monoculture, along comes the demand to add flowers to your course. And not just any flowers, but “wildflowers.”

Though members (or anyone advocating this for development) may be swayed by visions of an insta-garden sprouted from a can, featuring the image of a majestic alpine meadow, you may wish to prepare for a different reality.

Blame the wildflower garden craze popular in the ’90s. The fad — or rather, the marketing — of wildflower gardens carved a spot in the heart of the public for masses of colorful blooms. Unfortunately, growing these gardens proved more difficult than simply dispersing seed from a beautiful packet.

Luckily, the wildflower movement evolved. A respectable amount of R&D has gone into this agricultural niche, and specialists have developed better applications for creating the colorful gardens. Many seed companies stepped up their game with regionally specific seed mixes and concierge-type recommendations. The resurgence in demand for “carefree” blooms is now stronger than ever and even more convincing under the guise of pollinator habitats, native plant usage and general eco-friendly landscape solutions. If you are one of many supers facing demands to install a “wildflower stand” on or near your course, I offer a basic primer to get you started.

Wildflower Garden Photo: Hannah Schrum)

With proper planning, a wildflower garden can be timed to bloom for a special event. (Photo: Hannah Schrum)

A garden, not a rose

A rose is a rose by any other name, but a wildflower garden is not. The concept of a wildflower garden often is more aptly named a meadow garden. It consists of perennial and annual flowers and native grasses installed using a combination of direct seeding and plug transplants. This mix of plant populations is extremely dynamic and takes years to establish, all the while demanding the guided expertise of a specialist familiar with each plant, its lifecycle and needs.

A meadow garden is the pinnacle of a beautiful, “natural” landscape. Ironically, it’s also a complex and demanding feature to install and coax into fruition.

Fortunately, there is a second version of the so-called wildflower garden, one that can be the answer to all your dicot woes. Let’s call it the annual wildflower garden, a simpler version. What an annual wildflower stand lacks in diversity and use of authentic region-specific native plants, it makes up for in color and quick, reliable results.

Why is it so important to understand the difference in terminology?

In golf terms, it’s a lot easier to put the ball in the hole if you know where the hole is. By emphasizing the use of annual flower seeds, you maintain more control — and more assurance — that you will get a predictable stand of flowers, which most likely is the goal.

It’s tempting to invest in longer-lived perennials. These too often are purported to be “low-maintenance” and guaranteed to return every year. Be wary of these promises. Perennials are slow to establish (most take a minimum of two years before bloom, and three to five years before they are hardy enough to not need coddling). And despite marketing, they may live only a few years beyond that.

Up-close poppies (Photo: Doug Young)

Poppies provide great color and also are friendly to pollinators. (Photo: Doug Young)

Annuals, on the other hand, may require a bit of preparation and annual reseeding, but this method provides relatively quick and reliable results with a fraction of the oversight needed compared to a true meadow garden.

Fortunately for the busy superintendent, embracing the annual wildflower method provides a means of creating a colorful, pollinator-friendly and crowd-pleasing highlight on the golf course that you can achieve in a single season. If installing a wildflower area is on your list, consider these tips to make it happen:

Plan ahead: This cannot be overstated. Allow for adequate timing and address a few key points prior to breaking ground, and half the battle is won.

Site selection: Make sure the designated area receives at least six hours of sun a day and is well drained. Bonus points if the area falls under irrigation, but it isn’t always necessary. Knowing if the soil tends to be wet or dry will help determine seed selection. The site should be well away from areas that interfere with golf play. For best results, plan to use areas that allow for some distance between the casual viewer and the flowers. Wildflowers are best seen from a distance (a minimum of 10 yards if possible). This helps diffuse the natural untidiness of the plants, it masks weeds and it provides a comfortable distance between pollinators (bees) and golfers.

Seed selection: Skip the garden-in-a-can generic mix. There now are numerous reputable seed companies (e.g. Applewood Seed Co.; American Meadows) that can help select the varieties and amount of seed that best suit your region.

Make sure you specify that you want annual seeds (or perennials that will bloom the first year). Once you’ve got your list, order ASAP. Many flower seeds are available only seasonally, and stock often runs out.

Zinnias (Photo: istock.com/WanderLuster)

Zinnias are easy-to-grow annuals and make a bright splash. Bonus, they also attract butterflies. (Photo: istock.com/WanderLuster)

Planting timing: If you want a colorful display to show off for an event in in July, you will probably put out seed in April/May. If you need some pizazz for an early spring opening, you’ll need to seed in the fall. Refer to specialists at the seed company to help you determine the ideal planting dates. Mark that date and work backward on the calendar to calculate when you must prep the seedbed.

Weed management: This arguably is the most important part of the preparation process. Patience and thoroughness with this step is the absolute best defense against the weeds that threaten to ruin the project. To prepare the area, first remove prior vegetation/mulch. If needed, apply herbicide. Wait 10 to 14 days and till the seedbed under. Irrigate if possible to encourage the next flush of weed seeds in the soil to sprout before applying another round of herbicide. Wait another 14 days after the last herbicide application before putting out your seed mix.

Sowing: You may disperse seed mixed with sand using a broadcast spreader. Most, but not all, varieties also benefit from a light soil drag after dispersal. For best results, plant directly before a rain event, or plan to irrigate.

Fertilizing: Don’t. Or at least, wait. The types of annual flowers you are going to use are generally robust and eager to thrive, given enough sun and a reasonably weed-free seedbed. Applying compost or a granular fertilizer to the soil will only give the remaining weeds a leg up. Wait until the flowers begin blooming, then they will appreciate one or two seasonal applications of a foliar fertilizer.

Poppy weeds (Photo: Hannah Schrum)

During early development, wildflower seedlings may look weedy. Anticipate this awkward stage and resist the urge to spray or pull. (Photo: Hannah Schrum)

Management

When your wildflower area is underway and growing, you might as well maximize the goodwill you’re bound to earn with delighted members. Including educational signposts or informational updates in a bulletin to members helps maintain support for the change, especially as the areas grow through one or two awkward stages of development. Wildflowers are, after all, glorified weeds. Before they bloom, it may make your skin itch (and anyone else’s who doesn’t know what is to come) to see what looks like an unbearably weedy ground. You must resist the inclination to spray.

Anticipate that you’ll need some spot weeding on the plot during mid-season when the flowers are in bloom and can be clearly differentiated from the inevitable weeds.

After the bloom season

When wildflowers have more dead material on them than blooms, it’s time to mow. The timing of the end-of-season mow is not critical, though the longer you wait, the more likely gratuitous flower seeds will build up in the soil.

In preparation for next year’s flowers, refer to the planning process. Here you may decide to skip herbicide applications if weed pressure was relatively low. In any case and for best results, plan to reseed with new stock every year. After three years, if weed maintenance has been adequate, you may find you can reduce seeding rates either by half or completely as the seed bank will have an adequate supply from the years’ prior populations, if you skip the early-season blanket herbicide application.

Easy-to-grow annual “wildflowers”

(Regional results may vary.)

  • Cosmos
  • Zinnia
  • Corn poppy*
  • Corn flower*
  • Annual lupine*
  • Rudbeckia
  • Cleome
  • Sunflower

*Cool-season annuals, planted in fall.

3 Wildflower Garden Myths

  • Low maintenance, “takes care of itself.” BUSTED — Nope, these actually take some mindful planning and know-how to pull off successfully.
  • Easily grown from seed. BUSTED — Annual flowers can be grown from seed, but more complex designs that include native grasses and perennials should utilize plug transplants.
  • Will return effortlessly after the first year. BUSTED — You may luck out and get a gratuitous repeat on year two, but results in subsequent years decline rapidly if maintenance is abandoned.

Tips from Hannah

  • Don’t skimp on seedbed preparation. Plan enough time to schedule one or two applications of herbicide to reduce weed population at the onset.
  • Use annual seeds (also perennial seeds, which bloom the first year), as they will bloom in the current season and for the duration of the season (Note: cool-season annuals are not as long lasting as their warm weather counterparts).
  • Use the expertise of a reputable seed company to help guide the process of your installment.

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