Sowing Wildflowers in the Garden

  • Bumblebee foraging on Lacy Phacelia
    Bumblebee foraging on Lacy Phacelia
  • Mountain Garland grows in part shade or full sun.
    Mountain Garland grows in part shade or full sun.
  • Sphinx Moth foraging at Bird's eye Gilia
    Sphinx Moth foraging at Bird's eye Gilia
  • Honeybee foraging on a Gilia flower; notice the turquoise pollen!
    Honeybee foraging on a Gilia flower; notice the turquoise pollen!

The days are still warm, and we’re all still hoping that this will be an ‘El Nino’ year with ample rainfall, and a good snow pack in the Sierras. The days are noticeably shorter, and the evenings are much cooler. The shorter day-length is a cue to many native plants and seeds that the season of growth in California is arriving; now we just need the rains!

I’ve already noticed annual wildflowers germinating in areas where I hand-water. All are species that grew and flowered and set seed in my garden last year; and as much as possible, I will let them grow on this year exactly where they seed themselves in. Wildflowers often seed into my gravel pathways; this seems to be an ideal situation for them; but since I still need to be able to walk the pathways, I let them grow at the edges, and just thin them out a bit. In thinning delicate seedlings it’s often best to just cut the stem at the ground level, rather than pulling out the seedlings, which also disturbs the root systems of neighboring seedlings.

Lacy Phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia) likes sun or part shade; I like it to grow all around my fruits and veggies because it’s one of the best flowers to attract the pollinators. It’s also a great cut flower, lasting a long time in a vase, and wonderfully fragrant.

Mountain Garland (Clarkia unguiculata) is another wildflower that germinates early in the season; I had lovely stands of it last year in mostly part shade conditions. There’s great variation in the height and spread of this annual, and it’s all dependent on the moisture it receives. As soon as the seedlings are about three inches high, with well-developed true leaves, I dig up small clumps of seedlings to share with friends and move to other parts of my garden. The seedlings benefit from thinning, both in the original area that they germinated in; and also when they get moved; and when we pot up seedlings its always just one little plant per pot! Mountain Garland transplants easily, flowers profusely and is also a great cut flower. 

Mountain Garland also attracts lots of bees; in fact there’s a native leafcutter bee that prefers Clarkia species above all else. It not only provisions its brood with pollen gathered from the flowers, it also creates the brood cells with little round pieces cut from the flower petals. I’ve found these brood cells, delicately capped in shades of purple, peach, or pink, in the pithy old stems of sunflowers or thistles.

I’m on the third year of working on a meadow area within my garden; it gets sun all day long in one part and late afternoon sun in another. Purple needlegrass (Nasella or Stipa pulchra) is establishing in the sunny half; and Festucas are establishing in the shadier half. I’ve been weeding out non-native annual grasses throughout the years in this area; and topdressing with a light applications of all-green compost.    

If the rains don’t arrive soon, I’ll put a sprinkler on for an hour or so to make the soil a little more workable. Then, using a rake, I’ll loosen up the soil a bit before I spread more seed. I like to use a mix of annual and perennial wildflowers species, and sometimes I customize my seed mix. I always mix the seeds with river sand (NOT playbox or beach sand, which contain salts) before spreading it. This allows me to see where I’ve sown the seed; and once that is done, I walk all over the space to make sure there’s good seed to soil contact.

Then I cover the seeded area with a light mulch; I’ll use the Madia ‘hay’ in the sunny area, and make another ‘hay’ of perennial bunchgrass stems for the shadier side. Then I’ll water again, and since I have lots and lots of birds foraging in the garden, I will cover the whole area with very light ‘cloud or row-cover’ fabric. It lets water and light through, and should be laid on fairly loosely to allow the growth of seedlings underneath. The edges can be tacked down with earth staples, or rocks. It’s important to let the seedlings develop for a while with protection because, come spring, the Sparrows really like to nibble on tender young ‘greens’; there needs to be enough plant to withstand this minor predation.

Some of my favorite annual wildflowers are the Gilias; and the whole genus is pretty much deer-proof. I like the Globe Gilia, (Gilia capitata) with its round heads of small blue flowers; these grow wild on Mt. Burdell. I haven’t seen Bird’s eye Gilia (Gilia tricolor) in the wild, but I sure love it in my garden. It does fine in the ground or in containers, and the intricate coloring of the delicate flowers is a true marvel. Even more marvelous is the turquoise pollen!