Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
October, 2006
Regional Report

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This firecracker penstemon thrives in spite of reflected sun and heat on both sides.

Easy to Sow and Grow Wildflowers

Rain favored my neighborhood last week and I'm feeling pleased with myself. Not only did I have time to place my odd assortment of temporary, low-tech, rain-harvesting "collection devices" (40-gallon plastic kitty litter buckets and oversized foam pots sans drainage holes that someone discarded in front of our dumpster, no doubt discouraged by the dead plants they contained), I also scattered penstemon and lupine seeds in advance of the rain. I'm not usually so lucky with my timing! My houseplants have enjoyed a healthy drink of rainwater, I have plenty stored for future watering, and the wildflower area is off to a good start.

Wildflowers are fun to grow, and many of them start easily from seed. Once established, they self-sow year after year, or you can collect the seed to sow in specific areas in your yard, or make little gift packets for friends. I've found that wildflowers tend to establish where they do best, so I just stand back and let them grow where they want to.

Wildflowers are adapted to challenging conditions: alkaline soil, intense sun, limited rainfall. They thrive with minimal input from the gardener, so they are a good choice for novices or gardeners with limited time. They also do well in demanding sites where most plants struggle. For example, a friend has firecracker penstemon plants (P. eatonii) in a foot-wide planting area sandwiched between a retaining wall and a sidewalk, where the reflected heat and sun is brutal. The foliage looks lush and green for most of the year, and the plants bloom profusely each spring.

The only drawback to wildflowers is for those of us who live under HOA restrictions. I know several people who have received unpleasant "remove those weeds from your yard" letters from uninformed HOA management. This is a classic Catch 22: Local water conservation departments encourage residents to plant low-water-use natives, like wildflowers, but some HOAs aren't sufficiently informed or flexible enough to realize the value of what homeowners are doing! On the positive side, when the homeowner have taken the time to explain that the "weeds" were being allowed to dry sufficiently to let the seeds drop and self-sow, and that the plants would be gone within a few weeks, the HOAs have backed off. Communication is key!

How to Sow
Choose a location that receives full sun 8 hours daily. If you have gravel mulch, simply broadcast the seeds. Spaces among the rocks provide protective niches for the seeds to germinate and grow. If sowing on soil, rake lightly first, loosening soil no deeper than an inch. This limits the amount of weed seeds brought to the surface.

Broadcast the seeds, then make good contact between soil and seeds by walking across it or pressing with the back of a rack. Cover seeds with no than 1/16 inch of soil. Remember that you are recreating conditions where the seeds would naturally germinate, and nobody is out in nature tilling the soil, adding amendments, and covering the seeds!

To guarantee plants, regardless of winter rains, water regularly to keep the area moist for four to six weeks, which allows seeds to germinate and seedlings to establish. When seedlings reach 1 to 2 inches, gradually taper off watering to every couple weeks. If rains are frequent, you can reduce your watering. Be diligent about pulling weeds because they compete with your wildflowers for water and nutrients.

Desert Wildflowers for Beginners
Blanketflower (Gaillardia pulchella)
Desert bluebells (Phacelia campanularia)
Desert lupine (Lupinus sparsiflorus)
Desert marigold (Bailyea multiradiata)
Glove mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua)
Mexican gold poppy (Eschscholtzia mexicana)
Mexican hat (Ratibida columnaris)
Penstemon (P. eatonii, P. parryi, P. pseudospectabilis, P. superbus)

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