by Barb Bourscheidt
A gardener's dream would be to find something that would grow with little water, provide long-lasting and interesting color and texture, attract birds and other small animals, and require little attention.
If this sounds too good to be true, consider growing native wildflowers on your property border, large central bed, driveway edges or controlled hillside.
Our native wildflowers and grasses re-seed themselves in the late summer and fall, as the annuals seed and die back, and new seedlings start to sprout during the late winter.
The perennials often die back to the ground in the winter, but the roots carry over, and new plants can be seen breaking ground in early spring.
Perfect time to plant
If you want to try planting a native wildflower or grass mix, now is the perfect time to get it planted, and paying a little attention to detail at the beginning will yield optimum results later on.
While searching for the right combination of seeds, prepare the area. Choose a space that is mostly sunny six to eight hours a day. Mow back any existing grasses or weeds that are more than six inches high. The sod must be removed from a cultivated lawn area if that's where you choose to plant.
Rake the area gently to break up the surface of the soil. Don't till or dig up the soil as you might for a vegetable or exotic garden bed. Tilling churns up the hundreds of weed seeds that are dormant in the soil.
Wildflowers scatter their seed through whatever is growing around them and take advantage of natural vegetation for mulch. If the soil in the area you have chosen for your garden is tightly compacted or dominated by heavy clay, the soil must be broken up.
Add fine granite or coarse sand to loosen it and provide drainage.
Broadcast the seed at the prescribed amount according to the seed packet. Nature sows much more seed than we could ever afford to, to prevent the seeds from being washed or blown away or eaten by birds or other small animals. Be careful not to sow too much seed in a small area because it could restrict the development of healthy plants.
Seeds are usually so small that scattering them can be difficult, so try mixing the seed with sand to increase the volume of what you are spreading. Hand sprinkling the seed mixture twice, once from east to west, then from north to south, will provide even covering.
Roll or walk over the newly seeded area to press the seeds into the ground. A light 1/4-inch layer of mulch will hold in moisture, add nutrients, and keep weeds at bay. Don't use compacted material or anything too heavy because the little seedlings will need to get through it. Water the area well to settle the seeds in the soil.
Now, for the hard part -- be patient.
"Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience," Ralph Waldo Emerson once said.
Letting nature take its course
If you have chosen native seeds for your climate zone, you may just want to let nature take its course, and be surprised when your wildflowers start to sprout.
Under natural conditions, winter rains and snow will signal the seeds to begin the germination process. If we have an unusually dry winter, in February you may want to begin an artificial watering program to promote germination.
Begin with a good sprinkling twice a day for the first three weeks, and once a day for the next three weeks. After the initial six weeks, give a good soaking once a week or so for another month, and finally twice a month if needed until frost.
Obviously, this schedule is for extremely dry conditions. You have to be the judge. If your plants look healthy, watering times can be delayed or stretched out.
As seedings emerge, try to determine which are wildflowers and which are unwanted grasses and weeds. Pull weeds while small to give flowers and desired grasses a chance to become established. Once established, your wildflower borders will basically take care of themselves with just a good mowing and mulching in late autumn.
It is important to wait until the flowers and grasses have had an opportunity to set seed before mowing, to enable new seeds to broadcast themselves. After the first year, if the seed chosen was suitable to this area and for the location sown, additional water probably will not be needed unless drought conditions prevail.
Key to success
The key to success is to choose a combination of flowers and grasses that are hardy, drought resistant and heat tolerant.
Plant Fair Nursery is presently stocking a wide variety of native wildflower seeds, grown just for this region. In stock now are bulk bags of California poppy, grass and wildflower mixes, a mix that is deer resistant, and a good variety of small packets of individual Arizona native varieties.
Of special interest to gardeners with lawns may be the buffalo grass seed needing no additional water after established. Buffalo grass grows only four to six inches high, so it needs no mowing, and it's well-suited to foot traffic or play.
If you'd like to learn more about wildflowers, call your local nurseries or log onto Plants of the Southwest at www.plantsofthesouthwest.com.
Barb Bourscheidt is a longtime resident of Payson, member of the Rim Area Gardeners, and participant in the Gila County Master Gardener program, as well as a member of the newly formed local Xeriscape council. When her well dried up, she was forced to reconsider gardening styles in the Rim country. She now researches and writes articles on the subjects of gardening appropriately for one's natural conditions, the use of native plants, and creating lush landscapes with low-water plants.