Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Northern California Coastal & Inland Valleys
October, 2009
Regional Report

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The sunny-side-up plant (Romneya coulteri) is a native Californian that does well in the garden provided it doesn't receive too much water.

Go Wild! Plant Wildflowers!

Imagine yourself walking through a meadow on Angel Island, Mt. Diablo, or Edgewood Park in the early spring. The air is fresh with the scent of recent rains, bees are humming, the green grass is plump and lush, the wild cyclamen are just beginning to turn their faces toward the sun that is still low on the horizon.

Wildflowers, which delight the eye and provide habitat to many native and migratory species, have unique ability to endure the long, dry summer and fall seasons. They are easy to plant and require very little maintenance once established.

The Benefits
Planting wildflowers is a wonderful way to invite wildlife to visit your garden. Many creatures, including birds, toads, beneficial insects, and pollinators, depend on a specific variety of native plant. A cover of deep-rooted native perennial wildflowers will also conserve your soil and prevent erosion. And of course, the added benefit is that wildflowers are beautiful to look at.

What to Plant
Some suggestions are; California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), milk maids (Cardamine californica), mosquito-bills (Dodecatheon hendersonii), lupine (Lupinus spp.), tidy-tips (Layia platyglossa), corn cockle (Agrostemma spp.), forget-me-nots (Myosotis sylvatica). There are also commercial wildflower mixes available that cater to specific desires, such as a butterfly mix.

A commercial wildflower mix is typically 60 percent annual flowers and 40 percent perennials. A good wildflower mix will provide you with flowers from early spring through fall. The mix may include familiar plants such as flax, cosmos, and Shirley poppies as well as native varieties.

When to Plant
Late October through November is the ideal time to plant wildflowers in Northern California. The soil is still warm enough to encourage germination and the winter rains are just about to begin. There is also plenty of food available in the form of wild grass seed and harvest residue for wild birds to eat. This is a serious consideration since hungry birds will search out and eat wildflower seeds if they are available.

Winter rains and increasing daylight call wildflower seeds to emerge from the soil. But in order for them to grow, first you need to plant the seeds. Wildflowers require a sunny location which is free from competing vegetation, including weeds. If you have such an area in your garden, for example an unused side yard or an unplanted hillside, you have the ideal space for wildflowers to grow.

How to Plant
It's very simple to plant wildflowers, but there are a few rules to keep in mind. Foremost is site selection. Always try to select a site in full sun for best results, especially if you plan to use them to attract butterflies and beneficial insects.

Next, remove the weeds from the area you intend to plant your wildflower seeds. Wildflowers can't compete with established weeds for water and nutrients, so clear the area prior to planting so they have a fighting chance to grow.

After removing the weeds, rough up the soil before planting so that the tiny roots can grab hold as the seeds begin to germinate. If the soil is flat and smooth, the seeds may wash away before they even have a chance to germinate. Use a cultivator or bow rake to scratch open the surface of the soil prior to sowing the seed.

Scatter or broadcast the seeds across the prepared planting bed. It's not recommended that you transplant wildflower seeds. Most are deep rooted and will suffer in the transplanting process. The preferred method is to direct-seed into the prepared planting bed. Direct seeding is a gardening term that refers to planting the seeds exactly where you want them in the garden, instead of planting them in a flat early in the season, then transplanting the young plants to the desired location.

After planting the seed, cover the seed bed with a light dusting of fresh potting soil. This will protect the seed from hungry birds looking for an easy meal. One quarter to 1/2 inch of soil is enough to protect and cover the seed. Any more than that and the young plants won't have enough energy to reach the surface after germination.

Unlike other seeds, wildflower seeds don't require any water at planting time. You can lightly spray the soil with water to settle the protective layer of potting soil, but allow nature to take over from here. If winter rains are light, by all means water, but overwatering will kill young wildflowers before they have a chance to mature.

Please purchase wildflower seed; don't gather wildflowers or wildflower seed from the fields, pastures, or meadows. It is so tempting to collect seed pods or dig up a beautiful specimen and take it home to your garden, but it is against the law. Leave this precious resource where it belongs so that they can reseed themselves for future generations to enjoy.

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