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Choosing wildflowers

Beware of packages of wildflower seeds. They often grow well for the first year only. The second year, the more vigorous plants crowd out the more delicate and more desirable wildflowers turning your wildflower garden into a weed patch. You can try to gather your own seeds from wild plants growing locally, however, the correct time to harvest different plants' seeds varies considerably and the ripening time is extremely weather-dependent. To date, there is no publication available to help you gather wild seeds. You may find local growers who specialize in producing their own seed.

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It is very important to identify the soil on the site where you intend to create a wildflower garden. Check out the soil in areas where wildflowers grow naturally such as along roadsides and on waste ground. You will find that the soil is fairly poor, often gravelly or stony and well-drained. In some instances, it may be heavily compacted. It is not usually the type of soil that will support the healthy growth of grass. If you plant wildflowers in good moisture-retentive soil you will have problems with grass growing up and choking out the wildflowers; in addition, there is a good chance that the too-moist conditions will cause the wildflower seeds to rot before they can germinate. To avoid these problems, try to replicate the well-drained soil conditions and the exposure of the areas where wildflowers grow naturally in your area.

The best way to create a wildflower garden is to purchase native wildflower plants that have been grown locally. Plant several of the same species a few inches apart in a clump. Do this for each species rather than intermingling different species. You will need to weed fairly intensively among the plants and between the clumps for the first two years. By the third year the plants will have spread and also dispersed their seeds. As the original plants grow stronger and their seeds grow into new plants, the different species will take care of intermingling themselves. You will have to take care not to weed out your parent plants' offspring. Expect your wildflower garden to take three to five years to become well-established.

Many municipalities are naturalizing areas within city parks. Try contacting them to find out if they have identified suppliers of local wildflower plants and seeds. Also contact local nurseries since the demand for wildflowers has increased their availability over the past few years. Some nurseries specialize in native plants and seeds.

Wildflowers for wildlife

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Wildflower meadows will attract a host of insects such as butterflies, lady beetles, moths and bees. Lady beetles, praying mantises, lacewings and other bugs help your garden by feeding on pests such as aphids.

Hummingbirds are also attracted to hundreds of native species of wildflowers, herbaceous plants, shrubs and vines that will grow well on school grounds.

Large groupings of plants that bloom over a long period of time will be more attractive to birds. A large cluster of bright red salvias which bloom continuously will attract hummingbirds throughout the Summer.

Birds such as finches will also come to eat the seeds of wildflowers and grasses. You can attract birds to your wildflower gardens in Winter by not "tidying up" in the Autumn. Help to feed the birds by leaving the spent heads of wildflowers such as joe-pye weed, purple cone flower, black-eyed susans, ironweed, cosmos and coreopsis standing all Winter. Seeds are an excellent source of food for birds in Autumn and Winter.

Some trees, shrubs and vines that produce seeds and berries for attracting birds are: chokecherry, elder, highbush cranberry, honeysuckles, mountain ash or rowan, serviceberry and Virginia creeper.

Native species

A high percentage of Canadian wildflowers are non-native. The clearing of forests exposed vast areas of land to the invasion of plants from elsewhere. Through various methods of seed dispersal, non-native plants were able to settle here and thrive. Some seeds were in the soil that ships used as ballast when returning to Canada from delivering timber to Europe. Heather, for example, was transported to Nova Scotia in the bedrolls of Scots. Many of these non-native species have become established or "naturalized" and now co-exist with native species.

The characteristics of native as well as non-native plants should be carefully researched to ensure that the plants you choose are appropriate for school grounds. You will need to know whether a plant is invasive or has poisonous berries or sharp thorns. A native or non-native plant characterized as invasive is not necessarily a bad choice - it depends on how it spreads and where you intend to plant it. An invasive ground cover with spreading roots may be desirable for locations where it can be confined; for example, where grass does not grow well between areas of paving and in planters or where mowers can mow around the edges of a planting. You can even plant invasive plants that spread by roots in bottomless containers sunk into the ground, but you must make sure that the sides are impenetrable by the roots and are deeper than the plants' root system.


  • Research the wildflowers that will thrive on your site.
  • Try to identify the types of soil the plants are growing in so that you can replicate pockets of the preferred soil for the plants you choose.
  • Walk around the neighbourhood of the school to discover what species of wildflowers are growing on poor "waste" ground and sprouting up through cracks in the paving. This is an ideal way for you to start matching species to soil types and for children to learn about the plant life that grows around their school.
  • Check out books that focus on wildlife-useful plants. For example, the Stokes Bird Gardening Book: The Complete Guide to Creating a Bird-friendly Habitat in Your Backyard by Donald and Lillian Stokes is an excellent resource for learning about bird-useful plants.
  • Plan to keep a record of the creatures that your wildflower garden attracts.
  • Keep track of which species do well and try to find out why other species have not survived.
  • Go to Resources for wildlife gardening reference materials and activities.

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