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desert gardening basics
October, 2013, Page 118
Wildflowers sown in fall come to life in spring. Pictured here are toadflax, bluebells, Mexican gold poppies and brittlebush.
DESERT GARDENING 101
Visitors from around the globe trek to Arizona to marvel at spring wildflower displays carpeting the Sonoran Desert. Local gardeners wanting to recreate these spectacles at home can do so with minimal time, effort or expense. Wildflowers are easy to sow from seed, thrive in native soil, don’t drink much and reseed year after year. And if that’s not enough, their nectar and seeds draw a parade of birds, butterflies and essential pollinators to the landscape. The main drawback? As seed heads mature and dry to self-sow for the year ahead, the plants can sometimes appear unkempt.
October is the best month to sow wildflowers. To maximize your chance of success, mimic how wildflowers grow in nature. As seeds drop off plants and fall to the ground, they lie in wait to germinate when temperatures and rainfall are to their liking. Wildflowers are adapted to dry, rocky, alkaline conditions, so it is not necessary to improve your soil with amendments or fertilizers. Nor should seeds be planted too deeply, which inhibits germination.
Very lightly rake the native soil—no deeper than one inch—to loosen it. Keep in mind that the deeper you rake, the easier it will be for dormant weed seeds to come to the surface. To broadcast teensy seeds evenly, first mix them with soil in a bucket, using one part seed to four parts filler. Scatter half the mix in one direction, the remainder in the perpendicular direction. Cover seeds with native soil no more than 1/16 of an inch deep. Gently tamp the back of a rake across the planted area, or walk across it. This creates good contact between soil particles and seeds to promote germination.
Decomposed granite mulch provides ideal wildflower growing conditions and is easy to prepare. Simply broadcast the seed/filler mix over the area; then wait for rain, or irrigate as described.
Wildflowers depend upon specific rainfall and temperature combinations to germinate and grow. They prefer warm days and cool nights and typically pop up after receiving an inch of rain. In the wild, seedlings need regularly spaced rainfall totaling at least 1 inch per month through March to create abundant displays. Such ample moisture occurs about once every 10 years in the desert.
For a low-maintenance wildflower garden, you can rely solely on rainfall. However, providing supplemental irrigation increases the likelihood of a profusion of spring flowers. As a guideline, keep soil somewhat moist (never saturated) for four to six weeks after sowing. Seeds should germinate in two to three weeks. Gradually reduce watering frequency after seedlings reach 2 inches in height, allowing the top 1 or 2 inches of soil to dry out between irrigations. Apply infrequent deep soakings rather than frequent shallow sprinklings.
Easy-to-sow desert wildflowers include: California and Mexican gold poppies n desert bluebells n desert marigold n gaillardia n lupine n Mexican hat n penstemon (firecracker, Parry’s) n owl’s clover n red flax. Avoid non-native African daisy, which spreads aggressively and outcompetes natives.
Weeds vs. flowers
Weeds are the scourge of a wildflower garden. Monitor regularly and pull immediately or they quickly take over. To help distinguish weeds from wildflowers, sow two or three seeds of each wildflower in separate pots that you have labeled. After germination, they will help you recognize friend from foe in the garden.
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