It’s Fall, can I plant flowers now? Why should I plant flowers now, isn’t that a spring thing?
Not too many people are aware that fall planting is better than spring planting! Planting in the fall allows the plants to get a jump start for the next growing season. The weather is cool, which protects young plants. They need less water from you, meaning you have to do less work. When sowing in the fall, the seeds germinate in the spring with plenty of time to grow before the summer temperatures appear. Fall planting your prairie is a win-win!
Fall sowing has a few rules to prevent early germination –
The 3 Rules:
- Ground temperature must be cold enough to prevent germination until spring. What temperature is the best? About 45 degrees soil temperature.
- Preparation of the site is a must, get rid of competition so when the seeds start growing they can see the sun.
- Don’t cover the seed unless the area is a slope or has strong wind. Many prairie seeds need sunlight to start growing.
And that’s it. Sowing the seed is just as easy as the rules. Get your seed, walk to your prepared site, scatter your seed onto the ground and then walk back inside. That’s it! Winter will do the rest of the work for you.
Tip: Make sure to mark your site so that you know where your seeds will be in the spring. Don’t pull out your new plants thinking they are weeds!
Now, onto the 10 wildflowers for your backyard prairie!
This group of plants are pollinator favorites, loved by bees, butterflies and hummingbirds alike. These long bloomers seem to be a necessity for anyone who loves bumble bees. These plants also release a wonderful minty smell when brushed, I always enjoy mowing past my stand of bee balm.
To sow the seed, just toss it on the surface of the soil in late fall or early spring. These tiny seeds need light to germinate so don’t cover them.
Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) – the easiest of the bee balms to grow, this purple flower is happy in all but the wettest of soils. It blooms the best in moist soil but will still put on a show in dry clay from late spring to mid summer. It is native to all states except California and Florida, so go ahead and try growing it! Plant this as a midground plant as it grows to about hip height. So far, it has not flopped in my gardens and the seed heads are visited by Goldfinches so don’t cut them off.
Spotted Bee Balm (Monarda punctata) – this beautiful plant is a must for sandy soil (don’t let it get wet feet). It has a long bloom time during mid summer into fall and prefers dry soil in full sun to part shade. It is about 2 feet tall so would do wonderfully in the front of a wildflower planting. It spreads, so don’t put it near any smaller plants. It is native from the east coast to New Mexico, and north into Canada.
Bradbury’s Monarda (Monarda bradburinana) – this smaller bee balm makes a great sun to part shade groundcover. It blooms beginning in spring and into mid summer. It is native to the plains states, but grows well in any normal garden soil that is slightly dry.
Panorama Bee Balm (Monarda didyma) – is the plant for those wanting the pollinator attraction of a bee balm, but also want more colors, they have been cultivated in reds, purples and pinks. These plants can top out at 6 feet but tend to stay about 4 feet. Place these in the back of the border. They like it a bit wetter than the other bee balms and are found naturally east of the Mississippi. Don’t worry if you live in the west, it is reported as a wonderful plant in Oregon and Washington so give it a try.
Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea)
Purple Prairie Clover is another easy to grow plant for a dry area. It prefers full sun but will grow in part shade. It is tough, throw the seeds on bare soil and they will take off. It can reach 3 feet and looks nice in the middle of a planting.
This plant is a legume so make sure you purchase the seed from a reputable seller. To sow, take the seed and wet it slightly and mix with a powder called ‘inoculum’ that should be provided with the seed. This is a beneficial bacteria the plant needs to grow. Take the seed and place it directly where you want it to grow, covering lightly with mulch or soil. It’s easy!
Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
One cannot have a prairie planting without this workhorse. This flower loves sun and dry soil, so it can be a beautiful solution to a trouble spot. I have yet to have these flop, but I do not give them any extra water. They grow 3 to 5 feet so they are a middle of an area type flower.
The best part about coneflowers is the wildlife benefit. It is difficult to find a more versatile plant. Its leaves are the host for Checkerspot butterflies. The long blooming flowers (from June to almost mid August here) are a nectar source for butterflies, moths, bees, beetles and hummingbirds. But, once it’s finished flowering, leave the seed heads up because flocks of goldfinches will visit to feast.
These seeds need stratification, but if you let nature do the work for you it will be easy. Take the seed and throw it where you want the plants to grow, gently press it into the soil and barely cover. That’s it! Keep an eye out in spring for your new plants.
Brown Eye Susan (Rudbeckia triloba)
This is a different take on the overused Black Eye Susan. This wonderful wildflower is a short-lived perennial. It reaches 5 feet tall, so it is perfect for the back of the border or to add color in front of tall grasses. It has an airy feel, holding multiple flowerheads on each plant. It blooms from midsummer until the end of August, and is loved by pollinators. Like the coneflower, leave the seed heads on the plants for the goldfinch. It can sometimes be munched by deer or rabbits, but the plant will regroup and flower anyway.
Native to the eastern states to the Mississippi, it also grows in the wetter parts of Colorado, Texas and Utah.
This plant self seeds readily so even though it only lasts a few years, you will always have more. To start your stand, throw the small seeds directly where you want them to grow and wait for spring. That’s it!
Sulphur Cosmos (Cosmos sulphureus)
This annual is not the usual cosmos that one imagines. Native to Mexico, this wildflower comes in hot colors. The plants bloom in reds, oranges and yellows for weeks. I have seen this plant being sampled by butterflies, bees and hummingbirds – all at once. Leave the seed heads on the plant so it will self seed and feed the goldfinches. Unlike the pink cosmos, this plant does not flop. The plant holds multiple blooms and is airy like the Brown Eye Susan. The wild version gets about 4 feet tall, but it comes in many new cultivars of different sizes.
Once again, growing these from seed is easy. The trick to growing cosmos is to place the seed on bare ground. In fall, take the seed and press it directly on top of the soil where you want it to grow. Make sure you remember where you put it in the spring!
Bright Lights Cosmos – this version has double blooms in scarlet, orange, gold and yellow. It gets just slightly shorter than the wild version at 3 feet.
Ladybird Cosmos – is great for the more tidy garden. This beauty tops out at 2 feet and stay compact. It is still loved by wildlife and is a must for any garden.
Cosmic Cosmos – the most dwarf and well-behaved of the sulphur cosmos. This little one gets just over a foot tall, and is covered in blooms for weeks.
Polidor Cosmos – my favorite of the varieties. It blooms earlier than all of the above, and is just a bit taller than Bright Lights. I like to mix them in the same area for extra long blooms.
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
The classic garden Monarch plant, Butterfly weed stays just under 3 feet tall, is drought tolerant, loves sun and has a long bloom time. It’s not just a Monarch plant, it is the host to the Queen butterfly as well. This plant is tough, it’s a plant it and forget it type of flower.
Butterfly weed’s only drawback is that it has a very long taproot – this is great for droughts but bad if you want to transplant. Because of this, it does not like to be transplanted. To avoid this, sow the seed directly where you want it to grow in the autumn and in very late spring you will see its little green leaves appear (so late you will almost think it died). It’s so easy to grow from seed that it may sow itself in your garden. To prevent this, pick off the seed pods just as they turn brown and give them to a friend.
Butterfly weed does tend to find all the aphids in the yard. Because this is a butterfly plant – DON’T SPRAY THEM! Most times the aphids don’t harm the plant and are found by ladybugs for a snack. If you are worried about the aphids you can spray them with a mixture of dish soap and water, knocking them off the plant.
Avoid spraying pesticides on your prairie plants as it will hurt the pollinators.
Most people think of this flower as orange but newer cultivars now come in yellow and reddish hues!
Hello Yellow – this cultivar can be difficult to find, but its flowers are clear yellow making it worth the search.
Gay Butterflies – this cultivar is a mix of red, yellow, orange and a bronze. I found this cultivar to bloom a bit later than the normal orange one. Growing this is a great way to extend the bloom season of this pollinator magnet.
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
If you can squeeze one butterfly plant into your backyard, make it this one. While it can be a bit aggressive (likes to take over a patch of your yard) it pays back in the number of pollinators it attracts. It also seems to be the favorite of the Monarch for raising babies. As soon as I grew these, my Monarchs began using them exclusively for their nursery.
I mentioned that it is a bit aggressive, spread by rhizomes. Don’t worry though as it is easily dug up in the autumn as it does not have the deep taproot of the Butterfly Weed. If your patch gets out of hand, dig up a few plants and give them to a friend! Spread the butterfly love as far as you can.
As for soil, it does well in any type except for the wettest (try Swamp Milkweed for those areas). It seems to prefer the dry sunny sites where I can’t grow anything else. It gets tall, so tuck this into the back of a sunny flowerbed and let it do its thing.
It is grown easily from seed. I collect the seed pods in mid fall, just as they begin to split open. I either throw the seeds where I want them to grow in January or sow the seeds in pots during the winter (this is called Winter sowing, look for my post on this in December!)
Early Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
This is another aggressive, back of the border type plant, but I grow it because of its blooming power and drought tolerance. This false sunflower is the least picky of its genus. It grows in wet and dry soil, sand to clay. It even tolerates some shade. It is usable for almost every backyard.
My early sunflower begins blooming in mid June and this year has blooms in October! Not many plants can boast a bloom time like this Heliopsis. It is visited by butterflies, but I have found this to be more of a bee plant. During its peak bloom, it is always buzzing with activity. It tops out at 5 feet in rich soil, but I have yet to see it flop.
Once again, growing this plant from seed is easy. Pick a spot and throw it down. I do cover the seed a bit as it is a favorite of birds. It is a short lived plant, but it will seed itself so don’t worry about running out of its flowers in your backyard.
Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum)
If you have a damp spot this is the butterfly magnet for you. Joe Pye reaches 7 feet tall when happy and grows in clumps in full sun to part shade. It blooms from July until mid September here, and I have to be careful when mowing due to the number of bees it attracts. It also is the host plant to a number of moths.
I love to grow this plant in mass, pair it with Big Bluestem or Switchgrass and you can’t go wrong! If growing in a more formal border, plant it in the back and give it some room. It does not flop, but does tend to lean out from the base.
I grow this plant by dividing the clumps, but growing it from seed is easy too. Once again, sow this were it is to grow, placing the seed on top of the soil. Don’t cover the seed as it needs light to germinate.
Lanceleaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)
This plant is so easy to grow and great for pollinators. All coreopsis are known as honeybee plants and for good reason, bees love them.
Blooming all summer, with a large flush of flowers in early spring, this plant is carefree. It grows in most soil types from sand, rocks to clay. It is a sun plant, and one that you should never have to water (in fact, if you water it too much, it will flop).
Tip: Lanceleaf coreopsis does tend to fall over, even in the proper soil. To combat this, plant it with prairie grasses like Little Bluestem.
This plant is so easy to grow from seed, it sows itself. Once you have the mother plant growing, every spring look for babies at her base. They are easy to transplant. The seeds grow the best after being exposed to winter so just toss them on the ground where you want them to grow in the fall and wait to see them in the spring.
There you have it, 10 flowering plants to sow right now into your backyard prairie.
While you are sowing, don’t forget the grasses! (Remember, prairies are mostly grass!) All these flowers go great with Big Bluestem, Little Bluestem, Prairie Dropseed and Switchgrass.
Where should you purchase these seed? First look for a local source so that you can grow plants adapted to your area. If you don’t have any luck locally try out Prairie Moon Nursery or Swallowtail Garden Seeds! (I don’t get any money from these links, I just really like their seed).
Need help starting your prairie? Check out my 3 part series on starting a prairie from scratch in your backyard. Until then, which seeds are you sowing now? Tell me in the comments!