Updated: Nov 9
Growing wildflowers has been a long-term passion of mine. Ever since I was a little girl, I've grappled with the challenges of growing wildflowers in a garden context. These days I'm lucky enough to have a large garden, with lots of space to allow wildflowers to grow in a wild way - through the long grasses in my meadow area and in smaller meadow patches grown beneath orchard and coppice trees. For most native plants, this is by far the easiest and most suitable way to include wildflowers in a garden. But what about growing wildflowers in traditional garden beds and borders?
In all honesty, this can be challenging! Many are sadly too boistrous to grow in this way and will create a lot of work for us as gardeners, if we want to protect any traditional garden variety plants that are sharing their space. Our wild plants have to be admired really for the range of behaviours they use that allow them to grow thickly right in amongst a diverse community of other plants - perfect for meadows, but not ideal for areas such as garden flower beds, where individual plant varieties are set out in blocks so each can be admired for its own specific beauty.
However, the good news is that there are lots of native plants that are very well suited to growing in this way in a flower bed - you just need to take care to choose wisely! The plants I recommend below are all good options. If they seed around, they can be easily weeded out or transplanted to places where there are gaps they can fill. If they have a spreading root system, they don't spread too quickly and again can be removed without trouble if plans for a bed change and they need to be either moved or removed. If you have any favourite easy-going natives you like to include, please post something up about that in the comments at the bottom of this post to give us all some more inspiration!
First on my list is Foxglove. This is my favourite go-to plant for filling any gaps in my borders. It is statuesque, striking, great for bees and if allowed to go to seed, freely available for ever more! It transplants beautifully and is very easily removed if you find you have too many.
A similarly beautiful, but less known native plant is the Milky Bellflower (Campanula lactiflora). Related to Harebells, one of my favourite hilltop wildflowers, this type of bellflower grows much taller - to around 80cm, with multiple spires of bell-shaped flowers in either white, blue or pale pink. It forms a slowly spreading clump and is easily lifted and divided to create more plants to give away as gifts or to fill other parts of the garden. Beautiful grown in large drifts at the back of a border.
A common garden plant, but no less worthy for it is the Primrose and for all the colours that have been cultivated, the native pale yellow is by far my favourite. This soft, yet freshly bright colour sings out of the beds often right through the Winter and through into Spring. Nestled at the base of shrubs or trees within garden borders, it fills these often neglected spots most beautifully. This plant often self-seeds around and it also lifts and divides very successfully too, enabling a small number of starter plants to fill all suitable spots within a few short years.
Another beauty for the Spring border is the Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris). A stunning little plant at all stages of growth, from its feathery emerging leaves, to its large, fur-backed and gorgeously vibrant flowers, right through to its starburst seedheads. This is a firm favourite for me.
Lungwort (Pulmonaria officinalis), with it's fabulous spotted leaves and carpet of blue-pink flowers is another brilliant one to grow. Related to comfrey and forgetmenot, it is a magnet for bees and will provide you with a slowly spreading community of plants that can be lifted and divided very easily to create more plants for friends or other garden borders.
Gladwyn Iris (Iris foetidissima) flowers in late Spring with a subtle, yet exquisitely striking flower. These native woodland irises do well in a shady spot, even tolerating the dry shade beneath trees and shrubs or close to house walls. Their strap-shaped leaves have a handsome presence all year round, just be sure to site them where you'll be able to stop and admire their flowers as they bloom. Within two to three years, a small initial plant can be lifted and split to provide plenty more plants to spread around the garden.
Another late Spring flower is Dame's Violet, also known as Sweet Rocket (Hesperis matronalis). This plant is related to Phlox and its tall, full flower heads closely resemble this common garden plant. Flowering in pink or white, this is a popular plant for pollinating insects, including the very lovely hummingbird hawkmoth. This is a biennial plant and behaves very much like foxglove. It seeds about and forms a round of leaves in its first year, which bulks up in year two to produce several flower spikes per plant. Excess plants are very easy to remove. Take care to transplant when small as it often doesn't settle back in brilliantly if you try and move it as a large plant.
For the Summer border, you can't go far wrong with Lady's Mantle (Alchemilla mollis). This plant makes a glowing froth of flowers in vibrant, zesty green - a colour that sets off any other summer flower most strikingly. Wonderful as a cut flower, but best in repeated drifts throughout a border, this plant will often reward you with a second flush of flowers in late Summer if you cut it back as the heads begin to fade. Be aware that Lady's Mantle will seed around and forms very dense roots. It can be lifted out without too much trouble though and will easily divide into many new plants.
A last flower for you and a firm favourite wildflower for me is the Sedum (Sedum spectabile or Sedum telephium). This is a very common garden plant, so is easy to come by. I particularly like the variety 'Matrona', pictured above, for the way it merges through from green to pink colouring on the leaves and stems - this is the one that most closely resembles the wild sedums I've spotted growing in roadside verges in Wales. Sedums are brilliant for bees and butterflies and have strong and shapely seed heads that will stand beautifully right through Winter. The neat mound of leaves emerging in spring are attractive in themselves, especially when decked out with dew drops on a Spring morning.
So those are my current favourite wildflowers for a garden border. If you have any favourites that you know will work well in a flower bed, please do share them with us in the comments below!