Go wild this year

If every dog has its day, then every plant should have its year. The powers that be within the horticultural world, the people who tempt gardeners with new plants and products each year, have decided that 2013 is the year of the wildflower.

"This is the perfect year to put the focus on perennial wildflowers because they are so important for honey bees and all pollinating insects," says Diane Blazek of the National Garden Bureau, a nonprofit organization that promotes the hobby of gardening. Its members range from seed and plant growers to makers and sellers of all gardening gadgets.

"Wildflowers" means different things among gardeners. To some, wildflowers are native plants that grew here before European settlers arrived; to others, they are the escaped and adapted exotics that colonialists brought with them to use as herbs, medicinals and mattress stuffing. Others call them weeds.

Wildflowers were big in the early 1800s, NGB points out. Although George Washington liked to swap exotic plants with European correspondents, he also grew native Lobelia cardinalis, or Cardinal Flower. Thomas Jefferson planted wildflowers and saved seeds at Monticello. Another resurgence of wildflower gardening came in the late 1800s.

The latest interest in going wild, or native, is driven largely by gardeners wanting to do something for pollinating insects, Blazek says, especially honey bees, which are being wiped out by hive diseases and insecticides.

Regardless of origin, what wildflowers have in common is the ability to survive and thrive without much effort from us. Blazek points out that properly chosen wildflowers require less maintenance, water, fertilizer, pest control and mowing than traditional landscape plantings.

"A field of wildflowers is more earth-friendly and easy to care for than a swath of mowed grass," she says. "So many of the wildflowers are native and regional, which is even better for the pollinators."

New England Aster is about as native as plants come here, although the fall bloomer does fine in the Rockies, too. It's also a fall nectar source for Monarch butterflies.

Or try Eastern Columbine, one of 30 species native to North America, Rudbeckia, or Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa), also called Bee Balm, which also draws humming birds.

Wildflowers will breed true from seed; they are not hybrids created by plant breeders. But breeders have been doing extensive selection work to find and cultivate strains that have showier flowers, more fragrance, stronger colors or are more hardy.

Gardening for pollinators isn't the only emerging trend. Gardeners also are encouraged to plant flowers that support beneficial insects. That's a kinder, gentler and certainly more appealing name for parasitic wasps and syrphid flies, the friendly little buggers that feed on aphids and other soft-bodied sucking insects. These predators need some nectar and pollen in their diets, according to Ana LeGrand, an Integrated Pest Management coordinator at UConn.

In fact, just about any plant in the aster or composite family of plants and the carrot or parsley family will attract parasitic wasps, she says. Not all of these appeal to the home gardener: Queen Anne's Lace or wild carrot, initially introduced from Europe, is a prolific seeder, so plan to cut off the flowers before they go to seed. Poison hemlock is a noxious weed in the western states. More palatable choices include yarrow, sunflowers, fennel, dill and goldenrod.

LeGrand recommends planting a plethora of bloomers, native wildflowers and cultivated favorites to attract and feed the beneficial insects spring through fall.

Odds are high that good choices of pollinators, including wildflowers and native perennials, can be found at garden club plants sales - many will be held this weekend. Pick your favorite, from Friends of Harkness to Hammonasset, and just about every town club in between - North Stonington, East Lyme, Old Lyme, Old Saybrook and Essex. Most sales are Saturday morning, some start Friday afternoon; check local listings and websites for details.

Diane Blazek is Suzanne's guest this week on "CT Outdoors," which airs on WLIS 1420 AM and WMRD 1150 AM from 12:30 to 1 p.m. Tuesday; listen anytime from the On Demand archives at www.wliswmrd.net.

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