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Thu, Jan. 23

Wildflowers gaining in popularity

Wildflowers are becoming increasingly popular additions to residential landscapes. In addition to their natural color and beauty, they have attracted attention because they require little maintenance, bloom with little water, and reduce the number of times rough areas need to be mown. Another positive aspect of wildflower gardens is that they lure many varieties of brilliantly colored hummingbirds and graceful butterflies to any garden and yard.

• When to plant ­ Wildflower seeds need to be sown this time of year because they need the freeze and thaw of late winter for proper germination.

• Where to plant ­ In general, wildflowers need a considerable amount of sunshine. If your area receives at least six hours of sunlight per day, your wildflowers will grow well. Many species, however, can tolerate partial shade. If that six-hour minimum is an issue in the area where you want wildflowers, there are specially blended wildflower mixes designed to grow in filtered shade and even in full shade. Make sure the label on the packet of seeds specifically mentions shade-loving wildflowers.

• How to plant ­ Many wildflower seeds are light as a feather and designed to float with the winds, so it's a challenge to get these seeds down into the soil where you want them. Because proper seed to soil contact is essential to achieve a successful crop of wildflowers, casually broadcasting seed over an unprepared area will bring disappointing results. A little work and patience will reward you in the long run with a really successful stand of blooms.

• Step 1: Planting on weed-free soil assures the best results. To prepare the seed bed, rake the area to be planted to loosen the top 1 to 2 inches of soil. I find that better growth occurs when a slow-release plant food is added when raking the seedbed. I personally like to use Start-N-Grow by Fertilome. This food is released slowly over three months, which is exactly what's needed during the germination period. This continuous slow feed creates stronger roots and better flowers. Over-fertilizing your wildflowers will result in producing larger foliage at the expense of fewer, smaller blooms.

• Step 2: Hand broadcast the seed over the areas to be planted. For a more evenly seeded bed, add dry sand to the wildflower mix and use a handheld broadcast spreader. The added sand also helps you spot where seed has already been spread on the ground. Because some of the seeds in a mix are so small you can barely tell if seed has been spread evenly across the soil, the sand really helps you track the seed.

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

• Step 4: Seeds will start to germinate within a month if they are kept adequately moist once soil temperatures are warm. Regardless of where they're planted, your wildflower seeds will require supplemental water if it doesn't rain enough to keep the seedbed moist. Be careful not to walk on the seeded bed.

Over the years I have had customers bring back a wildflower mix, saying that only weeds showed up from the mix. Keep in mind that before they bloom wildflowers look like weeds, so be patient. It's difficult to tell the difference, often until the flowers emerge with their magnificent show.

• Step 5: Once your wildflowers are beyond the critical seedling stage, they can survive long dry periods, but they probably will not flower as often. Occasional watering will ensure maximum bloom and color.

• Step 6: Help your wildflowers to spread next year. In the fall, after the bloom is off and the seed heads are ready to drop, trim back the flowerbed with a weed-whacker or mower. This will prune back the flowerbed properly for next spring's growth and send a mixture of seed flying throughout the garden.

Be leery of beautifully packaged wildflowers in a can. Many of these have very little seed in them and are mostly filler. They make great-looking gifts, but there are better seed mixes available. Look for a mixture of seed that is appropriate to our area. The nursery professionals at your local garden centers can quickly guide you to the best seed choices. Let them know how much care and water you are willing to give them. This makes

a difference in selecting the mix that is right

for you.

Drought-tolerant mixes are tough, but the flowers in those mixes are smaller and not as showy. Beauty Beyond Belief is a small company known for its wildflower seeds. The owner collects seeds and packages them specifically for local garden centers. A wonderful mix for our area is the "Arizona Mix." My all-time favorite is the "Rocky Mountain Mix" because it is a real show- stopper when in bloom. It's a blend of tough flowers, but for continual bloom it will need a little supplemental watering in May and June.

Wildflowers are a great way to get started with gardening anywhere in Arizona. They are easy to start and the success rate is very high if tended by the few simple steps I've outlined.

Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.

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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