Wildflowers on Your Course?
The popularity of wildflowers isn't difficult to understand.
Wildflowers attract birds and butterflies, are colorful, and are
usually easy to grow from seed. In many respects, wildflower
plantings have all the desirable qualities that people expect
from more formal landscape plantings, but unlike any other
landscape planting, wildflowers often seem to have the ability to
become part of the landscape. The relaxed way that wildflower
plantings fit and blend into a landscape, for instance, may
explain more about the reasons for their popularity than their
colors or fragrance alone can explain.
It's surprising that the popular acceptance of wildflowers
for low-maintenance landscaping has taken so long to develop.
There are millions of acres of park and recreational land that
fall somewhere into the landscaping middle-ground, that big space
that lies between the carefully maintained and the truly wild,
and which wildflowers seem so remarkably able to exploit.
Whether wildflowers will someday rank among our most common
plantings, or simply become one of the more pleasant ways to mark
the transition from the civilized world to the natural world is
difficult to say. However, it is certainly clear that there are
few landscape materials better suited or more deserving of wider
use on America's golf courses than wildflowers.
Like any landscape material, a wildflower planting can't
succeed without planning and some provision for its management.
The good news is that a few modest wildflower plantings are
probably among the most attractive, most cost effective, and most
interesting landscaping improvements a golf course can make. And
best of all, superintendents overwhelmingly report favorable
responses from their membership when they plant wildflowers.
The bad news is that wildflower maintenance is a very new
technology and is extremely dependent upon geography and climate.
Because of this fact, wildflower plantings often require
management skills that most golf course superintendents don't
have . . .yet. Sadly, it is also true that many superintendents
who were the talk of their clubs when they planted large
wildflower areas were once again the subject of conversation when
their plantings were overrun with weeds within a few months. Most
just didn't understand the need for selecting wildflower
species adapted to their area, or the need to destroy weed
populations before seeding.
In many ways creating a successful wildflower planting is a
complex task, but one which depends upon three fairly simple and
universal factors: proper site selection, proper seed mixture
selection, and proper timing.
When appropriate sites are selected to plant wildflowers, the
most important step is taken towards guaranteeing the long-term
success of the planting. Unfortunately, one of the biggest traps
that superintendents fall into remains failing to understand the
importance of seeding wildflowers in the sites that are best for
the flowers, and not in those problem sites on the course where
nothing else really grows well.
Good Places for Wildflowers
- Sunny, open sites with good soil and water-holding
- Transition areas, out-of-play rough, edges of woods,
- Sites where seasonal color will add interest to the
- Easily accessible sites that you can maintain.
Bad Places for Wildflowers
- Small, narrow, or awkwardly shaped sites.
- Windy or busy sites that collect blowing trash.
- Sites with frequent foot or vehicle traffic.
Most likely, the species that will be selected for a typical
wildflower planting will be the ones that need a lot of sunshine
and that require a soil of at least average fertility and
water-holding ability The reasons why are easy to understand:
flowering takes energy and nutrients. Without sun, water, and a
good supply of soil minerals, the wild flower plants just
can't make the growth necessary for good flowering. In
general, if the site is too shady, infertile, or droughty to
support a good cover of grass, then it is probably a site where
wildflowers won't grow well either.
So where to put them? Hopefully, at least some of the sites with
good sun and soil will also be among the places most easily seen
and appreciated by golfers. Most courses have plenty of
transitional spots - those places between fairways, at the edges
of woods, and at the borders of the property that everyone can
see, but which no one ordinarily notices. Wildflowers work well
where the line between deep rough and woods is a bit fuzzy, or
where roadways and neighboring fields come within view, but
aren't really a desirable part of the scenery. Ironically,
wildflowers often look better in the middle ground, the viewing
space between 25 and 100 feet, than at closer or farther
distances. The vivid colors of wildflowers are easily noticed in
the middle ground, but their often scraggly off-season appearance
is usually not so objectionable.
Wildflowers also differ in one very important aspect from turf.
Wildflowers rarely rebound gracefully from foot or vehicular
traffic, so it's usually best to keep them out of places
where errant balls often land. A ball that goes into the
wildflowers is almost certainly a lost ball, but it only takes a
few determined players to flatten a (formerly) nice stand of
wildflowers. Make sure you plant them safely out of play.
It's important to give the needs of your workers some
consideration, too. A wildflower planting will need some
maintenance over the years, and usually more than most
superintendents suspect. A typical wildflower planting may only
be mowed once per year, but most will require at least a few
hours of weeding a few times through the year. Eventually, maybe
in three to seven years, most wildflower plantings will require
major renovation and reseeding. The one thing you don't want
to do is plant your wildflowers in a site where any of these
tasks will be difficult or impossible to do.
Wildflowers cannot be squeezed into small spaces. Even worse are
long, thin, or oddly shaped island beds or borders that are close
to walkways, clubhouses, or parking lots. Naturalized plantings
rarely look right in such tight quarters, and under such
circumstances the wildflowers invariably behave poorly. They grow
tall and flop over, get in the way of lawn mowers and
pedestrians, or end up collecting litter. Whenever a wildflower
planting is put into a tight or carefully laid-out spot, you can
almost bet that the planting is probably also in a highly visible
location in the viewing foreground (less than 25 feet away). In
the winter it will look shabby and collect blowing leaves, and in
the summer it will look too wild for its site and accumulate
paper and other debris.
Wildflower Seed Mixes to Look For
- Include a variety of perennials for permanent
- Many of the species are native to your geographic
- Annuals are included at low seeding rates for
non-competitive first-year color.
- Color display changes through-out the growing season.
Wildflower Seed Mixes to Avoid
- Mixes that contain predominantly Eurasian annual
- Inexpensive mass-marketed mixes;
- Mixes that include the seed of tall-growing or weedy
- Mixes with inert filler or grass seed included.
Proper seed mix selection is very important. The key is learning
the names of the best adapted species for seeding in your area.
Depending upon your region, there may be many native species to
choose from or only a few. If your golf course is in the Midwest,
for instance, there's probably a wide variety of native
prairie species for you to choose from. On the other hand, if you
are in the East, there are only a few dependable native species,
but also some very good introduced species. As a rule, however,
native species are usually the best adapted when planted in their
area of origin, and a seed mix that features locally grown native
species is the best bet in many areas of the country.
Check with your local cooperative extension service, state
highway administration, and local naturalist organizations for
their recommendations. The seed for an acre of wildflowers
usually costs between $300 and $800. Compared with many club
expenses, it's not a fortune, but it's money that you
must spend wisely if you want good results. There are literally
hundreds of wildflower seed companies in business today; it's
no longer difficult to get good quality wildflower seed. If you
don't wish to use a seed mixture that your local seed company
offers, many mail order companies will custom mix seed to your
specifications, usually at no extra charge.
The biggest problem with establishing permanent wildflower
plantings is weed invasion. Most of the time when weeds are a
problem, the site was not adequately prepared in advance of
seeding, i.e., the perennial weeds and grasses were not killed,
and when the area was seeded, the weeds rapidly re-established
themselves. Usually, if time and care are taken, the vegetative
parts of colonial perennial weeds can be destroyed before the
area is seeded, but this usually requires a minimum of two to
three months lead time.
Proper Timing Pays Off
- Order your seed mixes well in advance; supplies sometimes
- Allow several months to complete the necessary soil
- Kill all perennial weeds before seeding.
- Plant seed when annual weeds will be least
Haste Makes Weeds
- Hastily purchased seed mixes waste time and manpower.
- Improper soil preparation allows the rapid return of
- Seeding at the wrong time of year invariably promotes
Over the long term, it is usually perennial weeds that are most
troublesome in a permanent wildflower planting. Annual weeds are
usually a problem in the first year of a planting, and sometimes
the second year of the planting as well. Unfortunately, however,
many wildflower plantings are ruined after only a few months when
aggressive annual weeds are a problem in the first year; there
may be no second year.
Once again, check with your local authorities for tips about
reducing annual weed seed in the soil, or planning your seeding
to avoid the prime germination periods of the most troublesome
annual weeds. In certain regions of the U.S., particularly in the
Southern Plains, no-till seeding methods can significantly reduce
weed infestation. Unfortunately, no-till seeders designed for use
with wildflower seed are very costly.
JOHN M. KROUSE teaches and does research in the Department of
Agronomy at the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland.
If you haven't planted wildflowers on your golf course yet,
you'll probably find it hard to resist the temptation much
longer. Wildflowers are everywhere! Whether they're planted
along highways or in suburbs, low-maintenance wildflowers have
become an accepted landscape alternative to turfgrass and gardens
across the U.S. And now that wildflower seed is more widely
available than ever before, many golf courses have begun to
experiment with wildflowers, too.