There are wildflowers and then there are "wildflowers." Both can be found in the Janet Dyer garden seen on the proceeding pages, though the genuine article predominates. Genuine wildflowers are native to the area. Other flowers, native to other places, are often called "wildflowers" either because they grow so easily or because they are relatively "unimproved," that is, they haven't been turned into garden flowers through hybridization or selection.
Pictured on these pages are examples of each and they illustrate two distinct ways to go with wildflowers. The spectacular field--what one expects--is full of "wildflowers." This is one of the seed fields of Environmental Seed Producers, the leading supplier of seed used in most wildflower mixes found at general nurseries. Though these mixes often contain California natives such as the ubiquitous California poppy, they also contain many other flowers from all over the globe that have been found to grow with ease and have the simple looks of a wildflower.
The real wildflowers--the genuine article--are shown growing on a hillside overlooking the San Fernando Valley at the Theodore Payne Foundation. The foundation's purpose is to encourage the planting of California natives and it is one of the primary suppliers of seed, most of it collected by volunteers from wild fields. (Seed can be purchased at the foundation, 10459 Tuxford St., Sun Valley, Calif. 91352. (818) 768-1802.)
This planting, put in by volunteer Kevin Connelly, grows with no supplemental irrigation. Rains germinate the seed and keep it going, so last year's planting--the one pictured--was a little more meager than usual because it was a dry year.
But even in a good year, it is a far cry from the other field of "wildflowers" and it is not what one usually imagines a field of wildflowers to look like, but climb to the top of this hill and it looks right and smells right. You can step among the flowers as you can in the mountains or high desert. The colors are right, pure and bright--clear yellow, pure orange, bright blue--and the flowers are familiar to a day-hiker--California poppy, chia, tidy tips and thistle sage.
And, anyone who has grown real California wildflowers can tell you that there is the feeling that growing these dainty wildlings, some of which are endangered in their natural areas, is somehow holier than other garden pursuits. But there is no denying the impact of that waist-high field of "wildflowers." Which way to go?
Where you live and on what soil you garden should help with this decision. On what scale you are going to attempt to grow wildflowers also enters in. If you live on flat land, with a clayey soil, most real California wildflowers will be difficult to grow. A better choice would be the "wildflowers," which undoubtedly will contain some true wildflowers in the mix. Note that the "wildflowers" in the photograph are growing on prime agricultural land, with irrigation, a situation much more akin to the typical garden than the hilltop site at the Payne Foundation. In this situation, where wildflowers probably grew at one time, wildflowers will probably grow again. Here the soil and the site favor the natives.
You can probably grow either kind of wildflower in small garden beds, where looking after them is not difficult, but if you expect to grow even a small meadowful, you should be prepared for a lot of work, though you might get lucky like Janet Dyer and have the right combination of soil and situation. And, no weeds.
It is weeding that makes growing wildflowers work. Though it might seem that nothing could be easier than growing something that ought to naturally grow there, once the soil is disturbed, by gardening or by clearing, weeds quickly get the upper hand. That is what makes them such good invaders. That is why they are weeds and why they have displaced so many native plants.
Even Kevin Connelly, who has planted many meadows of wildflowers--at the Earthside Nature Center, the Lummis House and the Payne Foundation--tackles only small areas at a time, such as the one pictured, when weeds are present or where seed most likely lays in wait.
Should you decide to jump in, the time to begin is now, in the fall, before the rainy season arrives. First you must clear the ground, being careful to disturb it as little as possible so you don't bury any weed seed. You must then water, thoroughly, for several days to sprout the weed seed, or bring persistent perennial weeds back to life. Once they are all up and growing (it takes several weeks), the easiest way to eliminate them is by spraying with a short-lived herbicide called Roundup or Kleenup. This will kill everything above ground and because it is systemic, the roots as well, though a few perennials weeds might even survive this. To be sure, water again and wait to see if anything returns.
This should take you into December which is the first month we can usually count on rains. Now the wildflower seed can be sown and perhaps protected with bird netting so a few remain to germinate. Rain or irrigation will bring up the wildflowers but also more weeds, so as soon as you can tell one from another, it's time--with wildflowers--to get down on hands and knees and begin separating the wheat from the tares.
There is no need to sow seed thickly, because as Kevin puts it "if one seed germinates, they all will." In fact, sowing thickly only makes weeding more difficult. Weeds growing too close to a wildflower shouldn't be yanked out, but cut off with small scissors.
And don't think that all of the weeds will sprout with the first rain. That is not their nature. To assure survival, some seeds germinate with each rain, just in case the previous crop was routed by drought.
In defense of all this weeding, Kevin points out that people will spend hours in the hot August sun weeding a dichondra lawn, but that with wildflowers, the rewards are far greater, and you can do your weeding in the cool of winter. And, since the wildflowers will go dry for the summer, spend August at the beach.