Growing Desert Wildflowers
(Reprint from: http://www.ci.gilbert.az.us/water/popups/wildflowers.cfm Tips compiled with assistance of Michelle Rauscher, Horticulturist who established the Wildflower Trail at the Desert Botanical Garden. ------------------------------------- Growing Desert Wildflowers It is estimated that an acre of desert land is being developed every hour. As many as 200 people move to the metropolitan region every day. Phoenix and its surrounding cities claim a population of over 3 million, and counting. Recently, Gilbert was named as the fastest growing city in the nation! When completely built out, Gilbert will be home to more than 350,000 residents. We can’t stop the growth, but each one of YOU can do something to help recreate the precious native habitat that is being claimed at the rate of an acre an hour, right in your own yard. Habitat is where wildlife lives. It is the key to wildlife survival. These are areas where they can find the right combination of native food sources. The Sonoran Desert which surrounds us (and surpasses all other North American deserts in variety of life) becomes a palette of vibrant color in the spring. Wildflowers and blooming cactus herald the arrival of migrating songbirds and hummingbirds. Homeowners can capture a piece of this by simply using native wildflowers in their landscapes.
Why grow wildflowers? They add a natural look to our landscapes and are generally low maintenance. Meadow gardens, which are open, naturalized areas planted in wildflowers, offer an alternative to higher maintenance turf. Wildflowers often attract birds and other wildlife. Some species make good cut or dried flowers. Some people grow wildflowers simply for nostalgic reasons. Historically wild flowers have played a major role in the lives of our Native peoples and settlers by supplying them with medicine and food. Many wildflowers make excellent cut flowers to be enjoyed indoors as well. Wildflowers are fun and easy to grow. They are adapted to our soil, tolerate our sun and heat, and require little water. Whatever the reason, wildflowers add interest and natural beauty to almost any landscape. Because they are so well adapted homeowners will benefit from reduced herbicide use and lower maintenance costs as well as improved erosion control because native plants tend to be deep-rooted and drought-tolerant. Dense flowers minimize weed growth by blocking sunlight and competing with weed for water and nutrients. Popular varieties of wildflowers to try are: Mexican Gold Poppy; California Poppy; Toadflax (wild snapdragon); Red or Scarlet Flax; Desert Lupine; Owl’s Clover; Penstemon; Bluebells; Baby Blue Eyes; Tidy Tips; Arroyo Lupine; Verbena; Desert Marigold; Evening Primrose; Mexican Hat; Shirley Poppy; Phacelia; Blanket Flower; Dyssodia; etc. What will you attract? * Birds, butterflies (& other insects), small mammals, even lizards & toads will be attracted to a yard with wildflowers. Your yard can be place of adventure to watch tiny butterflies, listen to songbirds or smell fragrant flowers. A well planned landscape will provide nearly year round food sources (blooms and seeds). * Nectar-feeding birds, like hummingbirds, will be attracted to wildflowers, especially species of penstemon. * Birds that eat fruits or berries include mockingbirds or thrashers. * Seed-eating birds explore the ground under native wildflowers. Birds attracted to seeds are quail, doves, sparrows, or finches. * Birds that prefer insects in their diet will be attracted to wildflowers and will feast on any they find. Hummingbirds are especially intriguing for birdwatchers as they dart among flowers for nectar. They can sample thousands of flowers every day. In fact, flying consumes a great deal of energy, requiring them to “refuel” every 10 minutes. Besides hovering, “hummers” can fly backward, forward, and upside down. They defend their territories fiercely, chasing intruders relentlessly. Hummingbirds not only sip nectar, but also eat tiny insects like aphids, whiteflies and spiders. Nearly half their diet consists of small insects. Restricting the use of pesticides is mandatory if you invite them into your landscape. Instead of using feeders that require regular maintenance several times per week to keep the sugar-water fresh and the feeders clean, a well-planned garden can provide low-maintenance sources for both nectar and insects. Choose plants that have overlapping bloom seasons to provide year ‘round food and nectar sources and spread them throughout your entire garden to discourage dominance by any one bird. * Hummingbirds are especially attracted to the tubular flowers of chuparosa, hummingbird trumpet, desert honeysuckle, and penstemon (all varieties). Although they love the color red, these tiny birds will visit other nectar-containing blossoms as well. * Native plants generally provide more nectar than ornamental varieties. Butterflies There are over 250 species native to the Southwest. They are attracted to daisy like flowers that are easy to land on and provide nectar. Beneficial insects If you conduct a little detective work in your garden, you will soon discover a myriad of beneficial insects. Besides the well known ladybird beetles (ladybugs), lacewing flies, praying mantids, assassin bugs, big-eyed bugs and antlions will migrate to your landscape in search of food. Of course the benefit is natural pest control, as these insects and their larvae feed on aphids, whiteflies and other garden pests. Others Lizards, frogs, toads and even bats may visit your yard to eat insects. A single little brown bat can catch 1,200 mosquito-sized insects in just one hour. Bats are strongly attracted to night-scented flowers. You might find small Gecko lizards lurking near outdoor lights catching small insects, too. Fall is the time to plant your seeds for a spectacular display in the spring. Popular varieties of wildflowers to try are: Mexican Gold Poppy; California Poppy; Toadflax (wild snapdragon); Red or Scarlet Flax; Desert Lupine; Owl’s Clover; Penstemon; Bluebells; Baby Blue Eyes; Tidy Tips; Arroyo Lupine; Verbena; Desert Marigold; Evening Primrose; Mexican Hat; Shirley Poppy; Phacelia; Blanket Flower; Dyssodia; etc. Here are some tips to ensure your success. Look for sunny locations. You will need a minimum of eight hours of sunlight for good blooming. Avoid poorly drained or heavily compacted soils. Make sure you select a site close to a water source. If we don’t receive rain, you will need to water your seeds and seedlings to ensure a good display. You’ll need to keep the soil moist for up to three weeks or until the seedlings emerge. This may mean watering every two or three days, depending on your soil type. A simple no-hassle solution would be to sprinkle seeds in the wetting patterns of your drip emitters. A decomposed granite landscape is an ideal medium for wildflowers. Simply sprinkle your seeds and hose them down into the granite to create a seed-to-soil contact and to protect them from hungry birds. If you are sowing seed in soil without granite, simply loosen the top inch of soil with a hard rake or cultivator to create niches for the seed. Remember that the deeper you cultivate, the greater the potential for stirring up dormant weed seeds. Before sowing your seeds, mix them with filler such as old potting soil or clean sand to help you distribute them evenly. Mix at a ratio of four parts filler to one part seed. Sow half the seeds as uniformly as possible in a north-to-south direction, and the second half east-to-west. This will ensure an even distribution. Hose them into the granite or press them into the soil with the back of your rake. Do not bury your seeds any deeper than 1/8th of an inch. Some of the seeds will remain visible on the soil surface. Remember that seeds not only need moisture, but light as well for germination. If you know the area you are planting has previously produced weeds, then sow a few of your wildflower seeds in a pot of sterile potting soil. That way you will have samples to take out to your wildflower patch to help you identify your flowers from the weeds. Be sure to weed early and often. Thin out thick stands of seedlings to one every six inches at most. You will be glad you did when it comes to blooming time. Otherwise your flowers will compete for moisture and nutrients and may become rangy and leggy. How often you need to water will depend on rainfall and your soil type. The key is to keep the soil moist until your seedlings emerge. When they reach one or two inches tall, water only when you see signs of stress such as wilt or yellowing. There is no need for fertilization unless the area is depleted of nutrients or is over-planted. Desert wildflowers are adapted to our soils. Fertilizing can produce lush foliage at the expense of the blooms. If you must fertilize, use a low-nitrogen fertilizer high in phosphorous. If you are planting native wildflowers, they should reseed easily in your landscape. Allow two weeks after the full bloom period has passed for the seeds to mature. You can allow them to reseed freely in your landscape or collect them in a paper bag to share with a neighbor or sow in another area. Remove the spent annuals either by pulling or cutting to ground level. Cutting to the ground level will keep soil disturbance to a minimum, preventing dormant seeds from being exposed. Cutting will also allow the roots to decompose in the soil providing nutrients and aeration. Cut back perennials for fresh growth. Birds: Birds are attracted to freshly seeded wildflower areas. Bird netting is easy to use in areas that are small. Another method is to spread a mulch of dried leaves or shredded palm fronds over the bed. When using mulch, check every few days for emerging seedlings and be sure to remove the mulch as soon as the seedlings appear. For more information about growing wildflowers, contact the Desert Botanical Garden plant hotline at 480-941-1225. Note: The popular wildflower African Daisy (Dimorphotheca spp.) is not recommended in areas where other native wildflowers will be seeded. Its aggressive nature overpowers the natives as it out-competes for water and nutrients. Some consider it to be invasive. The Town of Gilbert has no ordinance that prohibits the growing of wildflowers. However, wildflowers which are left to go to seed must be cleared before they become a fire hazard.
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