With the start of the rains in the Bay Area (thank goodness), this is a good time to incorporate native plants into your garden. See Doug Tallamy’s website, Homegrown National Park, to discover how to restore biodiversity in our ecosystem by planting natives in your garden.
There are so many possibilities between annuals and perennials, it can be somewhat daunting to start.
For annuals, the wildflower blooms in the Carrizo Plain National Monument in a good year are always my inspiration. There was a superbloom at Carrizo Plain in 2019, and a trip in April was spectacular.
I want that superbloom in my own garden in the spring!
Of course, that is easier said than done. I have been able to get at least some annual wildflowers growing each spring, and a few have even reseeded, which is the best possible outcome. My favorites in Carrizo are tidy tips (Layia platyglossa), baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii), California goldfields (Lasthenia californica), phacelia (lacy phacelia, Phacelia tanacetifolia, is one of the species native to our area), and lupine (arroyo lupine, Lupinus succulentus, is one of the species native to our area). I recently looked those up on Calscape.org, state CNPS’s native plant gardening guide, and some variant of each of them is endemic to our area.
The next step is to get seeds for the desired wildflowers, which I generally buy from Larner Seeds in Bolinas. It’s easy to order online through their very educational website. There are other wildflower seed sources listed at the end of this article.
I generally try to garden for birds and insects, so my plant choices are guided by those criteria. Calscape.org is a great source for finding plants that support insects and birds.
There are a few ways to plant annual wildflowers. Larner Seeds has good advice, and I subscribe to the “Gardening With Natives” forum (sponsored by the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of CNPS) where there has been a lively discussion this past month about how to get wildflowers started in a garden. Here are the main points from both sources.
- Broadcasting seed: If you are planning to broadcast seed in your garden, you need to make sure you are not just providing a gourmet meal for the birds and squirrels. You need to dig the seeds in a bit so birds have a harder time finding them. I have even used chicken wire to cover smaller areas that I seeded to protect them from critters. But don’t dig them in too deeply, as many of the seeds are very small.
- Start in 4-inch pots and transplant the seedlings: I have used this method most often, because it is easier to provide just the right conditions for the seeds to germinate and to keep them protected. Once they have their secondary leaves and have reached a height of three to four inches, they can be transplanted. If the seedlings are thick in the pot, I have been known to separate the pot into quarters and just plant those quarter sections directly into the ground. That simulates what can happen when seed is broadcast unevenly: you can get a thick growth of wildflowers in some areas. The drawback to transplanting seedlings from pots is that you don’t get the wide swath of flowers you can get from broadcasting the seeds.
Weeding is also critical so the natives have a chance to thrive. However, you need to make sure you know what is a weed and what is a wildflower! Weeding ahead of seeding helps, but as soon as the ground gets watered, weeds will grow. That is another advantage of growing at least a few of the seeds in 4-inch pots: you’ll know what the seedlings of each plant look like.
Here are some good sources of wildflower seeds:
- Larner Seeds, Bolinas: Lots of local seed choices, easy to order online
- Hedgerow Farms, Winters: For large quantities ($100 minimum)
- Regional Parks Botanic Garden, Tilden Regional Park, Berkeley: Seeds offered are mainly from the garden’s own plants
- East Bay Wilds, Oakland: Call or email to learn what seeds are available
- Seedhunt.com (online ordering only): Many species, some not available elsewhere
- Theodore Payne Foundation, Sun Valley: Extensive selection of seeds and seed collections
In addition to annuals, this is a great time to plant perennials. These can be started from seed but generally take much longer to grow to plantable size, so buying perennials from a nursery is probably advisable. Our chapter’s Native Here Nursery is a great source of very local natives.
In my front yard, among fruit trees, I recently planted western columbine (Aquilegia formosa), pink flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum), and red-flowered buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens, endemic to the Channel Islands and very drought tolerant). I also planted woodland strawberry (Fragaria vesca) as a groundcover underneath our fruit trees. I have yet to see them in bloom, but I am hoping they will all flower this spring.
In the shadiest part of the front yard, I have planted many varieties of Douglas iris (Iris douglasiana, including some I started from seed, which allows for the natural genetic variation in flower color to manifest itself), blue eyed grass (Sisyrinchium bellum), and most recently peppermint candy flower (Claytonia sibirica). The iris and blue eyed grass are reliable bloomers; we will see how the peppermint candy flower does in its second spring.
The rainy season in our area is when all our natives shine, so happy planting!
— Robin Mitchell, Recording Secretary, CNPS East Bay Chapter