So you want to sow some wildflowers; like a modern day Johnny Appleseed, traveling about, tossing seeds to the wind and leaving a colorful trail of flowers in your path.
Sounds romantic. But the realities of sowing wildflower seeds, especially California's versions, are quite different than the storybook fantasies. Forget about tossing a couple packets of flower seeds onto your hillside or backyard and expecting a floral bonanza, it doesn't work that way. I'll teach you how to properly sow wildflower seeds, and be successful.
Most important is timing. Timing is everything with seed germinated plants. Native wildflowers, like our state flower the California poppy, sprout on cue in late fall and early winter, with the onset of the rainy season. Right now is about the perfect time. Wait for an approaching storm, then spread the seeds just before the first raindrops fall. This past Saturday morning I was doing some poppy seeding and took a few pictures of the process I follow.
First, assemble your supplies. You will need plenty of seeds. I suggest a minimum of 8 ounces of California poppy seeds (about $20) for every 300 square feet to cover. Then, you'll need some gritty, coarse sand. I bought a bag of #20 silica sand from Home Depot (about $6-7). Don't use beach sand or all purpose sand, it's too fine and has dull edges. Finally, you'll need a bucket or a pail in order to mix the seed with the sand.
Pour some of the gritty sand into the pail, filling it about half way. Now add the poppy seeds. It doesn't really matter how much sand to seed is used, but I used about fifty pounds of sand to mix with one pound of California poppy seeds. Perhaps you've read that the reason for the sand and seed mixture is to make the small seeds easier to broadcast. That's true, but it's not the main purpose of the sand.
Wildflower seeds from arid climates, like California's poppies, almost always have a very hard seedcoat. This helps the seed survive the hot, dry summers, but also makes it hard for water to penetrate. Nature always has a plan and it turns out that this hard, impenetrable seedcoat prevents the poppy seeds from germinating following a light shower, when the infant plant would have a difficult time surviving. However, during a prolonged storm period, the raindrops actually bounce and roll the seed along the ground. This bouncing and rolling on the soil serves to scratch the seedcoat, softening it and making germination more likely. A little rain, means only a few scratches – a lot of rain means a lot of scratches and a better chance for the long term survival of the seedling.
As a gardener, your job is to emulate nature's process by mixing sand with the seed. As you mix, the seed coats get scratched and it germinates better. I suggest stirring the mixture for about five or ten minutes.
Now you're ready to distribute the mixture. Remember, wait for a rainy period. I was dodging the raindrops last Saturday morning. Broadcast the sand/seed mixture as evenly as possible over the area and the rain will do the germinating for you. If a hot, dry spell happens within the next seven of ten days it would be helpful to do a little light sprinkling, but in most cases this won't be necessary.
If you prepared the area by roughing up the soil and you can keep ahead of the weeds that will also sprout as a result of your efforts, you will have plenty of beautiful, glowing California poppies within two or three months.
If you're a little ambitious you can follow this same process to beautify a vacant lot on a busy street or add some color to an ugly, neglected city parkway. If you make a habit of your wildflower beautification hobby, the neighbors might refer to you as "Johnny Poppyseed".
Questions from Readers November 27, 2010
My Angel's Trumpet is still in full bloom. Should I keep feeding it and what should I use?
Paul, Costa Mesa
Angel's Trumpets (Brugmansia) are quite exotic looking and always get a lot of attention with their long pendulous and often fragrant, trumpet shaped flowers in shades of white, pink or peach. Angel's Trumpet's are easy to grow in mild coastal gardens and will bloom off and on much of the year. However, these are subtropical plants and shouldn't be fertilized during the cool months of the year. Wait until spring and then use any well balanced organic fertilizer.