Sowing Wildflowers

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While many of my neighbors have been busy germinating rye grass in manure, I have been getting ready to sow annual seeds for the glorious spring wildflower season. This year, more than usual, I am anxious to have a long-lasting wildflower season so that the garden is colorful for the backyard wedding for our son and daughter-in-law-to-be this coming June.

A few weeks ago Ginny Hunt, of Suncrest Nurseries and Seedhunt, spoke about growing annuals from seed at a meeting of the Southern California Horticultural Society. She showed wonderful pictures of beautiful and unusual annuals, many native to California, that she grows for seed production in her central California garden. (A list of seeds available through her internet, mail order seed business can be found on the Seedhunt website.) She also showed pictures of her seedhouse and seedbeds while describing ways to germinate and grow annuals from seed.

Ginny discussed germination and the need to break dormancy for some seeds. Methods to do this include using smoke treatment (chemically provided with “Super Smoke Plus”) to simulate wildfire conditions, refrigeration to mimic seasonal changes, and soaking seeds like lupines that have hard, impermeable seed coats.

Ginny prefers to grow annuals in open beds outdoors. Some seedlings are grown in seed pans and transplanted, while others are grown in raised seedbeds. All are grown in soils and conditions that Ginny has determined to be most advantageous. Typically the soil medium is extremely well-drained with a high sand content. Varying amount of organic material is added to the mix, woodland plants usually requiring more than desert or chaparral plants. These amendments can be added to a regular potting soil for raised beds and seed pans. Similar practices are followed at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. Annual wildflower beds there are also often top dressed with coarse, decomposed granite or gravel.

I knew that I couldn’t miss this talk because I was determined to ask Ginny how to prolong the wildflower season for the wedding. We discussed growing annuals that typically flower later in the spring, like Clarkias (Clarkia spp.), madias (Madia spp.), tarweeds (Hemizonia spp.), and sunflowers (Helianthus annuus). It was suggested that I sow the wildflowers over a longer period this winter. I also learned that if I cut back the clarkias before they set seed (lots of bouquets this spring!), they will continue to bloom for a longer period. And most importantly, I was told to water the wildflower beds after the rains stop and the temperatures rise. I usually don’t do this since the sidewalk garden is intended to be very low water use, but this year the rains, either naturally or artificially, will extend well into spring.

In my October 22nd post I included a picture of sprouting wildflower seeds. The cotyledons (sometimes called the seed leaves because they are the first set of leaves to appear after the seed germinates) were out. No true leaves (those that grow after the cotyledons) were present. Often it is difficult for gardeners to remember what the wildflower seedlings look like, even after they have gotten their true leaves. It is important to remove weedy annuals from the garden so that the wildflowers have a chance, and not knowing which little baby plant is which, can be a real drawback. This drawback almost led to a unfortunate consequence back in 1998 when I was a volunteer in the Cultivar Garden at Rancho. I nearly decimated the entire crop of California bluebells (Phacelia minor), confusing it for some weed I used to see on the east coast. Right now I can’t remember which one, but maybe one of my eastern readers will know. Anyway, something made me stop before doing the deed and I was relieved and rewarded by the flowers that followed.

California bluebells that I almost weeded out. (Notice tidytips and California poppy seedlings to right.)

California bluebells in bloom. So glad I didn’t kill them all!

California bluebells in bloom. (California poppy and weedy filaree leaves on lower right.)
051209_1864-1A gardener friend of mine suggested seeding pots when you sow your wildflowers seeds in the garden. This way you have a labeled pot with just one type of wildflower. Furthermore, growing annuals in pots is truly lovely. I have done this a few times, but as you may have guessed if you have been reading this blog, I am not nearly as systematic and I would like to be. This year will be different!!!!

Pot seeded with baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) on January 4, 2009.

Pot seeded with baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii), March 29, 2009.

Seedling of baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii). (Gilia capitata on lower right.)
To finish this rather long entry, I am posting pictures of some native wildflower and weedy seedlings. Over the years I have tried to take pictures of those that grow at roughly the same time, and look similar when young, with the hopes of reducing the level of my general confusion. Hope this doesn’t add to your general confusion!

Tidytips (Layia platyglossa) on left. Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) on lower right.

Tidytips (Layia platyglossa) in bloom – notice leaf shape on right.

Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) with long tap root that must be removed for effective control.

Globe gilia (Gilia capitata) on the left has fleshier leaves, with fewer hairs and brighter green color than bird’s eye gilia (Gilia tricolor) on the right.

Globe gilia (Gilia capitata) on left, bird’s eye gilia (Gilia tricolor) on right.

Garden weed, swinecress (Coronopus didymus) on left, globe gilia (Gilia capitata) on right.

Swinecress (Coronopus didymus) on left, cosmos in middle, globe gilia (Gilia capitata) on right.
Globe gilia (Gilia capitata).

Swinecress (Coronopus didymus).

If you are not totally confused, add this one to the list:
Weedy filaree (Erodium spp.). Get rid of this wherever you see it!

Check the UC IPM website for great pictures and information about common garden weeds.
Here’s to sowing the seeds of a brilliant wildflower season!

11 thoughts on “Sowing Wildflowers

  1. What useful seedling info! That Swinecress is so wiley posing as Gilia, and has fooled me a few times!

  2. Good luck, then! I just seeded a batch of pots with various wildflowers. We'll see how they turn out. I might also try some Chinese Houses in the ground. We'll see how it all turns out. (Great tip with the Clarkias!)

  3. Thanks, all, for you comments. Jess, when I&#39;m not sure I don&#39;t pull it out – the problem is when I am sure and I am wrong. Argh. <br /><br />TM, I love Chinese houses! Take pictures of the seedlings as well as the flowers. <br /><br />MD, baby blue eyes are sweet. Have you ever grown penny blacks? Nearly same as baby but in dark purple, almost black with white margin. They have never

  4. Mary Delle

    My favorites are the baby blue eyes. But I love clarkias and poppies too. Great seeding information!!

  5. Greta

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! Now to scatter some seed!

  6. lostlandscape (James)

    Late winter and spring should be a great season at your house. Let&#39;s keep our fingers crossed for a reasonable El NiƱo this Winter. My gardening assistant now turns over all control of beds with annual seeds sown in them after almost all the nemophilas I planted in October 08 were weeded out this January because they looked like swinecress. This year it&#39;s other plants I&#39;ve never grown

  7. I really need to get out (in the blogosphere) more often – this is a really cool post. Comparing young weeds with young plants is something I have thought of doing too, and maybe I will one of these days – the weeds I see are different ones, except for that weedy filaree which I get plenty of. I&#39;m also not familiar with California blue bells, interesting to see (not quite like the bluebells

  8. Greta – wish you success with your seeds. Keep us informed.<br /><br />James – with rain predicted for next week we are finally off to a good start. I threw down more seeds, so we will see! I also seeded a bunch of flower pots with Clarkias on Friday. Excellent idea to use some of the container grown annuals to fill in in the garden!<br /><br />CM – California blue bells is also called Canterbury

  9. This is such a great post. I scattered Theodore Payne&#39;s &#39;Roadside&#39; Wildflower seed mix back in February, and I&#39;m finally seeing some pretty Tidy Tips and Bird&#39;s Eye Gilia blooms, plus some California Poppy leaves, but I&#39;m totally confused about one or two of the other plants I see popping up. I can&#39;t tell if they&#39;re impostors or Cal Native wildflowers… When and

  10. Ugh, Now I&#39;m realizing that I might have swinecress all over my yard, and not Globe Gilia. But…I&#39;m not 100% sure. :-/

  11. Hi Helen. Squish the seedling and smell it. If it kind of pungent, radishy then swinecrest. Also they grow differently. The swinecrest stays pretty low – has very small insignificant flowers. Gilia is upright and the flower heads are large.

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