Column: Wildflowers for spring in four easy steps
It is very exciting when the year's first crop of plants is harvested for the garden center. Now that the weather has warmed just enough, the first crop of fruit trees and a few berry plants have arrived, kicking off the excitement of another growing season! These first arrivals remind us that new trees, especially fruit trees, should be planted before they break dormancy in March. This also is true of wildflower seeds. If you want them this spring, they should be spread before March 1.
Successful wildflowers are all about spreading the seed at the right time. January through February is the "sweet spot" for wildflower success. The time of planting is critical for wildflower seeds because they need to freeze and thaw in order to germinate properly, especially very thick-hulled seeds such as poppy, flax, liatris, columbine, and daisy.
Correct seed choice and seed quality are the most important considerations when selecting seeds for a new wildflower bed. Plant the wrong seeds for the area and they either won't come up or might never bloom. The region-specific blend for our area is the "Arizona Wildflower Seed" mix. Others I like are: "Fragrant wildflowers," "Flowers that Attract Butterflies and Birds," the "Deer Resistant Wildflowers" mixture, "Low Grow Mix," "Wildflowers for Shade," "Drought Tolerant Mix," and the "Parade of Poppies" that has seven different varieties and colors in the blend.
Quality is the next most important attribute of wildflower seeds. To keep down cost, many blends of wildflower seeds are composed of filler and cheap annual flowers. You want high quality seeds that will come back year after year, spreading their flowering joy to other parts of the landscape.
Some wildflower seeds, because they are designed to float, are seemingly weightless. They are light as feathers and challenging to get down into the soil. Whether you're using heavy- or light-weight seeds, 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 bit of work and patience will reward you in the long run with a really successful show of blooms.
There are four simple steps that really make the difference between wildflower success and failure. Here are the specific planting techniques that I count on to guarantee breath-taking crops of wildflowers every spring:
Step 1: Select and prepare the planting area. Wildflowers, except those that are shade loving, need a considerable amount of sunshine so choose an area that receives at least six hours of sunlight daily.
Planting in weed-free soil assures optimal results so pull out any growth you don't want mixed in with your wildflowers. Then rake the seedbed to loosen the top 1 to 2 inches of soil. I find that better growth occurs when a natural plant food is raked into the seedbed when loosening the topsoil. The all-natural plant food I designed is suited for this use. It releases slowly throughout the spring and is exactly what's needed during the germination period because slow feeding creates healthier 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 you've spread the seeds evenly across the soil. Buy a bag of composted mulch, pour it into a wheelbarrow and mix in the seed. Spread this seed-mulch blend over the prepared seedbed. This simple trick helps you visually see where the seed is placed, insures good seed-to-soil contact, insulates the seed and camouflages it from hungry birds.
Step 3: Keep the seedbed moist. If sufficient moisture is present, seeds will start to germinate as soon as soil temperatures warm, anytime from the end of February through April. Regardless of planting location, your wildflowers will require supplemental water if it doesn't rain enough to keep the seedbed moist. Even a good snow will maximize germination.
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 by trimming back the drying plants with a weed whacker. Besides pruning back the flowerbed, this will send seeds flying throughout the garden, preparing for the next season's growth!
Gardening Class - Next week's class offers students a hands-on wildflower demonstration. I will be planting wildflowers in the front landscapes here at Watters Garden Center, and students will be invited to help. We will cover all the foregoing four steps, and throw in some added techniques for good measure. The class is free and starts at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, Feb. 2.
Until next week, I'll see you in the garden center.
Ken Lain can be found at Watters Garden Center, 1815 W. Iron Springs Road, Prescott, or contact him through www.wattersonline.com.