Austin L. Ray: Plant More Wildflowers

I don’t remember a lot from high school, but I do remember one of my agriculture teacher Mr. Watson’s classic rants. Almost always good-hearted, almost always full of shit, Richard A. Watson often went off on these tangents, which sometimes ended in a joke, a moral, or both. This time, though, he was trying to instill ambition into the dozen or so Lincolnwood High School students—there were 32 of us in my graduating class, so this was actually a decent-sized gathering—sitting in front of him, rolling their eyes, chewing tobacco.

“You can be anything you want,” he told us. “Someone in this room could one day become the mayor of Morrisonville. No one knows what they’re gonna be. In all my years of teaching, I’ve only had one student who knew what he was going to be, and that was Bruce Ray. He always wanted to be a farmer, and he became a farmer.”

It was a fair point. My dad started helping his dad in the field in his early teens, and he’s still farming to this day in central Illinois—68 years young. We joke that he’ll die in a field one day, but are we really joking? His corn and soybeans have paid the bills for decades, but I don’t know of anything he can’t grow: pumpkins, raspberries, cotton, all manner of vegetables, myriad trees and bushes, rows of sweet corn for days, ginseng, whatever unusual thing pops into his head or catches his intrigue on YouTube.

Several years back, he was bitten by the wildflower bug. Cosmos, zinnias, milkweed… He’s planted acres of them on the property he and my mom call home. It’s effortless and pleasurable, the way he can fill ground with blooms, and he crafts winding paths through the outstretched rows of flowers so that others can enjoy them as well.

It’s gorgeous, of course, but it’s also inspiring. Thanks to Bruce Ray, I’ve enjoyed growing stuff from a very young age. I’ve mostly stuck to houseplants and vegetables. But in the fall of 2020, as the pandemic was really starting to heat up, back when we were all grasping for newness, I decided I needed a wildflower jungle of my own. Nothing quite as ambitious as my dad’s—just a little stretch of ground filled with colorful petals where I could sit and drink beer and make friends with the bugs.

What I’ve learned after making one of these jungles at my house, and then another at my brother’s house, and then a few others at various spots around my neighborhood, is that they bring joy. Bees. Butterflies. People walking by. They love wildflowers. And here’s the thing: wildflowers aren’t hard to grow. I did it, and you can too, provided you have some ground you’re willing to reinvent. It requires some effort and a little money, but it’ll bring you loads of happiness.

Here’s how to do it:

Choose your space, then tear it up.

It may seem obvious, but it’s worth saying anyway: Pick a spot that’ll get a lot of sun. For my first wildflower jungle, I knew I wanted to use the six-foot-by-40-foot strip of grass in between my yard and the street. That was a lot of grass to tear out, so I paid someone else to do it. For my second wildflower jungle, at my brother’s place, I was working with a strip of four feet by 15 feet, so I did the work myself. Clearing an area of that size took me maybe an hour and a half or so, and came with a bunch of sore muscles that I don’t normally use and a sense of accomplishment.

Which is to say: This part sucks, but it’s also by far the most important part. Wildflowers are nimble and wily, but you’ve gotta get rid of the competition. If you have a tiller, till up the grass. (But let’s be real, if you had a tiller, you probably wouldn’t be reading this.) If not, you’ll need to use a shovel to get it all out. Dig down, then under, down, under, down, under, until you’ve removed all the annoyingly rooty chunks of turf. Then, start raking. Rake out the roots. Rake the hard parts of the soil so they loosen up. Rake until your hands hurt, drink a big glass of water, then rake some more. At some point, you’ll decide you’ve done enough, give up, and move on to step two. This is fine. You did great.

Put down some soil.

You want the wildflowers to feel welcome, so pick up something that’ll get them off to a good start. I mostly use Sta-Green Flower & Vegetable Garden Soil Plus Fertilizer, because it’s reliable, not too expensive ($4/cubic foot), and is usually in stock at the Edgewood Lowe’s. You just want some nice organic matter. If you compost, throw some of that in there for fun. Same goes for fertilizer. I’m partial to worm castings because they make my plants happy and it’s fun to call them “worm poop,” especially if you have children in your home. Your mileage may vary on all of this, so just do what feels right and fits your budget. Again, the wildflowers are likely gonna grow so long as they get some water and sun, but you might as well give them as much encouragement as possible.

Plant some seeds in that soil.

Here’s the fun part. I started by reaching out to Monica Ponce, an ATL flower expert who recently moved to town after spending some time living a dream life on Cumberland Island. And she pointed me to Eden Brothers’ Southeastern Mix, a delightful melange of a couple dozen different flowers—Red Corn Poppy, Coreopsis, African Daisy, Baby’s Breath, etc.—that are native to the region. I’ve since tried a few different mixes from Eden Brothers, but that Southeastern one has been the most satisfying, productive, and beautiful.

As for the planting, you can just scatter the seeds liberally across your fancy new soil. Seriously, just get your Johnny Appleseed on and have fun with it. Maybe listen to some Tom Petty while you’re at it. Once the seeds are broadcasted (this is a cool word Monica taught me, by the way—feel free to use it like you know what you’re talking about), walk across it deliberately but gently. You can use a rake to incorporate the seeds into the soil if you prefer, but I find the walking to be fun and relaxing in an almost-ASMR kinda way.

Water and wait.

Once you’ve done the seed walk, give that soon-to-be-jungle a hearty soak. A hose that sprinkles gently is best, but not everyone has a hose, so live your truth. I actually use an old gooseneck pour-over coffee kettle to water the vegetables in my garden boxes because I like the specificity of it. Depending how the weather goes after that first watering, you’ll want to make sure to soak down the bed a couple times a week until the seeds get established. In my experience, you’ll have tiny plants popping their heads out of the soil within five to seven days, and full-on seedlings within a couple weeks. Typically, Mother Nature will handle it from there.

That’s really all there is to it. It’s been a few years now since I first started using this method, and it works every time. If you follow these directions, even casually, you’ll be insufferably tweeting about wildflowers before you know it.

Austin L. Ray

Austin L. Ray is a writer and editor who’s lived in Atlanta for 17 years. During that time he’s written for places like Mailchimp, Defector, Rolling Stone, Tip Top Proper Cocktails, Atlas Obscura, Oxford American, and more. He likes loud rap music, weather that requires hoodies, and publishing How I’d Fix Atlanta. Zach Galifiankais once screamed in his face.