Landscaping with seeds..
Plains and meadow wildflowers look best when planted along with grasses. Hard and Red Fescue (of our Fine-Fescue Meadow Blend) are fine textured, dark green, drought tolerant grasses that look great subtending colorful wildflowers. All the mixtures are subject to sight changes from season to season and from batch to batch depending upon availability, crop successes, market fluctuations or seed quality. Penstemon and Lupine species, for example may vary over the course of a summer.
Wildflower and Erosion Control Seeding
Many believe that throwing out “wildflower seed” is an inexpensive and maintenance free method of planting a riot of color in the garden. After all, wild plants grow and bloom every year in all sorts of conditions. What people do not realize is that out of millions of seeds produced by wild plants, few ever germinate and fewer still ever make it to flowering. Every year is the weather is different. Some seeds find fertile soil while most do not.
As gardeners, we usually shoot for better odds than those offered by Mother Nature. We improve all the variables to increase our chances of success. In order to germinate and thrive, seeds and the resulting plants need water, decent soil with nutrients, air and of course, sunlight.
Most of our indigenous plants disperse their seeds in the late summer and fall. The soil is warm from a season of sunshine and we begin to see a few storms. If the seeds fall in the right spot and the storms are regular enough, seeds may germinate and establish reasonable root systems before winter. By planting in late summer and watering regularly until snowfall you can greatly increase successes.
Some seedpods dry and open waiting until early winter storms blow their seeds out. These seeds lie dormant in the freezing soil until snow begins to thaw and they germinate with the spring melt. If the seedlings are lucky, the moisture will continue long enough for the plant to get roots down deep.
In spring, the days are lengthening, the temperatures are rising, the soils are moist and the melting snows are releasing additional water into the ground for weeks or months. Seeds planted in spring almost always receive April and May rain and snow showers. A couple of nursery clients plant wildflower seed atop the snow when it is down to just a few inches deep. Make sure you are ready to water before the soils begin to dry.
Natural meadows are created over thousands of years by a wide range of species in the few locations with decent soils. As the meadow plants grow, die and compost, the soils get better and better. A large part of the soil improvement is due to the grasses that make up 60-80% of most meadows. Clovers and other legumes are also responsible for the improvements.
By raking in a light layer of Topper, you are adding beneficial composting microbes. You are also incorporating humus, the mineralized organic material that helps soil form structure, retain water and nutrients and generally support life.
Mixing seed with a compost before broadcasting it yields a much more even distribution of the seed than you would get by trying to spread just the seed. Greater seed-to-soil contact will improve germination. The seeds should be just at the surface or less than one eighth of an inch below.
Mulching the area with a very light layer of straw or pine needles (pine-straw) after seeding, will provide some shade, slow wind and shatter rain drops. Think of it as a temporary lath house for propagating seedlings. The mulch lessens the need for supplemental watering. By placing a few, or many, softball sized rocks around over the straw you will help keep it from blowing away. Additionally, the rocks concentrate moisture, retain heat and shade the ground. Seedlings usually emerge and grow more quickly around the rocks. Wildflower “mats” work because they offer moisture retaining medium and a loose mulch but they are also many times more expensive than seed, compost and pine needles for a given area.
Once the seeds are in, do not let them dry-out. Even an hour of hot sun or drying wind as the roots are emerging from the seed can kill and there is no second chance with germination. With earlier planting, seeds are less likely to dry out, with later plantings in warmer temperatures, seeds germinate faster. We often tell clients to simulate “occasional afternoon thundershowers” if we aren’t having any naturally. In summer, the wildflower bloom will last longer if they are again given occasional water.
Use Biosol with G&B or organic, pro-biotic fertilizer when seeding. It works by inoculating the soil with beneficial microbes and then feeding them. The plants slowly receive their nutrients as a bi-product of microbial activity. Organic fertilizer is best added at the time of seeding so that new roots can form beneficial associations from the start.
If your goal is to create a wild meadow, consider adding a couple of species of grass and perhaps clover. Hard fescues and creeping red fescues are well-behaved grasses and white Dutch clover is very beneficial to the soil and to other plants. These seeds are relatively inexpensive per pound. Meadows “in a can” usually contain very little seed, much of the seed they do contain may be grass and clover mixed with a filler.
If your goal is a colorful flowerbed, select seed carefully and consider using only a few individual species. Add bulbs in the fall for carefree early color and add perennials from nursery pots here and there for additional and earlier perennial color.
As with all of gardening and life, it is a sliding scale of possibilities, the more effort you expend in preparation, the greater your successes and the less effort you will expend in the future. Or, when the risk is only a couple of bucks, you can afford to play by Nature’s odds now and then.