I was born in love with flowers. I can’t remember if the first ones I loved were garden flowers or wildflowers, but there’s no doubt that wildflowers are close to my heart. And Texas is certainly blessed with her fair share. I think this love with untended nature is probably what shaped my entire thinking about gardening and horticulture. Whereas many traditional horticulturists were trained to “make” things work through science and chemistry, I’ve always felt it was my job to blend in with nature by finding plants that already knew how to look after themselves and play well with others.
Though I’ve loved many a non-native plant (Narcissus and Lycoris for example) I’ve long said it wouldn’t bother me a bit if they came out with a green law saying we could ONLY use native plants in our landscapes.
With almost no access to public gardens, nurseries, catalogs, or skilled gardeners, I turned to the fields, forests, and roadsides as a budding young gardener. I didn’t know all their names but I certainly appreciated their caution to the wind beauty. I also didn’t have access (nor do I now) to a sprinkler system, handyman-gardener, or lawn care service. And as a subscriber to Organic Gardening magazine as a youth, I’ve never been keen about widespread pesticide use in the garden.
In addition to the flowers, one couldn’t help but notice the birds, bees, and butterflies along with them. Little did I know then how critical native plants and local ecosystems were to their success and survival.
Fast forward a half century. After getting two degrees in horticulture, working at four different botanical gardens and several different nurseries, and having the opportunity to dabble with a myriad of horticultural chemical supplements and gadgets, guess what my favorite plants are? Yep. Wildflowers.
I never lost my love for them, but a plethora of debilitating surgeries combined with an ongoing critical degradation of the nature I knew as a child (not to mention common sense and maturity) have led me to a point in my life where I’m seriously dedicated to helping the wildscape. It’s amazing that it survived perfectly fine on its own for tens of thousands of years until we came along and mucked it all up.
I’m currently engaged in a number of ecologically minded reclamation/recreation/restoration projects, including invasive plant control, a longleaf pine savanna pollinator planting, a hardwood forest, a tall grass prairie, a bird sanctuary, a rain garden, and a trillium preserve; but the one closest to my heart is my quarter-acre “pocket prairie.” Pocket prairies are literally small pockets of land (as small as individual pots or flower beds, which I call “postage stamp prairies”) containing native prairie plants supporting native wildlife, maintained in a natural state.
Around 2007, while my Smith great grandparent’s old dogtrot farm house (“Big Momma’s) was being restored , I set aside a quarter of the one acre homeplace for local wildflowers that I collected along the farm to market roadside that ran in front of the house.
I had long admired the local wildflowers that grew along this very road and knew that thanks to traditional highway mowing the most diverse collection clung to the edge of the woods and along fence rows, and telephone poles. I also knew that the amazing range of East Texas wildflowers was very much different from the famous Central Texas wildflower palette I learned to love while living in College Station, Dallas, and San Antonio.
It’s painfully obvious that highway roadside maintenance is based on low bid twice a year mowing contracts and automotive safety, not wildlife or wildflower diversity or aesthetics. Other than my plan to split the roadsides in half to only mow the portion next to the roads in spring (allowing fall bloomers on the back half) and the entire thing in the fall, I don’t see any realistic change coming to our highway maintenance. Sadly this maintenance regime only caters to cool season, winter growing, spring blooming wildflowers. As pretty as they may be, there are many more in mother nature’s bounty.
My pocket prairie is mowed (or burned) once a year, allowing a full season’s worth of flowers and pollinators. I started by killing off as many of the existing invasive plants that I could (in my case Chinese privet, mimosa, and bahiagrass) using a chain saw and herbicide. Then each year I would transplant and seed different native wildflowers as I gained access to them. Like any native restoration project, thing went slow at first. To this day my father refers to it as my “weed patch” and often offers to mow it for me. To make it look like it was intentional and not neglected, I made brackets on the four corners out of old iron beds to frame it.
The annual and perennial wildflowers have proliferated the fastest. The native grasses have come the slowest. And since I do a control burn in the late winter, my pocket prairie caters to summer and fall wildflowers and perennials since any cool season annuals (like bluebonnets) are killed by the fire. Certainly in most landscapes, mowing or shearing would have to take the place of burning. The beauty of burning however is controlling winter weeds like invasive annual ryegrass, vetch, and Queen Anne’s lace which dominate our local roadsides. Burning also exposes bare soil for wildflower seed to germinate in the spring as well as making nutrients immediately available.
Although my original inspiration was the local combination of drooping purple coneflowers (Echinacea sanguninea) and Carolina larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum), my biggest success stories have been white false indigo (Baptisia alba), rough gay feather (Liatris aspera), and false foxglove (Agalinis purpurea), the host plant for the buckeye butterfly. I didn’t even plant the false foxglove. They just appeared! That’s the beauty of native restoration projects. Unlike ornamental gardens (which I still love by the way) where things are generally taking a turn for the worse, in properly planned wildscape projects, things generally get better and better with all sorts of pleasant surprises to salve the soul and pat the back. -Greg