Episode 62: Miriam Goldberger | Author of Taming Wildflowers and Developer of Eco-Lawn low-maintenance grass | Wildflower Farm Southern Ontario
Miriam Goldberger is the author of a new book that is not just informative but absolutely elegant called Taming Wildflowers.
Miriam and her husband Paul Jenkins have been tending the Wildflower Farm in Southern Ontario, Canada since 1988. They also developed Eco-Lawn™ which is a drought-tolerant, low maintenance turf grass that is grown at homes and businesses across North America.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I have been growing flowers since 1985, 1986, and Wildflower Farm was founded in 1988. I began by being captivated by the process of growing flowers from seed. It originally Wildflower Farm, back in the day it was a dried wildflower farm, then it morphed into Canada’s first pick your own flower farm and I had acres and acres of flowers, annuals and perennials not natives at that time to tend to. I became interested in wildflowers because they were low maintenance, I needed some gardens that weren’t for the pick your owns, that were for display that tended to themselves basically. So I researched the topic and found that perennials; North American Wildflowers and Native Grasses that are such low maintenance! It astounded me! Once they were established, they didn’t need to be watered, they didn’t need to be fertilized, they just took care of themselves they lived for a very long, long time.
So I put in some gardens, little gardens just to decorate the place that weren’t for pick your own. And people started asking me about the gardens, and they wanted us to landscape places at their gardens just like those gardens and they also wanted us to sell them wildflower plants. And we received so much interest in the wildflowers, the landscaping the plants, that eventually we succomed to the customers, and began to seriously study wildflowers and indeed became wildflower landscapers and started a native landscape nursery and destination point that was in existence for over 25 years!
And so I really learned a lot about wildflowers over the years, I learned how to grow native plants from seed, how to landscape with wildflowers either using only wildflowers or to incorporate flowers into an existent non-native garden. And also how to truly grow a wildflower meadow, the way most of us think the way wildflower meadows should be grown isn’t really the case, and it’s not a hard thing to do, but it is different then what you think it might be and then we also developed Eco-Lawn™ which is a low maintenance turf grass that really is such a great answer to drought problems and high maintenance expensive. There’s been a busy time, never a dull moment.
Well how do you grow a wildflower meadow? I guess you don’t just broadcast the seeds on to a pile of dirt?
There are a lot of people who ask: Can you just throw the seeds anywhere? Can I throw them on my lawn? Can I just throw them on my garden? If I throw them out into a ditch will they grow? Well, most of the time the answer is no, and there’s a few key reasons for that.
First of all, when most of us North Americans encounter seeds being sold, there in a big bag of seeds, with pretty pictures on it, or a can of seeds, or a pack of seeds and they’re usually not true North American wildflowers, most of the time they’re some random blend of European wildflowers, or not even wildflowers but plants from somewhere else that don’t tend to do well in here in the hot, very difficult conditions that we have through much of North America. If you and I happened to live in England where it rained a lot and they had this lovely perfect soil, and it’s much warmer then most parts of North America, then maybe so but here, we need to use the plants that have grown here successfully for many many thousands of years. And those are the North American Wildflowers that I specialize in.
We have so many extraordinary wildflowers and native grasses that work beautifully here. No matter what conditions you have in your garden there’s a wildflower that will thrive for you. Whether you have compacted clay, or you have beach sand, or gravel, or everything in between, whether your in the sun or the shade there are wildflowers that will work for you.
You were saying early there are some cool tihigns on the Wildflower Farm Website and one of my favorites is the seed selector tool. You key in the conditions you’ve got, you can even put in what state or province your in, or what color flowers you want, what type of everything that you want or that exists at your place and Boom! You’ve got a list of native grasses and that will thrive in exactly your conditions! It’s very, very doable. These are all flowers and grasses that tend to live a long time and are tough customers and are very beautiful as well and just happen to make amazing cut flowers too!
There’s a water savings calculator, which is on the Eco-Lawn™ pages, you just key in the size of your lawn, the amount of water, the number of times a week that you water.. And you can get a super quick calculation of how much money you will save by having an Eco-Lawn™ instead of a traditional shallow-rooted, very thirsty sod lawn.
Eco-Lawn™ is a blend of 7 different fine fescue grasses. These are grasses that are the same kind of grasses that you find throughout much of North America when you go into the woods, and you see these beautiful rich green clumps of grass growing in the shade. We took 7 different kinds of these fine fescue grasses and created a blend that grows believe it or not in full sun, part shade, deep shade and even under pine trees. Eco-Lawn™ has really deep roots that go down 9 inches in clay soil and 12-14 inches in a sandy, sandy soil and it has very fine blades and it’s wonderful to walk on barefoot. And because it has these deep roots, and fine blades, it’s need for water or nutrients is minimal, because it knows how to source them, itself. So that means you don’t automatically have to fertilize this lawn, there are occasional circustances where a top dressing of compost is a nice idea but in general this is a super low maintenance lawn that doesn’t need very much from you.
Also if you go to our website with the Eco-Lawn™ in it you can also see that you can grow an Eco-Lawn™ longer, you can leave it, because the blades are super fine, they actually fall over under their own weight, so an uncut Eco-Lawn™ only gets about 3½ -4” tall. It’s just luscious looking, just a rich emerald green, but there’s different ways to handle an uncut Eco-Lawn™, we recommend just cuting it once or twice a year.
What’s also extraordinarily compelling about this lawn is that its quick to germinate but its slow to grow, which means that the average person is only mowing their Eco-Lawn™ once a month and it looks like a regular lawn!
Like I said there are Eco-Lawn™ in every province and state. They stay green once they are established and then there are people who have uncut Eco-Lawns™ as well. There are Eco-Lawns™ on golf courses, they’re used in the roughs, they’re used in the non-putting green areas, quite extensively. It’s equisite looking, the other thing that’s really amazing, it actually crowds out weeds, it physically crowds them out. In 2 ways, one it grows in quite thickly, as it matures, and it also functions as its own weed killer. Here’s your word of the day, liliopathic, that means, it actually kills off it’s own contempetition as it germinates, so it kills off weeds.
As it matures it tends to crowd out most weeds. There are 2 ways to have an Eco-Lawn™:
You can start from scratch with bear seed, and create a new Eco-Lawn™. What a lot of people are doing is converting their existing high-maintenance, by overseeding in the spring and the fall, for several seasons, the amount of time it takes is how dense or patchy their existing lawn is, there are several factors but people do it all the time. It’s a great way to shift your lawn, there are times that there are particular plants that I’m not expert on that I pass on questions to my partner. So I’m not particularly aware of your knapweed, when I don’t know the specific info, but there are Eco-Lawn™ in Montana and everywhere you go.
One of the coolest things, I’m particularly proud of with our company, we get emails and questions all the time from our customers, and we are always able to give them very technical accurate information so I can certainly get back to you or I can have my partner get back to you to make sure you are successful with whatever type of wildflower or Eco-Lawn™ project you’re working on.
Let’s go back to the wildflowers.
The pollinators, every single one of them, all the birds , song birds, all the pollinators that exists has a very wonderfully compledx relationship with wildflowers, they co-evelolved together for thouseands and thousands of year. They really need each other. the wildflowers provide the best quilaity source of pollen and nectar, that we need to grow our human food, there have been some wondreful studies on how farmers who grow wildflowers have higher yeilds of their vegetable crops, and the quality of their crops is higher because these wildflwoers attract the beneficial bugs, that kill off the bad bugs that are harming the food crops so the farmers don’t need to use the massive quantities of pesticides on our foods! So wildflowers, aside from their enormous beauty, play extraordinarily important nutritional and economic rolls for us.
Ok, so this is all great. One of the things on the most basic level, somebody sitting around listening to this podcaast might want to know is how can I have wildflowers? Because it’s difficult to find wildflower plants in most nurseries. Most planst are hybridized, and not anywhere as useful nutrition for these important pollinators. The best way and most economical is to grow them from seed.
That is what we specialize in, there’s lots of info in my book and website.
My really imporatnt message, to people is it’s not hard to grow plants from seed. There’s a few different categories, talking in general growing plants from seed, not specifically wildflowers. There’s annuals which is stuff that has to hurry up and germinate and grow fast and produce flowers in the first year, those are most vegetables and some popular beautiful heritage annuals, like zinnias, and lineal and flowers in the mist. Which I still love, I don’t think anyone should only grow wildflowers, becasue they’re so many beautiful flowers.
Then there’s perennials right? Some don’t need to grow through the winter period “Sow and Grow” What’s cold moist stratefied, winter sowing, some seeds have hard shells, they need a processs where the shell can freeze and thaw, and freeze and thaw which breaks down the seed shell so it’s able to germinate. In the wild, seeds fall to the ground, the temps get high and low, the ground is very moist, that is their cue, once their shell softens, to start germinating. That’s all stratification is, it’s just a big fancy term for freeze/thaw.
There’s lots of ways to do that, you can just throw the seeds in the ground in the fall and let nature do it. You can do the same thing by putting seeds in the pot in then you put it outside and let nature do it.
Wait, you don’t put the pot outside in the winter do you?
Sure, if you want to control it more, so you can do it in the ground, just make sure you put some sort of label or make a map of where you put it. Right that’s always a challenge. Then if you want to do the same thing in a pot, there are videos on the website and I talk about it in the book, where I talk about how to do this. You just put it outside and let it get covered in snow.
Or you can do the whole process inside. Again there are 2 ways you can do it, you put it in the small pot, you mositen it, you plant the seed just under the surface, and label it. Date it, is a good idea too.
This time of year, right now, you and I are talking together on July 8th, I had somebody who asked me just this afternoon, about the different choices she has about planting white false indigo seeds she just purchased from us, and I said to her. You can do the first two methods, put it in the ground, put it in pots, let winter do it’s thing. Or you can go with the refrigerator method, put it in the pots, and you label it, and you can leave it in the fridge for 4-6 weeks and then start growing it, but this time of year, there isn’t time for that so there is what I call “Speed-dial sowing method”, this is what I suggested she do now, so if you’re in the middle of the summer, once you get a little further along in the summer just wait till fall, here you’re in a border line date, today or tomorrow. So today or tomorrow you can put it in the fridge in one day, then put it in the freezer for a day , then go back and forth between the freezer 4-5 times. Then keep growing it in the pot, continue to give it moisture and warmth, and it will have broken down the shell from that process and it will start to grow. I recommend you live it in the pot until the early fall, that way it will have big fat roots and then you can plant it outside, and you still have enough time to get established before. So there’s lots of different ways to grow wildflowers from seed. It’s not hard at all. All the information is in the book, and on our website and on the seed packs too!
Are there certain seeds that you would recommend for someone starting out? I saw on Facebook you were picking the Echinaceas. Are those harder then other plants? Are some easier?
It’s really a question of the different categories I mentioned, and that’s all there pretty much is to it. If you just follow the basic directions they will grow for you. So the “Sow and grow” is the easies because it doesn’t have to go through any cold stratification or winter sowing process of any sort. So you just put it in the ground and water it and let nature take it’s course and it will start growing. These are all perennials, very few will produce flowers in the first year, but it also means you only have to seed them once and they will live a long time and keep producing flowers every year after that.
When in the fall? Right after the very first of September or around Thanksgiving?
Well if you are just, it depends on what you are asking about. If you are planting this young plant outside that you have grown, it depends how quickly or slowly your winters arrive in your region. Because you do want to have at least 8-10 weeks of time for the roots to get establish with these young plants.
Before the first frost? Can you have a frost? Last year we had 22 degrees in September.
Usually the first frost is not an indicaiton of the game being over, because the ground has not frozen yet. It’s important to remember, the roots of a plant or a lawn will continue to grow until the ground freezes. But you don’t want to leave the planting too late. If you want to grow a wildflower meadow or plant the seeds outside in the fall that is a different question. You want to wait until it’s cold enough for the seeds NOT to germinate, you don’t want to have Indian summer and everything gets warm again and the seeds to think it’s spring! It’s time for me to germinate! You don’t want those kind of mistakes that happen in nature. So in nature seeds tend to fall to the ground, I’m generalizing, in the late fall. Where I am here in central Ontario, that would be late Oct, Nov. but you can, if your schedule gets really intense and you don’t get a chance to do it, you can do it later in the season in the snow, as the snow melts, it will actually suck the see down into the soil, so you can do that if need be. But in general the fall is the ideal time to seed individual species or a meadow.
I was wondering if you plant them too early like right at the beginning of September will they start to grow?
So you do have to worry about that?
Yes, absolutely, that’s important to keep in mind. Again wildflower gardening is not a difficult process, it’s just a different one.
Did I see, do you plant in raised beds? or in rows? How does that work?
We produce wildflower seeds, so we do this in many different ways. We have wildflower gardens with individual stands of individual species that we hand harvest. Then we also have The farm is close to 100 acres, we have large stands that are 20 feet across, and 80 feet long, of individual species. Right now the coreopsis are blooming, and it’s just this gorgeous glowing yellow, about 20 feet wide and 80-90 feet long and those kinds of areas we harvest the seeds mechanically. Then we clean all the seeds with special equipment, and then we package the seeds. We’re not typical, wildflower gardeners or meadow makers. We do have meadows here as well, those are not where we harvest from. We harvest each species individually, for meadow mixes, then we combine them very carefully to the proper proportions.
Do you want to talk about cutting flowers?
Im in the middle of a wonderful project where yesterday I cut some pale purple coneflowers, some ox-eye sunflowers, some foliage from the blue false indigos and their beautiful pods, as well as some really cool marroon striped seed pods from the native lily-of-the valley. And I’m making this beautiful bouquet and I’m gonna blog about it. One of the things I particularly enjoy from my book is all the chapters on DIY wildflower floral desing, particularly wildflower weddings. Helping people learn how simple it is, and demonstrating how simple it is to create their own bouquets, and boutonnières and table arrangements, these are plants that make great cut flowers by and large. A lot of people think they don’t but in fact they really do, and they’re so beautiful.
Do you have any tips for cutting flowers?
I mean my directions are fairly standards, always want to cut at a cool time of day, early morning or early evening, when things cool off. I do indeed I put in your average utility bucket,if I’m harvesting in a utility bucket, I’ll put a teaspoon of sugar and a teaspoon of bleach. That provides nutrition and a disinfectant at the same time, making the flowers last longer. It works really well.
Do standard things like cutting the stems at an angle so they absorb the most amount of water into the stems. I also make sure that for whatever project I have going it’s ideal to cut the flowers the day before so they have a chance to cure, they just need to be kept in a cool place, they just need to keep the water up into their stems and go through the process of the shock of having their stems cut.
I just keep them in a very cool room, an air-conditioned studio/design office. That is sufficient. I am not running a commercial floral design enterprise, if I were, or by trade a cut flower farmer I would want to have a refrigerated area. For me, it’s mostly for myself, and occassional jobs I take on, so that is adequate. For anyone doing it for themselves that is adequate as well.
One of the things people ask about a lot is: Can I grow wildflowers in containers? Yes you can, there are some that have shallow roots, that can go in containers for sun or shade. There’s a lot of informaiton in the book for gardening in challenging conditions. there’s some people who really do have compacted clay soil and there are some fantastic wildflowers that will work in unamended clay like that Echinacea polida, pale purple coneflower, that you were commenting on, on my Facebook page. That will grow in the most horrendous boulder clay, it’s unbelievable, it will also grow in shade and in sun. A lot of these plants are enormously versatile and once you get them established they will reward you with their vigor and beauty for a really long time.
How do you get them established in that hard packed clay to begin with?
In a situation like that, there are 2 correct answers. If you are growing a meadow, we have wonderful specialized meadow mixes for different conditions, like there is a meadow mix for clay we call the clay busters meadow mix, and then there’s one for sandy soils etc. etc.
If you are growing for a meadow, you prepare the sight properly, get rid of vegetation, cover the seed properly its a whole process, it’s not hard to do, but need to do the steps in a particular order. The clay will hold the moisture very beautifully, and it has a lot of nutrients and it will grow without being water and fertilized and it works quite beautifully.
Let’s say you want to grow this beautiful type of coneflower Echinacea polled. You can grow it from seed in the winter sowing method we were talking about, you can grow it in a pot, from so it has big fat roots, either in the spring or in the fall when it’s naturally moister, in the summer the clay gets a crust like the surface of the moon, if you work with nature, pay attention to when the soil is more receptive.
If you put them in, in the fall, yes they will bloom for you because then they will be in their second year. You and all the podcast listeners, are welcome to besiege me with questions, either through email at wildflower farm.com or Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or any of the millions of ways that we all talk to each other now, I’m more then happy to help anybody and everybody have fantastic wildflowers and Eco-Lawns™.
Do you have a favorite tool that you like to use?
A very, very long handeled trowel, that I find particularly easy to use, with a big wooden handle in the spring time, it’s super easy to lever holes into the ground.
Tell me about your first gardening experience?
I grew up in NJ. A long circuitous pathway, I used to be in the film business in LA, and I moved here to start a post-production sound effects company, and I ended up staying, and I’ve been a Canadian citizen for a number of years now and I married a Canadian who is my business partner.
My mother was a passionate indoor gardener. She was a member of the NJ Cactus Society and things like that. My paternal grandmother, was an avid, avid gardener. But around our house in NJ in a big old victorian house we didn’t really have any gardens per se. Strangely enough in hindsight I remember the only songs My father sang were about gardens I have an undergrad degreein dance and dance history. I’m skipping a whole chapter in my life when I was a pre-natal post-partum fitness counselor. Had a lot of work around pregnancy, child-birth and postpartum support, as well. It’s all about birth, so it’s a common theme. I talk a lot about all the ways I am living my life the way I do in my book, Taming Wildflowers so in some ways it’s a memoir to an extent itself. It’s filled with a huge amount of very specific information about wildflowers.
Definitely check out Miriam’s Blog at: Wildflower Farm Blog
Final question- if there was one change you would like to see to create a greener world what would it be? For example is there a charity or organization your passionate about or a project you would like to see put into action. What do you feel is the most crucial issue facing our planet in regards to the environment either in your local area or on a national or global scale?
That’s an extraordinary question. I think people just need to pay attention to the important issues and really look at things in a broader way. There are so many great organizations and great causes, it’s really difficult to say which one in particular, they’re all trying really very hard to make a difference, I do see the whole issue quite globally. I wish people were more connected to nature in general terms, and there are some great organizations to get kids outside and get adults outside.
In Episode 50 Dave Salman talks about native plants and preventative measures for a drought.
There is a huge amount of misinformation out there about gardening in general, but in particular about lawns, and I’m very much a part of the less lawn movement, I don’t think that it’s wise for people to have large expanses of lawn. But if you’re going to have a lawn it’s a good idea to rethink it and to consider a product like Eco-Lawn™ and if you are going to have a landscape it’s a great idea to incorporate wildflowers. Because you’re basically in a sense being a “midwife to life”because you are supporting deeply established earth ecosystems,that really support the planet and support everyting we need to support a healthy planet. Those are the missions I subscribe to. To not simply take pat answers that are put forth by corporations and commercials ventures and hidden agenda situations at face value. To look a little more deeply. There is so much mis-education and misinformation about lawns, most commercially available lawn mixes, seed mixes, are not certified seed, not carefully tested seed, they’re just whatever crop of grass seed is cheapest, the seeds are coated, and the coating doesn’t provide a tremendous value, it just adds weight and space, so seed companies can charge a large amount of money for a product, because lawn seed prices have gone up so much, so they are trying to get the same amount of seed, and it looks like you are getting the same amount of seed but the value tends to be cut in half.
Theres’ so much misinformation and reframing of information just to sell a product. That is not of value for consumer or to the earth. So I say to consumers educate yourself. That is one thing I take great pride in and Wildflower Farm provides a huge amount of information and education as well as products that can make a difference.
I love what you say at the beginning of the conversation about vegetable farmers getting bigger yields from having wildflowers on their property.
If you’re involved in a community garden, the more wildflowers that you incorporate into both public and private landscapes the better off we are.
Do u have an inspiration tip or quote to help motivate our listeners to reach into that dirt and start their own garden? I love the part about “Midwife to Life”
I think that’s really how I think of it, one of the fun things that I did when I was working on the book, I found myself thinking ahead about this kind of conversation, I remember saying to one of my brothers, that “when I walk through a wildflower garden it feels like an amusement park for the soul.”
How do we connect with you?
Her Website For Wildflower Farm
See her book at Taming Wildflowers
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