Another Cosmos – Scattered Seeds

08 Apr 2020

A family farm growing seed for wildflowers and wildlife restoration

Text and Photos by Christine Hall

It wasn’t until I sowed my first cosmos meadow that I fell in love with the seeding life. For one, aside from their frivolous beauty, cosmos are conducive to one of the most satisfying seed plucking practices. You thought I was going to say – ‘are great for pollinators of all kinds’ – and, yes, of COURSE! More on that later. But, for now… seeds… and plucking.

Once cosmos have bloomed out and dried, the former floral bursts fall aside, leaving a dried clutch of pin-shaped spires atop the stem. With a soft and swift pull, using the pads of your fingertips, an illustrious bunch of needle-shaped seeds is left within your clasp.

For me, the story ends with a sensory experience that leaves me wanting more. For you, the story may begin down the road in Johnston County at Garrett Wildflower Seed Farm, where one can obtain wildflower seeds by the pound – or truck load.

Situated in Smithfield, North Carolina, owner Don Lee tends 1500 acres of cosmos, coreopsis, black-eyed Susan, tickseed, marigold, sunflower, poppy, bee balm and more. I suppose you can surmise Lee’s passion lies in preserving and restoring wildflower patches and prairies. But it didn’t begin there.

It began at N.C. State University where he obtained degrees in Education and Agricultural Engineering Technology. Soon thereafter he began working for the North Carolina Department of Transportation assisting with aesthetic programs along the roadsides, rest stops and various environmental stewardship programs. Eventually Lee made his way back to the family farm, where he narrowed his perspective to growing seed for wildlife restoration, wildflowers and pollinators.

“Our seeds have been used to establish a variety of North Carolina’s lost habitats as well as throughout the United States,” says Lee. “Nothing is more beautiful than a field of wildflowers in bloom, but the benefits go far beyond what the eye can see.”

Lee explains that wildflower support, and subsequent pollinator (i.e. bat, bee, butterfly, bird, etc.) health, is essential to many things for all of us. “For starters, they are crucial to our farmer’s crops and putting food on our tables,” says Lee. According to the Pollinator Partnership, a non-profit dedicated to the protection and promotion of pollinators, “Birds, bats, bees, butterflies, beetles, and other small mammals that pollinate plants are responsible for bringing us one out of every three bites of food.”

Leaders like Lee cling to the mission of promoting the health of pollinators through conservation, education and research. And, for that, I am grateful. For each conservationist I have met, there tends to be a deeper story behind their craft. “Most folks who end up doing what I do have had nature touch their lives in some way growing up,” adds Lee. “They’re committed to a different calling.”

For Lee, that calling stemmed from his father and grandfather’s work in tobacco and other row crops. Lee always noticed the older neighborhood farmer leaving native grass fields and corners of farmland for quail hunting.

“Without the actions of pollinators, agricultural economies, our food supply, and surrounding landscapes would collapse,” says Lee. “Through our work, we hope to provide research, technical experience and seed sources for native grasslands and southern prairie plantings.”

While Don Lee and his team are working to do things on a larger scale, both beauty and essential ecosystem support is also within your own suburban (or rural) reach.

Here’s how to plan and plant a wildflower patch in your homestead so that you, the butterflies, and the bees can enjoy a window box or miniature meadow from spring until fall.

How to Plant and Grow

Tips from Garrett Wildflower Seed Farm:

Wildflower habitat opportunities abound on every landscape – from containers to acres of farms to corporate campuses to utility and roadside corridors – most any site can be a habitat!

Home Site Selection

Site selection should be the first consideration in planning your wildflower garden. It is important to select seeds that will adapt successfully to the soil “type” (sand, loam, clay, etc.) of your site. While much of the soil in the Sandhills is sandy, there are often patches and areas of other soil types nearby or interwoven in beside and between other types like a quilt. If you have poor soil, you can improve it by adding organic matter such as manure or compost from yard waste or other materials. Cosmos need loose, well-drained soil to establish and thrive.

When to Plant

There are two primary types of cosmos Lee suggests considering, each with a separate planting cycle. As we talk, Lee reminds me that purists may give cosmos the snub, but for the beauty and ease of growth, the Mexico native is still a winner for landscapes in our communities where pollinators lack food.

Sulphur Cosmos, which are susceptible to frost/freeze damage, should be planted in the spring – April being ideal. Sulphur Cosmos ignite the mid-season garden, bursting in shades of orange and yellow on knee-high stalks all the way into the fall. A trick, Lee shares, is to bush hog or mow the cosmos down after they bloom through at the end of summer, which sets them up for a grand reprise of color in the fall. Sulphur Cosmos are extremely easy to grow in any region. What’s more, the blooms are lovely in cut bouquets.

Bipinnatus Cosmos are technically half-hardy annuals, although stalks can (and do) reappear via self-sowing for several years. The tip Lee shares for this variety is to always remember to plant July 4th. They can be planted anytime between June 25-July 15th, so the 4th holiday provides a natural goalpost. Lee also shares that into the fall as the nights cool, the blooms get more brilliant. The plant height varies from 2–4 ft. and shades of color appear in pink, purple and white.

Sowing Seed

Seed can be sown with conventional seed/fertilizer broadcast applicators, or by hand. Seed should be lightly covered with soil by hand raking, rolling, or shallow harrowing to accomplish good seed to soil contact. Wildflower seed should be planted very shallow, 1/16" for most species.

Tips and Tricks

Plant in clusters to create a "target' for pollinators to find.

Select a site that is removed from wind, has at least partial sun, and can provide water.

Allow material from dead branches and logs to remain nearby as nesting sites.

Finding Your Cosmos

While cosmos are quick-blooming machines that create brilliant colors of orange, white, pink and crimson, they are not for the exceptionally tidy. In our backyard’s “rough and tumble” wildflower patch, they have ample space to roam, reseed and flourish. Picking and casting seeds is purely for my own (and my daughters’, and my mom’s, and my brother’s) pleasure, as this genus of flower reseeds in our backyard season to season in spades, needing no additional help from me. If roaming seeds is of concern, however, there are solutions.

Growing wildflowers can ‘send you to another cosmos’ with proper planning. You, too, can form habitats that are ideal for pollinators and wildlife. And more wildflowers can be reestablished and sustained.

And for this, and other’s work, we all should be thankful.

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