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Column: Pssst - secrets of successful wildflowers

Sowing wildflowers is one of those garden events that must be done this time of year. These wild seeds need to freeze and thaw in order to germinate properly.

Many wildflower seeds are designed to float so they're light as a feather. The challenge is to get these nearly weightless seeds down into the soil. Proper seed-to-soil contact is essential to achieve a successful stand of wildflowers. Casually broadcasting seed on an unprepared area will bring disappointing results. A little work and patience will reward you in the long run with a really successful show of blooms.

I have a friend, Bob, a wildflower seed enthusiast, who many years ago taught me a few tips, tricks, and techniques about planting wildflowers. I've practiced his methods ever since because they really work. Following are his suggestions.

STEP 1: Prepare the planting area. Most wildflowers need a considerable amount of sunshine, but there are species that can tolerate partial shade. If your area receives at least six hours of sunlight per day, your wildflowers will grow well.

Planting on weed-free soil assures the best results. The seedbed must be raked to loosen the top 1 to 2 inches of soil. I find that better growth occurs when a slow-release plant food is raked into the seedbed. Years ago I tried 'Start-N-Grow' and had such success with it that I still suggest no other plant food. It releases slowly over three months, which is exactly what's needed during the germination period. This creates better roots and better flowers.

STEP 2: Create your own hydro mulch. Some of the seeds in a mix are so small you can barely tell if seed was spread evenly across the soil. Buy a bag of composted mulch, pour it into a wheelbarrow and blend in the seed. Spread this seed mulch blend over the prepared seedbed. This simple trick helps you see where the seed will come up, ensures good seed-to-soil contact, insulates the seed, and keeps the birds away.

STEP 3: Keep the seedbed moist. Seed will start to germinate within a month if soil temperatures are warm and sufficient moisture is available. Regardless of planting location, your wildflowers will require supplemental water if it doesn't rain enough. At this point a good snow will maximize germination. (Keep in mind that when they first come up wildflowers look like weeds. Over the years I have had customers lament that only weeds showed up, just to find a mass of blooms a few days later!)

STEP 4: Re-seed. In the fall, after the bloom is off and the seed heads are ready to drop, you can help spread your wildflowers for next spring. Just trim back the drying plants with a weed whacker. This will prune back the flowerbed and, sending a mixture of seed flying throughout the garden, properly prepare for the next season.

Be leery of beautifully packaged wildflowers in a can. Many of these contain very little seed and are mostly filler. If in doubt visit me; my personal favorite is my Arizona mix of local flowers.

Although my friend Bob used his doctorate to teach at a university in Colorado, his passion has always been wildflowers. For years he collected seed heads during the fall, packaged them in tiny bags, and sold them to friends and family. This labor-of-love hobby blossomed into a small business he runs out of his garage. Today, doing what he loves, this is his job. I began carrying his specialty wildflower seed selections at the Garden Center more than 16 years ago. I even had him blend the special Arizona mix I offer my customers.

My first spring gardening class will be "Wildflowers Unleashed," at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 31, at Watters Garden Center. Oh, nearly forgot: I had Bob send me a few freebies to give away at the first class.

Until next week, I'll see you in the Garden Center.

Ken Lain's personal mission is to help local homeowners garden smarter and get our local garden timing right. Ken can be found at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, or through www.wattersonline.com.

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