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Where the Wild Things Grow

Wildflowers are beautiful in small gardens or even covering whole meadows. But it's a constant battle staying ahead of the weeds.

November 19, 1998|ROBERT SMAUS | TIMES GARDEN EDITOR

Wildflowers sound easy. They sprout with the rains and bloom on their own, right? Certainly they need no serious cultivation.

But to get a field of wildflowers like the half-acre meadow planted and maintained by Anthony Baker on the Palos Verdes Peninsula actually takes quite a bit of work--and "a lot of weeding" (wait till you hear how much he must weed).

Little patches of wildflowers are much easier, although you still must be a diligent weeder and make sure that birds don't eat all your seed. No matter what size the plot, you can't walk away from wildflowers and simply watch them grow.

But keep weeds at bay and a wildflower patch, or even a meadow-full, is a possibility. Weed and choose the right wildflowers (see the list of the 10 easiest on this page), and they are a certainty.

And nothing in the world of gardening is more spectacular than a field of wildflowers.

Even small plantings can make your backyard look like the Antelope Valley in spring. Although they are simple flowers, delicate and dainty, wildflowers are also bright and incredibly bold when planted in groups.

Small plantings--little meadows--will fit in most gardens. Try them where you usually grow bedding plants, or sprinkled among perennials in a border. Try them around fruit trees, especially kinds that are deciduous. One very useful spot is in that space between plants that are still maturing in a new garden. Just keep in mind that something else will have to fill their space in summer when they are gone.

In California's summer-dry climate, wildflower seeds germinate in fall or early winter and bloom in spring. November, December or even January are good months to sow seeds of these mostly annual flowers that live for one season, then set seed and die.

To make a meadow, it's usually necessary to grow true California wildflowers, as well as some that are not native here, but wild someplace else.

Many true California wildflowers are far too picky about soil and other environmental conditions to be considered reasonably easy to grow. Even native-plant botanic gardens have a difficult time with many.

In a home garden, this doesn't really matter. Natives and pretenders are both pretty, with unpretentious flowers that sing of simple form and bold color. The grateful birds and butterflies are happy with either. Baker's meadow is abuzz with both in spring.

Baker used both kinds of wildflowers in his big meadow. Some are as native as a coyote, while others, like the opossum from South America, are so at home in California that they act like they've always been here.

Meadow Grew From Simple Beginnings

The meadow planted by Baker is on a rare Southern California commodity--a vacant lot--owned by USC professors (and spouses) John Horn and Penny Trickett, who live on the lot next door. Because it is in Portuguese Bend, restrictions on this slowly slipping section of the Palos Verdes Peninsula meant it could not be developed.

The idea of turning it into a colorful field fit for plein air painters was not planned. The now-magnificent meadow grew from simple beginnings.

The couple had been paying the county to rid the property of weeds each year. Baker, who has a business called Natural Landscapes in Portuguese Bend, was already doing work around their residence when the couple saw the wildflowers in his garden.

Horn and Trickett wondered whether they couldn't grow a tiny patch of wildflowers on their empty property, so Baker cleared a spot and sowed some seed.

When it bloomed, they were hooked and one patch became several, until after six years there were enough patches to qualify it as a flowery quilt, a meadow where painters do come with their canvas and easels (with permission).

This slow growth from patch to meadow may be the only way to get a field full of wildflowers, considering the weeding involved.

Keep After Those Persistent Weeds

Weeds make growing fields of wildflowers difficult. In the wild or on weedy lots, the mostly European grasses and other long-established but exotic weeds--such as mustard--outperform the wildflowers.

With the first hint of autumn moisture, from rains or irrigation, they sprout before the wildflowers. Weeds grow faster, stronger and bigger, so it's no coincidence that most of our native wildflowers are now found on reserves, while the hills are covered with dull-yellow mustard, actually native to the Mediterranean.

To plant your own patch of wildflowers, or start building a meadow, Baker suggests you begin by watering the weeds or the bare ground.

Keep the soil moist until the weed seeds lying dormant have germinated; they'll come up quickly in the cooling weather. Then hoe seedlings and existing weeds or pull them out.

Try to disturb the soil as little as possible so you don't uncover more seed. On a vacant lot or an unused portion of the garden, there may be millions of weed seeds lying dormant.

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