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Wildflowers can be a low-cost addition to the garden

  • Karen Hamblett
  • Who doesn't love the look of wildflowers across a rolling field or up the side of a hill? Even more exciting is finding wildflowers blooming between rocks or along paths where the soil doesn't look like it could support anything living.

    Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us that, "Love is like wildflowers; it's often found in the most unlikely of places."

    Wouldn't it be lovely to have an area in our gardens that is so beautiful and low maintenance? We often hear that planting wildflowers is easy and trouble free. We toss out a seed ball or small handful of seeds from a packet filled with seeds of unknown origin or species and wait for the bloom only to be disappointed. Well, not this year!

    Right now is the optimal time for planting wildflowers to see blooms next spring and summer because winter rains do most of the work for you once the seeds are in the ground. There are few simple steps to follow in order to optimize your success with wildflowers.

    • Choose the right seeds: Pick seeds or seed mixes that are native to Northern California. If you select native seeds, your wildflowers will be more adapted to the environment including climate, soil and pests. They also will provide pollen and shelter to beneficial insects and butterflies native to our area. Non-native wildflowers can become invasive to their native counterparts because the pests, weather conditions or diseases that normally keep them at bay in their native environments may not be present in California. When that happens, fewer native plants have the chance to survive.

      A mixture of baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii), tidy tips (Layia platyglossa), globe gilia (Gilia capitata), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) and farewell-to-spring (Clarkia amoena) is an easy to grow combination that blooms from early spring to mid-summer. These are annual wildflowers that seed freely so you should have blooms every year. There are numerous local sources for native wildflower seed mixes. Check out the Marin Chapter of the California Native Plant Society for sources and more information online at www.marin.edu/cnps.
    • Select a site and prepare your soil: Choose a site that averages six to eight hours of sun daily, and avoid poorly drained areas that stay soggy after a heavy rains. California annual wildflowers thrive best with plenty of sun and in soil where they can keep their roots fairly dry. Rather than trying to start with a large field, start in a small area such as filling in around perennials in a bed or surrounding the base of a mailbox. Once you find your spot, make sure the area is weed-free. The No. 1 deterrent to the success of your wildflowers is competing plants.
    • Sow your seeds: Mix your wildflower seeds with dry sand in a 1-to-1 ratio to achieve a more even spread. Make sure it's river sand, not beach sand that is too salty. Scatter this mix over the area that has been prepared. Pat it down by hand, or walk on it to assure good seed to soil contact. To protect the seeds from birds cover the seeded area with a light covering of straw. You can either water the area, or let the rains take care of it.
    • Maintain your wildflowers: Once the seeds begin to sprout, make sure weeds don't get the upper hand over your wildflowers. No need to water or amend the soil once they are established. They are perfectly happy in average soil and since they are native they are suited to our dry summers. After they bloom, allow them to drop their seeds before you pull the plants or cut them down. Be patient. They may look a bit straggly for a short time, but they are dropping seeds that will become more flowers for your viewing pleasure next year. You can collect some of the seeds and plant them in another area, too. For more information about sowing wildflowers and resources for seeds, check out the Marin Master Gardener website www.marinmg.org and type "wildflowers" in the search box.

    In the words of musician Sheryl Crow, "No matter how chaotic it is, wildflowers will still spring up in the middle of nowhere." Plant your wildflower seeds now so next spring and summer you will have an easy-to-care-for little oasis in your yard or garden where you can sit, relax, take in the beauty and escape the chaos of life for a bit.