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Fall-sown wildflowers make beautiful spring blooms

Even during drought, spring wildflowers still bloom in the spring. Sure, their quantity and diversity will be minimized by drier conditions, but many still survive on limited rainfall. It’s largely due to their season of growth, at least in the West, where drought is common. Here the majority of wildflowers germinate in the winter and bloom in the cool moist conditions of early spring.

In the wild, these hard-working annual species must complete their life cycle from germination to flowering and seed maturation before the heat of summer descends and new seed is released. It lies dormant through summer and fall, until the winter rains return to stimulate germination with moisture. Native Western wildflowers have followed this basic growth pattern for millennia, which means they have evolved to withstand climate change and its long-term impacts. These variations include drought, wildfires, extreme heat, abnormally cold winters and in high rainfall years, flooding. Clearly their season of growth combined with extreme adaptability makes wildflowers an ideal plant to bring vibrant spring blooms without irrigation.

Sowing wildflowers is easy, but getting a great stand of blooms can be a challenge if you’re not up on what these seasonal plants need to thrive. The most common mistake is sowing in spring, which leaves too little time for the plants to get all their work done before summer. This is doubly important in the desert and very dry mountains, where spring is too brief to allow germination time for some species. Here are some other reasons why wildflowers fail and how to avoid them:

▪  Old seed. To ensure the highest germination rates, always buy new seed packaged for the current year and store it in a cool dry place until you’re ready to sow.

▪  Wrong seed. Failure to plant wildflower species suited to your local climate can cause widespread failure of germination, stunted seedlings, disease and pest attacks. Seed mixes to allow maximum adaptability without risking the whole stand.

▪  Covered too deeply. Don’t cover this seed, just lightly rake it into soft ground for very light coverage. After all, Mother Nature just scatters her seed in the wild and so should you.

▪  Soil too rich. Wildflowers prefer good drainage, and where soils are too dense to drain well, these annuals thrive on sloping ground, south-facing inclines, irregular cliffs and rocky scree deposits, proving lack of fertility is rarely an issue.

▪  Competing plants. Some wildflowers cannot survive competition. It’s usually caused by more demanding plants like exotic grasses and aggressive weeds that not only shade the wildflowers but compete with them for scant soil moisture.

▪  Sow too late. Sowing wildflowers in the late fall just before the rainy season begins is crucial for a larger root system better able to withstand heat and drought.

▪  Wildlife. Birds, rabbits and many other forms of wildlife love your seed and seedlings. Sow substantially more to compensate for losses.

Make sure you have a low rainfall, mesic or drought-resistant wildflower seed mix before starting ground preparation. First remove all old plants and weeds to create a clean seed bed. Rough up the soil about an inch deep to allow the seed scattered to settle into the nooks and crannies where moisture lingers. Lightly rake the surface to provide minimal seed cover but do not firm the surface. Use a misting nozzle to wet the surface of the rough soil to collapse air pockets. Keep the area well weeded throughout the winter to prevent competition from pernicious grasses such as Bermuda grass and bindweed.

Once your wildflowers are up and established, note which flowers do best for you this year. These will become your standards that will hopefully naturalize and remain over the long term. Those that self sow into the future will explode into bloom each spring all on their own during drought, but when the rains return, be prepared for a truly remarkable show.