How to plant a Pennsylvania wildflower garden

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Black-eyed Susans
Black-eyed Susans

More and more gardeners are turning away from ornamentals in favor of native wildflowers, and I’m not surprised.

There are many reasons to welcome wildflowers to your landscape. Wildflower gardens are an oasis for diminishing pollinator populations facing habitat loss. Made up of native plants, they’re easy to establish and maintain. They help preserve biodiversity by providing food and shelter for local wildlife. And there’s no denying their beauty.

If they are planted and cared for properly, wildflower gardens are an opportunity to impact your local ecosystem in a big way.

Why native wildflowers?
Choosing Pennsylvania wildflowers
Planting in the fall for success in the spring
Purchasing seeds and plants
Pennsylvania wildflowers

Why native wildflowers?

You don’t have to be a full-blown nature conservationist to see why choosing native plant varieties for your garden is a no-brainer. Native plants are best suited to the weather, sunlight and seasons in your region. In Pennsylvania, as with most of the Midwest, native plants grow in a variety of environments under different conditions — wet or dry, sun or shade, soils with high or low fertility and acidic or clay-like soils. There are varieties in bloom throughout the growing season. They can provide food and shelter to wildlife. They help control erosion and filter stormwater.

So what does that mean to you?

  • Because native plants are adapted to your climate, they will require less maintenance.
  • Because they are versatile in many environments, you shouldn’t have to alter the growing conditions in your garden for success.
  • Because they bloom from spring through fall, your garden has the potential to be vibrant and colorful throughout the growing season.
  • Because local wildlife depend on native plants, you can help struggling populations facing habitat loss.
  • Because they help manage runoff, native plants can improve the overall health of your yard.

If you take the time to make the right choices for your garden, planting natives can save you time and money, while helping the environment simultaneously.

Choosing Pennsylvania wildflowers

Although native wildflowers have a lot of advantages over exotic plant varieties, it’s still important to choose plants suited to the growing conditions of your garden.

Things to consider:

1. What kind of soil do you have? Is it heavy clay or silty loam? Is it high or low in organic matter? Does it dry out quickly or hold moisture?

2. Is your garden in sun, partial sun or shade?

3. How much room do you have available?

By asking these questions in advance and choosing plants with similar needs, your garden will thrive with less care. You can determine which wildflowers are suited to the growing conditions offered by your garden throughout the year by visiting a nearby nature preserve in the spring, summer and fall. Observing native plants in their natural habitat will help you gauge what you’ll have the easiest time growing and visiting throughout the year will help you plan for each season.

Planting in the fall for success in the spring

In Pennsylvania, spring to early summer and fall are the best times to plant wildflower gardens. Follow these steps to successfully establish your wildflower garden:

1. Soil, sunlight and size. These are the three biggest factors you need to consider before choosing natives, as mentioned above. You need to determine how many hours of direct sunlight your garden gets, complete a soil test and measure the size of your garden before purchasing seed. This will help you determine what type of seed and how much seed to buy.

2. Remove any turf and weeds. Before you plant your garden, you’ll need to remove turf and weeds. You can try doing this by hand or by putting black sheet mulch over the area to smother any vegetation underneath.

3. Cultivate soil. Many wildflowers don’t need fertilizer and some will even do poorly in highly-fertilized soil. However, depending on the results of your soil test and the type of seed you selected, you may want to add compost. Compost is beneficial for plants that require moist soil, high in organic matter. Once you’ve added any necessary soil aments, cultivate it to a depth of 8-10 inches.

4. Spreading seed. If you choose to purchase seed or a seed mix, you’ll want to spread it diagonally one way and then spread it diagonally the opposite way in an ‘X’ formation. Then gently rake loose soil over the seed.

5. Planting wildflowers. If you purchased plants, be sure to plant them at the same depth as when they were in their containers. Once you’ve determined the proper depth, backfill. For root-bound plants, free the root system by gently pulling it apart. 

6. Water. As with any newly planted flowers, you’ll want to water your wildflower garden thoroughly. You may need to water it until your new plants are well established; however, it will need little or no additional water after that point.

Purchasing seeds and plants

Always purchase wildflowers from a reputable source that offers only plants grown in-house. Collecting plants from the wild or purchasing from a nursery selling plants collected from the wild causes depletion of native species and disruption of the local ecosystem. Additionally, plants collected from the wild rarely survive relocation.

You can start your search for a reputable nursery by calling your local Soil and Water Conservation District or you can check out this list of Native Pollinator Plant Nurseries and Seed Companies.

Pennsylvania wildflowers

Spring wildflowers

Wild ginger
Size: 4-8 inches
Color: Maroon
Season: April to May
Growing conditions: Moist shade. Ground cover.

Jacob’s ladder, Greek valerian
Size: 10-15 inches
Color: Pink
Season: April to May
Growing conditions: Moist. Shade.

Dwarf crested iris
Size: 4-12 inches
Color: Blue/violet
Season: April to May
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Partial shade to part sun.

Columbine
Size: 1-2 feet
Color: Red & yellow
Season: April to June
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Partial shade to sun.

Blue wild indigo
Size: 2-4 feet
Color: Blue/purple
Season: April to June
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Sun. Shrubby.

Virginia bluebells
Size: 1-2 feet
Color: Blue
Season: April to June
Growing conditions: Wet to moist. Shade to partial sun.

Wild geranium, Cranesbill
Size: 1-3 feet
Color: Pink
Season: April to July
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Shade to partial shade.

Foamflower
Size: 8-12 inches
Color: White
Season: April to July
Growing conditions Moist. Shade.

Wild bleeding heart
Size: 1-2 feet
Color: Pink
Season: April to September
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Partial shade.

Green-and-gold
Size: 6-12 inches
Color: Yellow
Season: April-October
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Sun to partial shade.

False Solomon’s seal, False spikenard
Size: 1-3 feet
Color: White
Season: May
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Shade to sun.

Alumroot
Size: 1.5-3 feet
Color: Cream
Season: May to June
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Shade to sun.

Solomon’s seal
Size: 1-5 feet
Color: White
Season: May to June
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Shade.

Narrow-leaved blue-eyed grass
Size: 1-1.5 feet
Color: Blue
Season: May to July
Growing conditions: Wet to moist. Sun to partial sun.

Summer wildflowers

Butterflyweed
Size: 1-2 feet
Color: Orange
Season: June to July
Growing conditions: Dry. Sun. Attracts butterflies.

Beardtongue
Size: 2-5 feet
Color: White
Season: June to July
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Sun to partial sun.

Ox-eye sunflower, False sunflower
Size: 3-4 feet
Color: Yellow
Season: June to August
Growing conditions: Wet to dry. Sun.

Perennial phlox
Size: 3-4 feet
Color: Pink to lavender
Season: June to August
Growing conditions: Moist, sun to partial sun.

Golden ragwort
Size: 1 foot
Color: Yellow
Season: June to August
Growing conditions: Wet to moist. Sun to partial shade.

Turtlehead
Size: 1-4 feet
Color: White
Season: July to August
Growing conditions: Moist to wet. Partial shade.

Bugbane, Black cohosh
Size: 3-8 feet
Color: White
Season: July to August
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Partial sun.

Turk’s cap lily, Michigan lily
Size: 2-5 feet
Color: Orange
Season: July to August
Growing conditions: Wet to moist. Sun to shade.

Beebalm, Oswego tea
Size: 2-3 feet
Color: Red
Season: July to August
Growing conditions: Wet to moist. Sun to partial shade.

Wild bergamot, Horsemint, Beebalm
Size: 2-5 feet
Color: Lavender
Season: July to August
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Sun to partial shade

Tall coreopsis
Size: 3-9 feet
Color: Yellow
Season: July to September
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Sun to partial sun.

Joe-pye weed
Size: 2-7 feet
Color: Pinkish-lavender
Season: July to September
Growing conditions: Wet to moist. Sun to partial shade. Attracts butterflies.

Marsh blazing star, Gayfeather
Size: 3-4 feet
Color: Purple
Season: July to September
Growing conditions: Moist to wet. Sun. Attracts Gayfeather butterflies.

Culver’s root
Size: 2-6 feet
Color: White
Season: July to September
Growing conditions: Moist. Sun to partial shade.

Great blue lobelia
Size: 2-3 feet
Color: Blue/lavender
Season: July to October
Growing conditions: Wet to moist. Partial sun.

Black-eye Susan, Orange Coneflower
Size: 1-3 feet
Color: Yellow
Season: July to October
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Sun.

Fall wildflowers

Common sneezeweed
Size: 2-5 feet
Color: Yellow
Season: August to September
Growing conditions: Wet to moist. Sun to partial sun.

New York ironweed
Size: 5-8 feet
Color: Reddish purple
Season: August to September
Growing conditions: Wet to moist. Sun.

Showy goldenrod
Size: 1-5 feet
Color: Yellow
Season: August to September
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Sun to partial sun.

Narrow-leaved sunflower, Swamp sunflower
Size: 3-8 feet
Color: Yellow
Season: August to September
Growing conditions: Wet to moist. Sun to partial shade.

Slender mountain mint
Size: 2-3 feet
Color: White
Season: August-September
Growing Conditions: Moist to dry. Sun to partial sun.

White wood aster
Size: 2 feet
Color: White
Season: August to October
Growing conditions: Moist to dry. Shade to partial shade.

New England aster
Size: 6 feet
Color: Lavender-pink
Season: August to frost
Growing conditions: Wet to dry. Sun to partial sun.

Aromatic aster
Size: 12-20 inches
Color: Pink-lavender
Season: September-October
Growing conditions: Dry. Sun. Attracts butterflies.

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