Jan 8, 2010

Waiting for Wildflowers

At some point over the holidays I managed to throw a whole bunch of wildflower seeds around the yard, and I hope to have some pretty pictures to show by springtime. Sowing over the holidays seems a little late, given that volunteers have been growing since the first rain October 12 and are looking pretty strong now, but I kept waiting because I wasn’t confident enough through December that the weather would be wet enough, and I didn’t want to have to haul out the hose just to keep seedlings alive. Of course there are no guarantees that we won’t have any severe dry spells for the rest of the winter, but since January through March are typically the wettest months, I thought/hoped it would be safe to sow seeds near around New Year. Two years ago, my first year of gardening with a partially ivy-free yard, I put seeds out on March 2, and it didn’t rain again at all that spring. Nevertheless, I kept the seedlings alive via watering, and even though I didn’t get a stunning flower show, I got enough that they self-sowed prolifically, and I’ll probably have some volunteers in that region every year from now on. And now that the whole front and side yard is ivy-free, and the back yard is lawn-free, I have a lot more space to introduce wildflowers. I like to use them because they are so audaciously showy, and largely responsible for making California’s spring as spectacular as it is. Another fun thing about growing lots of wildflowers is being able to bring them in as cut flowers--last spring my kitchen windowsill was a delight for about a month. (A kitchen table centerpiece bouquet would have been preferable, but too cat-accessible!)

I also put a lot of seeds in patio pots that are either now empty (having had their residents transferred to ground) or sparse (permanent resident not yet filled in), but I’m a bit skeptical whether I’ll get any germination in the pots, because the pots seem to have suddenly sprouted a sturdy crop of sparrows, juncos and towhees. How those guys spot the miniscule dirt-colored seeds in the soil is a mystery to me, but clearly they do. For that matter, the birds carpet the ground daily, but I’m hoping I scattered enough flower seeds that some will survive the pecking beaks of doom. (By the way, I don’t really associate the birds with doom—I love the birds and consider the yard theirs as much as mine, so if they decide I’m not having wildflowers this year, I accept that.)

And now a bit of info about and pictures of my wildflower experience of the last couple years. I started two years ago with two purchased seed mixes, one for shade and one for sun. The shade one consisted of Collinsia heterophylla (chinese houses), Clarkia unguiculata (elegant clarkia), Clarkia amoena (farewell-to-spring), Nemophila menziesii (baby blue eyes) and Nemophila maculata (five-spot). Only the first two succeeded and in low numbers—I guess my shade is a little excessive. The sunny mix contained Clarkia unguiculata, Gilia capitata (bluehead gilia), Layia platyglossa (tidy-tips), Escholzia californica (California poppy), Lupinus succulentus (arroyo lupine), and Phacelia tanacetifolia (tansy-leaf phacelia). All of these did okay the first rainless, hand-irrigated spring, and came back in much, much, much greater numbers the next year. Turns out Clarkia unguiculata, which indeed does okay in shade, does a million times better in full sun. I suspect the same is true for the Nemophilas.

Last fall, I had a dense carpet of volunteer seedlings, but only where the Ivy War had not been raging. This year, they’ve volunteered more extensively and prolifically, especially the poppies. And the Clarkias. Well, and the Gilias. I’m finally starting to understand why some gardeners complain about these flowers being “invasive.” However, I don’t really look at them that way, because weeding is an inevitability, and right now in my yard I have way, way more wildflower seedlings than weed seedlings. So pretty much it’s just the difference between culling wildflowers or pulling weeds, and I’d rather be culling wildflowers that are out-competing weeds than just pulling pesky weeds.
Last year's volunteer crop:

I augmented the side yard last year with a smattering of nursery-grown Clarkias, Nemophila, Layia, Phacelia viscida (sticky phacelia) and P. campanularia (desert bluebell). I also placed a few nursery-grown Clarkia concinna (red ribbons) in a planter box in heavy shade, and they lit it up beautifully. I also had a few nursery-grown Clarkia amoena hybrids, but I tried to not let them go to seed, because they actually struck me as a little too over-the-top and not really native-looking.

But except for those hybrids, last spring I let everything go to seed, leaving some to self-sow, and collecting some to scatter in the back yard and in pots. This year I’m buying no nursery-grown annuals, and waiting to see what comes from my scatter-shot sowing.

I’m also introducing a few more species this year from purchased seed packets: Lupinus bicolor (miniature lupine) and L. nanus (sky lupine), and Gilia tricolor (bird’s eye gilia). Of all the wildflowers I’ve grown so far, Lupines have volunteered the least vigorously and are the most susceptible to being eaten by something—snail possibly, but I’m not too good at pest i.d. For this reason, I tossed out a ton of the new lupine seeds, hoping even a small percentage succeeds. I probably would have increased their chances by boiling them, or at least roughing them up with sand, but I didn’t.

Design-wise, you have to want a pretty wild-looking garden to sow annuals like this. My style runs toward the naturalistic, so all I really do is try to cull tall things that show up near perimeters, and short things that come up away from perimeters.

I’ll report on this again in spring when I can say what worked well and what didn’t!


  1. it would be fun to throw wildflower seeds and wait what will emerge!! ~bangchik

  2. Sounds as if you have a plan, a good one. I scatter seeds in fall, winter and early spring. The weather is so variable, you can't be sure that one or the other is going to be the only workable plan.

    In the spring, I fill in the gaps with more tender annuals. Every year is different, each one holds great beauty.

  3. Great wildflower photos. An area in our yard that has been self-sown wildflowers (many of the ones from your sun mix) got turned into a temporary veggie bed this summer. And now there are almost no wildflower seedlings. I'm going to have reseed I think. So I'll be even later than you. I have the same problem with lupine. Bird's eye gilia are really beautiful. Nice choice to add this year.

  4. Thanks for the comments! Nell, I think you're onto a good idea with the staggered seed applications. I kind of wish I'd held some seeds back, because the Bird Invasion has surely devoured a whole lot of the seeds I put out. Oh well!

  5. Wow - marvelous success! I think we have so much wildlife around our property (I even heard some gnashing of teeth when I was in bed last night - out comes the catch and release cage... ) that reseeding just doesn't happen. I'm focusing on other things right now but I hope to get wildflowers going at some point. I'd like to gather local indigenous wildflowers - there are a few here and there - and try to propagate them. That's another reason I'm a bit reluctant to dive in with nursery bought seeds or plants. I've tried some from CNPS sales but they don't come back. So it's just great to see your blooms!

  6. Thanks! Wow, you really do have a lot of wildlife! That's cool, what's a garden for if not to share it with the native inhabitants? I'll definitely have some wildflower action this spring because volunteer seedlings are pretty big and sturdy now. Time will tell on the seeds I sowed manually. You know, now that I'm thinking about it, I'm not actually sure the birds are destroying the seeds by eating them. Maybe they're just redistributing the seeds. That's fine too, I have faith in the birds' design choices! I'm not sure whether the birds chow down on lupine seeds, but I bet if they do, those seeds will stand a better chance of germination wherever the birds, er, plant them.