Drive to Figueroa Mountain next spring, and you’ll see nature in one of its finest moments, with vast sweeps of glowing orange poppies, deep purple and blue lupine, and other colorful wildflowers blanketing the slopes.
But you won’t have to travel so far to view wildflowers if you sow seeds in your garden.
Now is an excellent time to scatter native flower seeds. The soil temperature is just right. Upcoming rains will prompt the seeds to sprout. And next spring, you’ll be rewarded with rich blasts of your own shimmering color.
Seed packets that are indiscriminately labeled “wildflowers” can be found just about anywhere, from drugstores to some garden centers.
But don’t buy any packet before reading the label to find out what’s inside. Technically speaking, all flowers can trace their beginnings to somewhere out in the wild. Those generic wildflower packets often contain species native to other parts of the country, if not the world, and the seeds may fail to sprout here.
Worse, they may crowd out any California natives that happen to be part of the mix. Aggressive outsiders used as fillers include sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), bachelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus) and baby’s breath (Gypsophila paniculata), all of which are native to Europe and central Asia.
instead, select packets that contain only California native seed.
Blends are perfectly fine. Indeed, they’re an excellent way to obtain a mix of wildflowers that are compatible with one another.
For instance, the Theodore Payne Foundation, an organization that promotes the preservation of California native flora, offers 21 different wildflower mixes. The Coastal Mixture includes beach suncups (Camissonia cheiranthifolia), dune poppy (Eschscholzia californica maritima), globe gilia (gilia capitata), large-flower linanthus (Linanthus grandiflorus) and miniature lupine (Lupinus bicolor), while the Cool Season Slope Mixture includes yarrow (Achillea millefolium), needlegrass (Nassella cernua), California poppy (Eschscholzia californica) and creeping red fescue (Festuca rubra molate).
If you’re feeling adventurous, go ahead and buy packets of individual native flowers to create your own vision of spring.
In full sun, you can recreate that stunning display on Figueroa Mountain — albeit on a smaller scale — with a simple pairing of poppies and lupine.
Or add to the show by planting fare-well-to-spring (Clarkia amoena), a showy pink bloomer that thrives in coastal fields and clay soil; ankle-high tidy tips (Layia platyglossa), with yellow, daisy-like flowers edged in white; and tansy leaf (Phacelia tanacetifolia), which sends up tall stems of light-blue “fiddle neck” flowers that uncurl from the tops of their stalks and provide nectar to butterflies.
While most of our wildflowers thrive in full sun, there are a few to try in filtered shade.
Chinese houses (Collinsia heterophylla) bears lavender and white rings of flowers stacked in tiers on upright stems; grand collomia (Collomia grandiflora) produces clusters of salmon, trumpet-shaped flowers on slender stems; and one of my favorites, baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) is named for its charming, blue flowers marked by white “eyes.”
Preparing the Site
What nature makes seem so effortless actually requires some work in the garden. If you think sowing wildflowers is a matter of sprinkling some seeds in the dirt, you’ll be sorely disappointed next spring.
For starters, create as weed-free an environment as possible.
The trick is to pull, scrape or spray any weeds while avoiding any major roughing up of the soil. Otherwise, you may inadvertently bring up dormant weed seeds that have been lurking right below the surface. That same warmth, water and sunshine that you provide to your wildflower seeds will encourage those weed seeds as well.
If you’ve chosen a spot that has been especially infested with weeds, clear it first, then water the bare dirt for a couple of weeks to bring up any stragglers.
Before you sow your seeds, use the back side of a steel rake to smooth the soil.
Broadcast the seed. You’ll quickly discover that wildflower seeds can be tiny and difficult to scatter. Consider mixing the seeds with fine sand first. The extra weight and bulk will help make for a more even distribution.
Then flip over your rake and lightly rake the bed. This will create seed-to-soil contact, which is necessary for germination. The thin covering should also protect the seed from being instantly gobbled by birds. Don’t bury the seeds too deep — most wildflower seeds should be within an eighth to a quarter of an inch from the surface.
If you don’t feel you can get enough precision with a rake, sow the seeds, then sprinkle a thin layer of fine, loose, organic material on top.
Tending Your Wildflowers
To kick-start your wildflowers, water the newly planted seeds right away. Once your seeds receive that first dose of moisture, they’ll continue to need it on a weekly basis until next spring. So if it doesn’t rain for a while, you will have committed yourself to an ongoing regimen of watering until it does.
Provide frequent, light sprinklings, rather than deep irrigation. The idea is to keep the soil evenly moist, not to inundate it with puddles.
Or just sow your seeds and wait for rain. After all, seasonal rain is what awakens the slumbering seeds in nature. Note that you will still need to irrigate if storms prove to be far and few between this winter.
Annual wildflowers generally sprout within two to four weeks of getting wet, whether from a hose or up above. Perennials may take at least twice as long. Blue-eyed grass may not germinate until its second year.
If birds threaten to devour your seedlings, set up pinwheels or attach shiny tape to stakes to deter them.
If it’s a relatively small area, cover the bed with bird netting until the seedlings grow several inches tall.
Weeds can be a significant obstacle, especially early on when it can be difficult to distinguish between a weed and a wildflower.
If you’re not sure, buy a plant identification book or plant a handful of your seeds in a test plot or container for comparison.
Some folks choose to sprout their wildflower seeds in flats of sand or fast-draining mix, then transplant the seedlings.
But that can be difficult, especially with plants that early on send down deep tap roots, such as California poppies and lupine.
If you do start those wildflowers in containers, be sure to transplant them within a few days of sprouting to avoid damaging their already lengthening roots.
Likewise, if you buy poppies or lupine in pony packs at a nursery, select the tiniest plants, rather than ones whose leaves have already begun to spread beyond the edges of their containers.
Seeds of Wisdom
If you’re sowing wildflower seeds on a hill, disperse most of the seeds across the top. The seeds are likely to migrate down the slope with irrigation or when the rain begins.
≈California Wildflower Seed Sources
PO Box 407
Bolinas, California 94924
Theodore Payne Foundation
10459 Tuxford St.
Sun Valley, CA 91352
The Wildflower Seed Company of the Napa Valley
PO Box 406
St. Helena, CA 94575
Tree of Life Nursery
33201 Ortega Highway
San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675
Visit Joan’s website at www.SantaBarbaraGardens.com, or post a comment by clicking on “Leave a Comment” back up at the top.