Your step by step guide for ordering native forbs and grasses for installing your native wildflower garden this spring! (Or fall…)
Determine which forbs and grasses you will order
I have pored over the internet and lists of native wildflowers and grasses. I have made list after list of my favourites, including bloom times. But this isn’t a technical science. At least, I don’t think it is. I do believe trial and error may be key to attaining a beautiful native wildflower garden in the home landscape.
However, careful research and planning is in order before you should go ahead and order whatever strikes your fancy at the moment.
Should you plant warm or cool season grasses? Both? Do you want plants that spread furiously? How much time do you have for gardening? How much do you enjoy it? Being honest in answering these kinds of questions can help you to determine the amount of square footage you can reasonably keep weeded and watered.
And, of course, be sure to know your site’s conditions before choosing native plants. Sun, part sun, shade? Dry, moist, wet? Clay, sand, loam? The closer you can match plants’ needs to your location, the better likelihood you have of growing a successful native flower garden.
Alberta Native Plant Council’s website is an excellent resource to learn more about native plants. They also have a spreadsheet of native plant suppliers that you can peruse to locate one near you. The more local, the better- you want plants that are really able to handle your local weather.
You could check out Benjamin Vogt’s blog, keeping in mind that he uses plants native to his region specifically. But he has plenty of suggestions that are useful to the native plant gardener, no matter which zone you’re in.
Native plant supplier websites generally have plenty of information regarding each plant, how to start a meadow, etc. One that’s not local to me but I really enjoy browsing is Prairie Moon Nursery.
Grass vs Forb percentage
(A forb, in case you were wondering, is a herbacious flowering plant other than a grass.)
How many grasses to include, percentage-wise? Our swale is more heavy on the grass. However, for our more ‘manicured’ planting beds up and around the house, I wanted something with more flowers and less grass.
To ensure adequate soil coverage to deter weeds- which grasses are generally good at- we are also including several rapidly spreading groundcovers such as wild strawberry.
50% grasses and 50% forbs is a great goal. Include both warm and cool season grasses and sedges in the grass percentage, as well as both legumes and non legumes for the forbs.
Decide if you will be using seeds, plugs, or both
Using seeds is the more inexpensive route. You can sometimes buy them in bulk, especially grass seed. Keep in mind that if you buy a mixture of seeds, as I did, you will end up with more of a meadow-style planting with everything mixed more or less evenly throughout your planting area.
If you’re looking for individual swaths of color, you will either need to order seed separately, or potentially sow grass seed and then plant islands of plugs as desired.
Here in Alberta, native plant plugs range from $4.25 to $7.00 each, depending on the variety. This feels crazy expensive, especially considering how tiny they are. However, keep in mind that plugs often will bloom and produce seed in the first year of being planted, while germination rates for native seeds are notoriously unpredictable.
If you have time, you could consider starting a little “nursery” of your own in some corner of your yard, where you can begin propagating plants and collecting seed. If you can find someone local to you who is growing native plants, chances are they will be happy to share some seed with you. It doesn’t hurt to ask!
Often, it will be wise to choose a combination of both. Seed the grasses, and plant islands of forbs between. Or seed some flowers that are easier and quick to grow from seed (such as black eyed susan), and plant plugs of varieties that are slower growing or more difficult to establish.
We chose to use seed for our swale, as it was more cost effective and easier than planting out a massive amount of plugs.
We have now ordered plugs for the planting areas immediately surrounding our house (since the remaining hardscaping around our house is slated to be completed this spring).
Decide the amount of plugs or seeds to order
Prairie Nursery has a detailed post on seeding native mixes. Highly recommended read!
Generally speaking, count on one plug per square foot. You want to plant fairly closely so they quickly cover any exposed soil. Each variety will spread at a different rate, so take that into consideration as well.
Choose a supplier
If you’ve chosen to go with bulk grass seed, I recommend looking for a seed company near you that specializes in providing reclamation mixes. For our swale, I ordered grass seed from Gold Medal Seeds near me.
They pointed me in the right direction for which seeds to order, and I ended up purchasing two different mixes for different areas: Junegrass, Blue Grama Grass, Blue Flax, and Purple Prairie Clover for the dry areas. And for the area that’s more seasonally moist: Ticklegrass and Tufted Hair Grass, plus Purple Prairie Clover as well.
For our next project nearer to our home, we decided to go with plugs for more immediate results. When I had compiled my final list of species and the amount of plugs needed, I sent requests for quotes to Wild About Flowers (the native plant nursery, not the florist shop) and ALCLA Native Plants.
These are the plants I included:
Was I informed enough? Did I make the right choices? Should I have added more grasses? Was it risky to order rapidly spreading plants such as yarrow?
Honestly, I have no idea. But I’ve done what I could.
I could find very little information online regarding native wildflower gardening specifically for homeowners here in southern Alberta…precisely the reason why I’m blogging about my process. Hopefully hearing about my failures and successes will be helpful for others in the same situation!
Since our planting areas are curved and rather difficult to measure exactly (for my non-mathematically inclined mind, that is), I only estimated the square footage.
I decided to order 330 plugs. I know this won’t cover the entire area, but I figure I can always add more later and/or propagate or collect seed from plugs this year to cover the remainder of the area.
Full disclosure- I do intend to add a few non-natives (but non-invasive!) as well, simply because I adore them. These include Caradonna Sage, Autumn Joy Sedum, and Coral Bells.
Simply because ALCLA had most of the plants I was after and their prices were a bit lower, I decided to go with them. Most plugs were $4.50 each, with the exception of bearberry, which was $6.50 per plug.
They also have a convenient online checkout system. Also, they do have quite a bit of info on their site about each plant and an online tool to make it easier to find plants with the specific characteristics you’re after.
Wild About Flowers
Located near Black Diamond, Alberta, Wild About Flowers is another company that’s fairly near me.
Their prices were a bit higher, ranging from $5.00 to $7.50 per plug, with the exception of the Rocky Mountain Fescue and wild strawberries at $4.25 each.
However, Wild About Flowers is an exceptional company with friendly and super helpful staff; plus they have such a great “store” area. It’s beautiful and very well organized and definitely worth a visit if you’re local. I visited there last year and bought some plugs to try out; they all grew very well!
The website, although not the easiest to navigate, is full of detailed information by someone who obviously knows what she’s doing. I would absolutely recommend purchasing from this company!
Update: Going forward, I will purchase from Wild About Flowers ideally. Their plugs seem hardier in general, in my experience as well as a nearby neighbor’s.
Once you’ve narrowed down your plant varieties, decided on plugs or grass or both, and chosen your supplier, go ahead and order! You’ll have to pay to reserve your order if you order ahead of time, or in winter like I did.
Now all that’s left is to wait anxiously for spring and then get your hands dirty and start planting! I can’t wait to share our planting process with you, once spring rolls around here…