Going wild(flower) in the garden

I’ve just finished reading Miriam Goldberger’s book Taming Wildflowers, and I’m ready to rip out everything I’ve planted in my sunny front garden – she’s that good at making the case for wildflowers (Miriam runs Wildflower Farm in Coldwater, ON).

She can rattle off their benefits at the drop of a petal: easy care, pest-resistance, colourful, lots of shape and structure, good at erosion control, adapting and providing insect habitat.

“These are tough cookies,” she says.

They’re also experts at the trade-off between flowers and pollinators, such as bees and butterflies. Simply put, pollinators help flowers make seeds and more flowers; flowers give pollinators food. “Wildflowers throw in incubation and baby-sitting, too. It’s a sweet deal!”

It turns out many of our native buggy critters are starving because of the disappearance of the native flowers they need to survive. They literally can’t stomach many of our modern hybrid flowers, and the human tendency to build everywhere is destroying many of their natural feeding grounds.

“Wildflowers,” Miriam says, “actually are the key to restoring pollinators in the world.”

So much for the eco-sermon. So why give up a lovely Asian lily or oriental poppy and plant a wildflower instead?

For one thing, a perennial garden is hard work: fertilizing (organic or otherwise), watering, dividing, fighting pests, protecting in winter. With wildflowers, Miriam points out, you can forget about most of that.

Gardener burn-out was what made her turn to wildflowers in the first place. About 25 years ago, she and her husband started Canada’s first pick-your-own flower farm. With acres of gardens to take care of, Miriam eventually wanted something that was low or no-maintenance. Cue the wildflowers.

The farm became a nursery where customers could buy or order native flowers and grasses. These days, she and her husband focus on selling wildflower seed (wildflowerfarm.com).

But back to the flowers themselves. Growing anything in our dry, sandy gardens isn’t easy, as many of us have discovered. Miriam, however, lists dozens of plants for dry, sandy soil: beebalm (monarda), lavender hyssop (agastache), sunflower (helianthus), black-eyed Susan (rudbeckia), three or four kinds of coneflower (echinacea), even native columbine (aquilegia).

Even better, her book organizes plants according to blooming season. So if (like me) your garden goes flowerless between spring-flowering bulbs and summer perennials, you’ll find pages of pretty wildflowers to take up the slack.

She tells you how long the plants stay in bloom, how long they last as a cut flower, their light and moisture needs, height and whether they do well in containers. A separate chapter goes into detail about how to grow the wildlings from seed. This can be a little fiddly, but for some plants, you can just throw the seed on the ground in the fall (yay!).

Miriam is so wild about wildflowers that she includes chapters on using them in flower arrangements and even a wildflower wedding.

So what’s the catch? In a word: Sun. Nearly all these native beauties like full or at least part sun, and we have a lot of trees in the Beach. Miriam mentions a few shade-tolerant plants like daylilies, lady’s mantle, red milkweed and wild quinine. But my spidey sense tells me they won’t flourish in shady gardens.

So I asked Ursula Eley, an organizer of the Beach Garden Society’s perennial sale, what the BGS might have on offer. She shot me an email back, listing some true shade-loving natives: maidenhair fern (adiantum), turtlehead (chelone), bunchberry (cornus canadensis), Virginia bluebells (mertensia), bloodroot (sanguinarea), meadow rue (thalictrum), trillium, birdsfoot violet (viola pedatifida).

They’ll be on sale at the BGS plant sale, May 17, 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. at Adam Beck Community Centre, 79 Lawlor Ave. Or, if you really want to go native, try the North American Native Plant Society’s plant sale, May 10, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Markham Civic Centre, 101 Town Centre Blvd.


Mary Fran McQuade is a hobby gardener and freelance writer

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Thanks for your most positive review of Taming Wildflowers. I must note that your observation that most of the wildflowers featured in the book are only viable in sun is incorrect. In fact, the book features a number of wildflowers that successfully grow in considerable shade: Culver’s Root, Ironweed, Asters, Purple Coneflower and Pale Purple Coneflower, Black Eyed and Sweet Black Eyed Susans, Native Columbine, Shooting Stars, Prairie smoke, Solomon Seal, Spiderwort, Bergamot, Cardinal flower, Great Blue Lobelia, Cup Plant and Oxe-Eye Sunflower. Thanks again! It’s so wonderful to hear that the Beaches Community is growing so many wonderful wildflowers! – Miriam

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