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What is a wildflower? The National Garden Bureau defines wildflowers as flowering plants that grow in their natural state with little interference from man. They are not bred or cross-bred the way hybrids and other cultivated annuals and perennials may be. Because their seeds are sown by birds or the wind, they often grow in fields or woodlands without someone planning where they should be planted. Wildflowers may vary a fair amount in coloration, plant size and plant habit. This natural variability is a desirable quality.

One of the many appeals of wildflowers to the home gardener is their low-maintenance. Since nature has selected those that can tolerate natural growing conditions, wildflowers usually require less attention than "cultivated" types of flowers. Another appeal is their less formal nature. As their name implies, they are more "wild" than "tamed," and should be appreciated for it. A new approach to a home landscape is the idea of a wildflower meadow instead of a more traditional lawn and garden. Meadows are often best reserved for back yards, as many communities have weed ordinances that would prohibit the mixture of tall grasses and flowering plants that comprise a wildflower meadow.

Deciding which wildflowers to grow in your garden depends on where you live and where in your garden you want to grow the wildflowers. Plants well suited to the Southwestern United States will do best in that climate, and wildflowers that prefer six to eight hours of sun each day will do their best with that amount of light.

Read seed packet and plant label descriptions carefully to avoid disappointment. Many perennial wildflowers will not perform at their best until after they have been established in the garden for a year. A number of wildflowers are biennial (meaning that they bloom during their second year of life) and some wildflowers are annual (meaning they live just one year, set seed, and die). With annuals, you have to plan on either replanting the following year or count on the plant re-seeding itself in the garden.

Seed catalogs and nurseries carry many wildflower varieties. There are also a number of easy-to-plant-and-grow wildflower products that can add to your ultimate success.

If you want only a few specific wildflowers, purchasing growing plants or buying seed packets may be your best choice. Started plants offer you the advantage of avoiding the germination stage and may give you a better idea of what a plant really looks like.

Mixtures are a popular way of purchasing wildflowers. While there are started-plant mixtures available, seed mixtures are among the most common combinations. Mixtures offer the advantage of combining a wide range of species that offer the opportunity for a full season of color and growth. Mixtures also offer the free-form look of varying heights, sizes and colors, one of the natural appeals of wildflowers. These are the best bet for obtaining the meadow look.

Like individual plants and seeds, mixtures come in designations that will do best in sunny locations or shady locations. There are also regional mixes that may be designated as "Midwest Mix," "Southern Mix," "Northeast (or New England) Mix," etc. These mixes are usually clearly designated for a certain region. They have been specially blended with annuals and perennials suited to a particular growing area, which takes some of the guesswork out of what will grow where.

If a seed or plant mixture is available at a local retailer, you may want to do some research on the species of flowers that it contains. Make a list of the species and check a garden reference. Some wildflower mixtures are also available in special color mixes featuring plants that produce flowers in shades of a specific color such as reds, blues or whites, or a combination of specified colors such as pastel shades. Check your seed catalogs and local retailers.

In establishing a wildflower meadow, there are several options as to what type of plant material you can purchase:

*Seed Packets
Seed packets offer choices in individual species as well as mixes. You can select exactly what you want. Seed packets also offer you the opportunity to blend your own custom mix.

*Potted Plants
Individual plants of wildflowers are often available at retail outlets and through mail-order catalogs. The advantage is that you can get right to the growing on stage. If you are unfamiliar with a certain species, started plants, even though small, can give you a better idea of what it really looks like.

*Wildflowers in a Can
These seed mixes usually contain a wide range of wildflowers and are often blended for specific regions or growing conditions such as sun or shade mixes. When you read the contents label you may see a high percentage of "inorganic" material such as vermiculite. This is an important ingredient because it aids in spreading the seed evenly, especially if you are seeding a large area.

*Pre-seeded mats
Some seed suppliers are offering wildflower mixes that come in mat form. These mats are like thin pieces of carpet, and are impregnated with a mixture of seeds. The mats may or may not contain growing nutrients as well. The advantage of mats is that they are easy to handle (no loose seeds to spread around), they can be cut to fit circular and irregularly shaped beds, and basically all that has to be done is to keep them well watered until the plants have begun to grow (always read the directions). The mats are often made of a wood fiber material, are biodegradable, serve as a mulch to help keep down weeds, and will eventually disappear into the soil.

*Wildflower "Sod"
A newer innovation in wildflower planting is the development of started, growing plants that look like a piece of sod. The plants are well established, and the "sod" is simply placed on prepared soil and kept watered. The sod can be cut apart and the pieces spaced out in a bed, and like mats, these can be cut to irregular shapes easily. The distinct advantage is that they offer plants that are already growing.