IN NO INSTANCE is the California gardener more richly rewarded than with the autumn planting of wildflower seeds. Buy them now, sow them between Halloween and Christmas, and spring will be marked by a tumbling succession of grace notes.
Moreover, as pure icing, nothing is better than a fluttering bed of poppies to silence Easterners and their tiresome insult that we have no seasons in Southern California.
The art to growing wildflowers is understanding those seasons, buying good seed, then appreciating key differences between the wild and our gardens. Seeds in the wild are, for the most part, already sown. They have been spilling from shattered seed pods since late spring. The half-moon husks holding poppy seeds started exploding in May, followed by seed heads of penstemons and native sages in June. Clarkia amoena (fittingly also known as “farewell-to-spring”) pods began splitting in early September, and sunflowers and sage brush recently completed the cycle.
In the wild, many seeds are generated in open fields. Those missed by birds lay dormant until the combination of diminishing winter light, chill and rain set them in motion.
After the first rain, germinating seeds push down roots and put up just enough foliage to photosynthesize while the seed’s original store of nutrients becomes exhausted. Then the seedlings will seem to stop growing and skulk tentatively in increasingly cold soil. Suspended, they will wait for more rain.
If more storms wash through in an orderly and generous fashion, it will be a good wildflower year. Shortly after the winter solstice, sated seedlings become energized by the gathering warmth and increasing light. By Lincoln’s Birthday, spring will have sprung. Early poppies will already be flowering, with the explosion to come in March and April.
In our gardens, however, the process is complicated by the interference of two crucial elements: weeds and hoses.
Weeds, particularly crab grass and Bermuda grass, compete with wildflower seedlings in late winter and early spring to such an extent that the instructions on some seed packs recommend treating flower beds with the weed-killer glyphosate before tilling and planting. But using Roundup or its generic equivalents can be dicey, particularly if done near trees and shrubs that you’d rather not snuff.
As an alternative, Los Angeles horticulturist Lili Singer urges gardeners simply to water the soil before planting, bring up the weeds and pull them before sowing the seeds.
The second problem wildflowers face in cultivated settings is early exposure to water. Sow seeds too early and water them, and they can germinate, dry out and die, particularly in late autumn Santa Ana winds.
To prevent this from happening, Singer urges gardeners who sow early to water regularly.
Better yet, start sowing after Halloween, then sow again periodically until Christmas every time the weather forecast promises rain.
The last make-or-break decision the gardener faces before nature takes over involves choice of seed. Wildflowers are fill and foreground in a flower garden, so ideally they will not get too tall. Stover Seed even makes what it calls a “lo gro” mix of 17 species, including African daisies, blue bells, poppies, Chinese houses, five spot and clarkia that, the company says, “grow less than 24 inches” (except when they reach 3 feet, which clarkia can do).
Mixes of 17 species have a way of becoming five once you plant them in the garden. It’s hard to tell. Not all companies are vigilant about confirming the growing season date on the back of the packet, and not all stores remove old seed from racks.
This much is sure: Seeds do best in cool, dry and dark settings, not hanging in fluorescent-lighted stores. I’ve bought wildflower seeds on impulse at big-box hardware stores more times than I care to admit, and at the register I felt much the same as when buying a sandwich at a gas station.
If you can, patronize a specialist seed supplier. If the source has to be a big-box store, select California poppies.
“They’re tough,” says Christina Walters, a plant physiologist working with a vast U.S. Department of Agriculture seed bank at the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colo.
Still, when seeds in a mix fail, it might not be some corporate giant’s fault. Wildflowers are called wild for a reason. They’re not fully cultivated for reliability. The plant just may not like your spot, says Ben Miller, general manager of S&S; Seeds in Carpinteria. A seed might fail to germinate one season but grow the next, or lurk so inconspicuously that you don’t notice it for a year or two.
Whatever species of wildflower you select, whatever their quirks, Singer urges you to sow them in pots, too. These seedlings will serve as identification keys, so out in the garden, you’ll know what to yank and not yank when weeding.
Then what comes up is bound to be pure pleasure -- and quite often a surprise.