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Thu, Feb. 20

<I>Planting the wild ones</I>

As we speak I am sitting on a beach in the Bahamas, so you won't be able to catch me at the garden center this week. This is a business and pleasure trip combined. One-hundred garden center owners and managers agreed to meet at the Port of Miami and catch a ship together and cruise over to Nassau.

I love talking about the garden center business with other owners. That's fun by itself. Being able to do that on a cruise ship to the Bahamas is just an added bonus. Some of these folks run huge operations across the country, and my wife and I get to hang out and learn from some of the best in the industry. It helps make my garden center back home even better. We'll see you again the end of next week.

This week, let's talk about gardening with wildflowers. Now is the proper time to be planting these wild wonders.

Wildflowers are becoming an increasingly popular landscape item to add color and natural beauty to any area. Wildflower gardens have the appeal of low maintenance by requiring little water and reducing mowing frequency. They lure many types of wildlife such as brilliantly colored hummingbirds and graceful butterflies to any garden and yard.

Where to plant wildflowers - In general, wildflowers need a considerable amount of sunshine. Many species, however, can tolerate partial shade. If your area receives at least six hours of sunlight per day, your wildflowers will grow fine.

When to plant - The late winter and early spring months of February and March are the most favorable times to plant wildflowers. The nights are freezing and this helps many seed to germinate.

How to plant – Many wildflower seeds are light as a feather and designed to float. The challenge is to get these seeds down into the soil. Proper seed to soil contact is essential to achieve a successful stand of wildflowers. Casually broadcasting the seed on an unprepared area will bring disappointing results. A little work and patience will reward you in the long run by producing a much more successful stand of blooms.

Step 1: Prepare the planting area. Planting on weed-free soil assures the best results. Rake to loosen the top 1 to 2 inches of soil to prepare the seed bed. I find that better growth occurs when a slow-release plant food is raked into the seed bed. I personally like to use a Fertilome product named Start-N-Grow plant food. This food is slowly released over a three-month period, which is exactly what is necessary during the germination period.

This creates better roots and better flowers.

Step 2: Hand broadcast the seed on the areas to be planted. For a more evenly seeded bed, add dry sand to the wildflower mix and use a hand held broadcast spreader. The added sand also helps you spot where seed has already been spread on the ground. Some of the seeds in a mix are so small that you can't tell if seed was spread evenly across the soil. The sand helps you spot the seed.

Step 3: Lightly rake over the area to establish proper seed to soil contact. Mulch lightly, no more than a 1/4 inch, over the seed bed with a finely screened mulch or compost. This will keep the moisture in, and the birds off of the seed. The last thing you want is the world's most expensive bird seed sitting out there on the ground waiting to be eaten.

Step 4: Seed will start to germinate within a month if soil temperatures are warm and sufficient moisture is available. Other seed will germinate more slowly. Regardless of planting location, your wildflowers will require supplemental water if it doesn't rain enough to keep the seedbed moist. Be careful not to walk on them as well.

I have had several customers over the years bring back a wildflower mix saying only weeds showed up in the mix. Here's a note: Wildflowers look like weeds when they come up. It's difficult to tell the difference, but when the flowers emerge the show is magnificent.

Step 5: Over fertilizing your wildflowers will result in producing larger foliage at the expense of blooms. Once your wildflowers are beyond the critical seedling stage, they will survive long dry periods, but probably will not flower as often. Occasional watering, if possible, will insure maximum bloom and color.

A good wildflower mix will have perennial flowers, those that come back every year from the same root structure, and annual flowers. Annuals come back next year by seed, but not from the same roots. Allow about two weeks after the full bloom period has passed for the annuals to reseed. When the dense brown foliage offsets the floral color display, the area can be trimmed.

Consider using a weed whacker, or lawn mower, to trim your wildflower patch after they have died back in the fall of the year. This action will fling wildflower seed everywhere, ready to come up the following year. This is a great way to increase your flower display.

Be leery of beautifully packaged wildflowers in a can. Many of these have very little seed in them and are all filler. They make great gifts, but there are better seed mixes available. I can say this because I sell several types of wildflowers at my own garden center. Look for a mixture of seed that are appropriate to our area. Talk to the nursery professionals at your local garden center. They can quickly guide you to the best seed choice. Let them know how much care and water you are willing to give them. This makes a difference on which mix is right for you.

Drought tolerant mixes are tough, but the flowers in the mix are smaller, and in my opinion, not as showy. If you can give them any care at all I prefer an Arizona mix. I sell one in my store called the Rocky Mountain Mix that is a real show stopper when in bloom. It's tough, but will need a little supplemental watering in May and June to keep it continually blooming.

New to the area or new to gardening? Wildflowers are a great way to get started with gardening in the tri-city area. They are easy to start and the success rate is very high when the above steps are taken.

Until next week, I'll dip my toes in the warm waters off of Florida and think of you all back home.

Ken Lain is the owner of Watters Home and Garden Center and is an Arizona certified nursery professional and master gardener.

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