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The Coastal Gardener: For wildflowers, emulate nature's process

November 26, 2010|By Ron Vanderhoff
  • In as little as two months flowering will begin and continue for several months.
In as little as two months flowering will begin and continue… (Daily Pilot )

Want to sow some wildflowers like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed, traveling about, tossing seeds to the wind and leaving a colorful trail of flowers in your path?

Sounds romantic. But the realities of sowing wildflower seeds, especially California's versions, are quite different than the storybook fantasies. Forget about tossing a couple of packets of flower seeds onto your hillside or backyard and expecting a floral bonanza. It doesn't work that way.

Timing is everything with seed-germinated plants. Native wildflowers, like our state flower, the California poppy, sprout on cue in late fall and early winter, with the onset of the rainy season. Right now is about the perfect time. Wait for an approaching storm, then spread the seeds just before the first raindrops fall.

First, assemble your supplies. You will need plenty of seeds. I suggest at least 8 ounces of California poppy seeds (about $20) for every 300 square feet to cover. Then, you'll need some gritty, coarse sand. I bought a bag of No. 20 silica sand from Home Depot (about $6 to $7). Don't use beach sand or all-purpose sand, as it's too fine and has dull edges. Finally, you'll need a bucket or a pail in which to mix the seed with the sand.

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Pour some of the gritty sand into the pail, filling it about half way. Now add the poppy seeds. It doesn't really matter how much sand to seed is used, but I used about 50 pounds of sand to mix with one pound of California poppy seeds. Perhaps you've read that the reason for the sand and seed mixture is to make the small seeds easier to broadcast. That's true, but it's not the main purpose of the sand.

Wildflower seeds from arid climates, like California's poppies, almost always have a hard seedcoat. This helps the seed survive the hot, dry summers, but also makes it hard for water to penetrate. Nature always has a plan, and it turns out that this hard, impenetrable seedcoat prevents the poppy seeds from germinating after a light shower, when the infant plant would have a difficult time surviving. However, during a prolonged storm period, the raindrops actually bounce and roll the seed along the ground. This bouncing and rolling on the soil serves to scratch the seedcoat, softening it and making germination more likely. A little rain means only a few scratches — a lot of rain means a lot of scratches and a better chance for the long-term survival of the seedling.

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