Wildflowers for Sunny Borders

Many of our prettiest wildflowers can be incorporated into sunny places in our gardens, and borders in full sun around even small gardens can be ideal for them. Sunny borders can be made against south facing fences or walls, or in very open situations where they will receive sunlight throughout the day.  A dry area in front of a wall can be a particularly difficult situation for more traditional garden plants but there are plenty of drought tolerant sun-loving wildflowers that thrive in these warm, light conditions. 

Creating and planting a sunny wildflower border   If you intend to plant up a perennial wildflower border from scratch, there are a few initial factors to take into account.  Many wildflowers perform really well when the soil is relatively poor, so an area in the garden where turf can be removed is an ideal spot for a new wildflower border, as long as the soil is not too fertile.  If you do have very fertile soil, it may be worth removing a few inches of the topsoil and replacing it with poor quality soil from another part of the garden.  If you are removing turf, the soil beneath can simply be turned over, and no compost or fertiliser should be added.  Annual weed seeds are sure to germinate once the soil is exposed so plan ahead by preparing your area and remove weed seedlings by hoeing or digging out prior to planting your perennial wildflowers.  If you are gardening in harmony with your local conditions and are choosing plants that prefer your soil type, no other improvements will need to be made.  If you have a very heavy clay soil and would prefer to make it a little more manageable, you could dig in some sharp grit at this stage. If you can, choose a sheltered spot for your border (rather than simply a sunny one), as butterflies in particular prefer to seek their nectar out of the wind.

Whether you intend to purchase plants or grow your own from seed, early spring or late autumn are the best times to start planting your perennial wildflowers.  For the back of a sunny border try any of the Verbascums or mulleins, with their huge woolly leaves and yellow flowers.  These flowers, which are slightly scented at night, are especially attractive to moths, and one moth species (the aptly named mullein moth) lays her eggs on the grey-green felted leaves.  Teasels can also be included in a sunny border, although some people prefer to keep these prolific seeders to a wilder spot.  Viper’s bugloss, which buzzes with bees of all kinds in mid summer, is also suitable for the back or mid border.  The bright blue of chicory complements the pale pink of musk mallow – these two plants make a stunning combination and both cope well with a dry sunny location. 

For the mid-border, plants of less stature are required.  Dropwort, the dry soil equivalent of meadowsweet, is a must and will grow in just about any soil, except wet.  Attractive seed heads follow its frothy white, but sadly unscented, flowers.  Other white wildflowers for the mid-border could include wild carrot, with its interesting basket-shaped seed heads, and white campion, a long flowering species.  Jacob’s ladder will also be happy here, as will wild mignonette (an annual or biennial).  Towards the front of the border more dainty flowers can find a home.  Wild pansy, with yellow and purple flowers will seed profusely, and lady’s bedstraw, wild rockrose and bird’s foot trefoil all add a splash of yellow from late May onwards.

If you do not wish to start a new area or to plant a border specifically with wildflowers, all the plants above are suitable for adding to existing borders where there are spaces.  Choose flower colours that suit the area, add attractive foliage plants such as wild carrot, dropwort or Jacob’s ladder or simply include your favourites.   They will generally self seed and add something special to an existing perennial border.  The cornfield annuals mentioned earlier can also be included in a border.  Simply scatter in a little seed after your perennials have been planted.  They too will seed over time and establish themselves without any further help from you.

A wildflower border with grasses

The naturalistic style of gardening, where perennials are planted with ornamental grasses, has become extremely popular over the last few years.  Its informal look, emphasis on flowing drifts of species and varieties, and ability to cater for wildlife make it an important innovation into more traditional gardening styles.  Wildflowers are particularly suitable for inclusion in this type of gardening.  But isn’t an area of wildflowers and grasses simply a meadow?  Not in this instance.  This ‘new perennial’ style involves planting drifts of flowers interspersed with large areas of tufted grasses.  A meadow has fine leaved grasses distributed evenly throughout an area and wildflowers scattered here and there.  Native grasses could certainly be used in a new perennial style border, but here more dramatic non-natives such as Pennisetum, Stipa and Miscanthus are normally used.  If wildflowers and wild grasses are more to your taste Chapter 6 has more information on planting wildflowers into grass.

What not to plant in sunny borders

Not all wildflowers are suitable for planting in our gardens and some should be positively avoided unless you are a real enthusiast.  Species that are particularly invasive, either spreading quickly underground or seeding very freely should generally not be included.  Some may be suitable for a wilder patch in the garden (see Chapter 9) but others are best left to roadsides and hedgerows unless you are prepared for a lot of work.  Several of these invasive wildflowers grow in my garden (in fact they were here when I arrived) but their wildlife attracting capabilities mean that I am happy to accommodate them.  However, in a smaller garden they would be very difficult to manage.  They include creeping buttercup, hogweed, cow parsley and white dead nettle, all fantastic plants that provide nectar or pollen for insects, but best left out of a sunny border.  It is also best to avoid planting rosebay willow herb, common toadflax and coltsfoot – all beautiful but very invasive in this situation.

What wildlife can you expect?

A sunny spot in the garden with plenty of wildflowers will attract a wide range of wildlife.  Insects especially will be attracted to such an area as it will be warm and will provide them with the nectar or pollen they will be seeking on sunny days.  Butterflies, hoverflies, moths, bumblebees and honeybees will all flock to a sunny wildflower border.  Some of the plants, especially chicory, teasel and cornflower will also produce seeds that are favoured by greenfinches and goldfinches. Other birds, including robins, wrens, warblers and thrushes will be drawn to the insects that are making a home in this habitat.  Hedgehogs too will seek caterpillars and beetles amongst the plants.  Inevitably the wildflowers will bring with them a range of wildlife that shares their natural habitat in the countryside.


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017