Spring used to mean wildflowers. I remember, as a young boy, exploring the hills around Irvine, Newport’s back bay, the wild areas near the Bolsa Chica reserve and the coastal canyons between Corona del Mar and Newport Beach.
Armed with field guides and a knapsack I would attempt to identify and list every species of wildflower I would encounter. Those plants that I couldn’t pinpoint in the field would sacrifice a flower and a few leaves and be the subject of intense scrutiny that evening on the kitchen table. There, the writings of Munz and Jepson and others far smarter than I would tutor me.
Many of those local wildflowers have since given way to development and urban sprawl, and ironically, to home gardens where a different array of plants are intensely cultivated. Why not grow at least a few of our local native wildflowers in your own garden? I’ll tell you how.
Orange County native wildflowers can be added to almost any garden environment, from highly manicured landscapes to more natural interpretations. Many gardeners prefer to locate wildflowers in a bare area of the garden; an area of their landscape that they haven’t got to quite yet. This might be a small sloped area at the rear of the property, an unplanted portion of the front parkway near the sidewalk, a side yard or a perimeter area that has been neglected.
When buying wildflower seeds be certain that they really are local native plants. Many national seed companies include inexpensive weedy and invasive plants like nasturtium, bachelor’s buttons, alyssum and others in their mixes. Avoid these. For first timers, one of my favorite native combinations is California Poppy and our local Arroyo Lupine (Lupinus succulentus). The contrasting orange and blue is pure California.
Another nice blend is yellow Tidy Tips (Layia platyglossa) with orange California Poppies, short Goldfields (Lasthenia glabrata) and the clear blue of Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophila menziesii). Other choices might include Red Maids, Owl's Clover, Farewell-to-Spring, Chinese Houses, Bird's Eye Gilia, Meadowfoam, Five Spot, Bluebells (Phacelia campanularia) and Cream Cups. If you cannot find these seeds available locally, most can be ordered from Larner Seeds, (www.larnerseeds.com).
Before you plant the seeds, do a little soil examination. Don’t make the beginners mistake of simply throwing a packet of wildflower seeds onto hard, bare, dry soil. Instead, be sure the soil is fertile and you are prepared to invest a little time and energy to get the wildflowers off to a good start.
Before broadcasting the native seeds, try this. Put the seeds into a clean empty mayonnaise jar or something similar. Add some clean sharp sand to the jar. You can get a little bag of horticultural sand at a local nursery. Fill the jar about half way, put the top on and shake the mixture for a minute or two. Punch a few holes in the lid and your ready to broadcast your seed, sand included. The sand will have scratched the seedcoat of each of the little seeds just enough to increase germination considerably.
Timing is everything when growing native wildflowers. The traditional planting time in our area is November and December, at the onset of our rainy season, when our local native plants begin their growth.
If you’re planting a small area, or have the time to nurse the seedbed a bit then you’re ready to go. But if you are hoping to grow wildflowers on a slope or away from a hose or irrigation system, then timing your seed dispersal is critical. In these applications, wait for an approaching storm; not a huge gully-washer, but a nice gentle storm if possible. Several days of cool, overcast, damp weather will do most of the germination work for you and will prevent your seed from being consumed by hungry birds.
I remember broadcasting a Poppy/Lupine mix in a small area at a freeway offramp a few years ago. I carried the jar of seed and sand around in my car for a month until, one evening, on the way home, the conditions were just right. As the sprinkles were just beginning to fall, I parked, jumped out and did my best Johnny Appleseed dance. Mother nature did the rest of the work for me and a while later the flowers were there for everyone to enjoy.
In a garden, lightly rake the wildflower seeds into the soil, more to confuse the birds than to bury the seed. Try not to disturb the soil too much, as this will encourage weeds. If it doesn’t rain, water weekly until the wildflowers are up and forming buds. Now is the time to plant a little bit of Orange County in your own back yard.
Questions from Readers November 22, 2008
Question: How do I contact The Orange County Master Gardeners to learn more about their programs? Joyce Newport Beach
Answer:The University of California Master Gardener Hotline is staffed from 9 am to 5 pm, Monday through Friday. Call them at 714 708-1646.