Why plant wildflowers in autumn?

Nick Turner

By Shaun Waycott, Avon Wildlife Trust Wildflower Nursery Manager

We tend to think of spring as the best time to plant. But here at Avon Wildlife Trust’s Wildflower Nursery, we are wondering which wildflowers to plant now.  Autumn is excellent. The summer heat has passed, so it is easier for plants to establish their roots in the dampness of a typical mild autumn.

Working with local community groups, the nursery grows wildflowers from seeds collected from our local nature reserves. It is important work. Kew Gardens awarded a grant for the nursery’s living seed banks to grow plants of local origin. Our collected seeds are fresh, quick to germinate and give great results.

Based at the six-acre nature reserve at Feed Bristol, the nursery grow wildflowers in pots ready for planting in your garden. We divide them into biennials (lasting two years) and perennials (lasting many years). Let’s look at biennials first. Flourishing in all sorts of conditions, foxglove, teasel and wild carrot are the easy ones to grow. In their first year, they produce a rosette of leaves which develop the next year into tall flower spikes. Their seed then becomes the next generation of plants. Planting in the autumn gives them time to establish a good root system before they need to flower.

Do not think less of foxglove, teasel and wild carrot because they are easy-growers. They are food powerhouses for wildlife. You may have seen bumblebees climbing inside a foxglove’s large flowers. Teasel flowers are attractive to bees and go on to produce plentiful, nutritious seeds loved by goldfinches. The white flowers of wild carrot may have several different insects feeding at the same time – bees, hoverflies and beetles.

Now for perennial plants. Flowering every year, perennials can last many years. Spring flowers benefit from autumn planting - hedgerow flowers such as primrose, cowslip, red campion and cow parsley, and early-flowering pond plants such as marsh marigold. Equally, later-flowering perennials such as ox-eye daisy, field scabious or betony also gain from autumn planting, giving them more time to develop better root systems and grow, producing more flowers the following year.

Different wildflowers suit a garden’s different areas. Knapweed and ox-eye daisy thrive in open sunny spots, bugle and St John’s Wort prefer partial shade, while purple loosestrife and yellow flag wildflowers prosper at a pond’s muddy edges.

Looking out over the nursery I can see at least 60 species. Different insects favour different-shaped wildflowers so by growing a selection you are creating a colourful garden as well as food for a variety of pollinators.

Whether planting in pots or in the ground, make sure the soil and roots of the plant are damp before planting. If the roots are a little dry, a short soak in a bucket of water is helpful. Also if the roots are a bit congested, tease them out at their ends so they can extend into the surrounding soil.

After planting, water plants well and keep an eye on the watering for the first few weeks especially if autumn is dry. The plants will take care of themselves over winter, with some perennials dying back to brown stems. When spring comes, they will start to grow, giving you beautiful wildflowers as well as life-saving food for the birds and bees.

Visit Avon Wildlife Trust Wildflower Nursery for expert advice and to buy wildflowers (bring cash). Open weekdays 10am – 4pm. Also open the first Saturday of every month for Open Days with activities up to and including 5 October. Entrance is by the traffic lights, Frenchay Park Road, Bristol BS16 1HB.