In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
September, 2007
Regional Report

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A wild primrose thrives in sunny, arid conditions.

Easy Wildflowers

Next to cacti, the easiest and most rewarding plants to grow in a desert landscape must be wildflowers. All it takes is scattering some seeds in October and waiting for the winter rains to germinate them. Of course, if the rains don't come, the spring floral display will be sparse, but at least you didn't expend much time or energy on the project!

I think sometimes people work too hard to create ideal conditions, thinking that if wildflowers grow in the harsh desert, they'll grow like gangbusters in an improved garden bed with someone to fuss over them. In reality, they'll put out some really lush foliage at the expense of blossoms. It's best to observe where wildflowers grow in their natural locations (wherever you might live) and then mimic those conditions. For the low desert, that means full sun and native rocky, alkaline, low-organic-matter soil, with minimal periodic rains. There's no need to dig a deep bed and improve it with rich compost. If you live at higher alpine elevations, you might need to find a partial shady spot beneath a pine tree.

Sowing Desert Wildflowers
Choose a spot in full sun. Very lightly rake the soil, loosening it to a depth of no more than 1 inch. This encourages good soil-to-seed contact to enhance germination. Stirring up the soil more deeply is unnecessary and just brings weed seeds to the surface. Do not add soil amendments or fertilizer.

Wildflower seeds are tiny. You can spread them more evenly by first mixing them with sand or soil in a 1 to 4 ratio. Sprinkle half the mix across the soil north to south; the other half east to west. Press seeds into the soil with the back of a rake or gently walk across the area. Seeds shouldn't be covered any more than 1/16 of an inch deep or germination will be reduced.

At this point, you can hope for winter rains. The trick is to have periodic soaking rains to germinate the seeds and maintain somewhat moist soil as the seedlings grow until they provide us with those spectacular spring floral displays. If we have one early rain that germinates the seeds but then no rains follow, the seedlings will die without moisture. You may gamble with the rains, or choose to help Mother Nature with your hose or irrigation system, maintaining consistently moist soil for about four to six weeks until seeds germinate and seedlings establish. Reduce watering after seedlings are about 1 to 2 inches tall, giving them a deep soaking only as needed to prevent yellowing or wilting.

Remember to thin them to about 8 to 12 inches between each plant so they receive sufficient air circulation, sunlight, and moisture. Snipping seedlings at the base with scissors prevents disturbing delicate roots of the remaining seedlings.

Wildflowers to Sow from Seed
These wildflowers are reliable from seed and will self sow for the following year: Arizona poppy, blanket flower, desert bluebells, desert lupine, desert marigold, globe mallow, golden dyssodia, Mexican gold poppy, owl's clover, Parry's penstemon, Palmer penstemon, and tufted evening primrose.


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