Go Wild

Want a glorious meadow in your own back yard? Here are some seeds of wisdom about growing Texas’ native flowers.

March 1997By Comments

CAN’T DECIDE WHETHER to save the world or decorate it? Plant native wildflowers and you’ll do both. More and more Texas gardeners are embracing native plants, motivated by our eye-opening droughts and disenchantment with chemically maintained landscapes. But be forewarned: What begins as an innocent desire to grow a few blooming annuals—plants that complete their life cycles in one year and then reseed, like Drummond’s phlox—often escalates into a passion for native perennials, which take at least two years to complete their cycles, and then, before you know it, you’ll want native shrubs and trees. You can choose from more than five thousand flowering species of natives, and they are at home in beds, borders, and window boxes. But if you want to mirror nature, why not plant a meadow? It can be as big as your ranch or as small as a patch between sidewalk and street.

The profusion of wildflowers in nature can lead you to believe that a picture-book landscape can be yours simply by tossing out a few handfuls of seed. This illusion was created by that prankster Mother Nature, who has secretly been dispersing zillions of seeds for thousands and thousands of years to achieve her glorious effects. But don’t despair. Although your wildflower meadow is going to take considerable patience and some trial and error, there’s a lot of information out there to help you along. Unfortunately, few experts agree on the fine points of growing wildflowers. Do you gather seed close to home or is it okay to sow seed from plants grown in a different region of Texas? To scarify—scratch the hard seed coat, like the bluebonnet’s, to mimic the natural weathering process—or not to scarify? There’s not even a consensus on whether you should water your meadow or depend solely on rainfall. But the basic instructions are universal. If you follow them closely, in just a couple of years you’ll have a garden that is stunning and self-sustaining—one that will allow you the time to stop and smell the wildflowers.

Plan Your Meadow

IMPORT A PLANT FROM ONE REGION TO ANY OTHER and it’s no different than a nursery exotic. “It may die,” says Geyata Ajilvsgi, the author of Wildflowers of Texas. “It may struggle to survive. It may take off and become a weed. But wherever you are in the state, you’ve got beautiful wildflowers growing.” In far west Texas blackfoot daisy and evening primrose flourish in the sandy desert. Annual aster and turk’s cap flower among the pines and post oaks near Tyler. The heavy clays of the coastal prairies of Houston can be a challenge for wildflower gardeners, but instead of fighting the rains and poor drainage, plant black-eyed Susans or false dragonheads. Austin’s Hill Country, despite its thin soil, is home to some of the most popular wildflowers, including bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush. Around Dallas, where blackland prairies and woodlands converge, winecups and purple coneflowers abound. South of San Antonio, Indian blanket and coreopsis provide spring-to-frost color.

In a state that spans four hardiness zones, where annual rainfall ranges from 56 inches along the Louisiana border to 8 inches in El Paso and soil types vary from acid clay to alkaline caliche, it’s necessary to determine where you are, botanically speaking. For help, take a look at Sally and Andy Wasowski’s book Native Texas Plants, Landscaping Region by Region and its list of city-by-city vegetative possibilities. Study natural (as in “unimproved”) areas nearby and note plants that thrive. Dig a toe in the dirt and make your best guess. Choose a well-drained, sunny site for your wildflower meadow (unless you plan to concentrate on swamp sunflower or shade-tolerant species such as columbine). Then settle down with the Wasowskis’ book or one of the excellent field guides, like the aforementioned Wildflowers of Texas, color-coded and packed with information, or Campbell and Lynn Loughmiller’s comprehensive Texas Wildflowers, to determine the appropriate plants for your region and your site. You should also consider “flower architecture”—size, color, and height—in your meadow. Take your cues from nature. Remember how stunning that lavender gay feather was when paired with the yellow of goldenrod or the way a field of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush jump-started your eyeballs? “Think in terms of a prairie situation with native grasses and perennial flowers,” advises Marcia Herman, the natural areas manager at Austin’s respected National Wildflower Research Center, “and be willing to see things change.” In fact, native grasses should make up 50 to 80 percent of your meadow. Though beautiful in their own right, little bluestem, sideoats grama, buffalo, and others support and protect wildflower seedlings, act as noxious-weed inhibitors, prevent soil erosion, and provide color and texture when the wildflowers go to seed.

Think too about germination and bloom times. It’s possible to have blooms nearly year-round in the southern half of Texas, beginning with windflower anemones in January, moving to bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush in the spring, Mexican hat through the summer, and wrapping up with Indian blanket as late as December.

If you decide to use wildflowers in a more-traditional garden setting, where heights and colors are more critical than in a meadow, you can sow the seeds in flats indoors and transplant the seedlings at the appropriate time (bluebonnet seedlings, for instance, like bluebonnet seeds, should be planted in the fall). In this controlled situation, treat your wildflowers as you would any exotic annual, such as pansies or petunias; pull them from the flower bed as soon as their blooms have faded or they begin to look ragged. If you would like to purchase container-grown natives, the National Wildflower Research Center (512-292-4200) sells lists of native-plant nurseries across the state ($3).

All About Seeds

NOW THAT YOU KNOW WHAT SEEDS YOU WANT, where do you get them? A mere fifteen years ago, your choices would have been limited to bluebonnets or California imports. You could have collected seeds yourself, but they would have come without instructions. Today, however, a head-spinning selection of wildflower seed is available, along with the guidance you’ll need if you collect your own.

During the building boom of the eighties, a Gulf Coast farmer named John Thomas was hired to seed the greenbelts and parks of Houston’s new residential areas with turf grasses. When landscape architects suggested that he try seeding wildflowers as well, Thomas couldn’t find the seed he needed. “The average world crop of bluebonnet seeds was around five thousand to ten thousand pounds,” he says. Finally, he unearthed a few “large-scale” wildflower growers in California. “One particular grower said he was the largest Indian blanket producer in the world,” Thomas says. “I said, ‘Great. I need a thousand pounds now and another fifteen hundred in six weeks.’ After a long pause, he said, ‘My whole inventory is five hundred pounds.’”

The entrepreneur in Thomas saw a need to be filled; the farmer in him saw how to fill it. And so Wildseed Farms, where vast fields of single flower species are grown in rows and mechanically harvested like food crops, was born in 1983. By 1996 the company had 1,600 acres in production in Gillespie and Colorado counties, growing two dozen native species as well as plants from other regions whose seeds are available at native-plant nurseries and through its catalog (800-848-0078).

Meanwhile, in North Texas, nurseryman Bill Neiman had watched manicured landscapes, some of which he had planned and planted, wither and die during the 1980 drought. “But driving around in what was left of the countryside,” says Neiman, “I saw native plants out there thriving, even blooming.” He and his wife, Jan, started experimenting with buffalo grass and wildflowers as alternatives to Bermuda grass lawns and collecting native seed to propagate and sell as container plants at their nursery in Flower Mound. By 1995 the Neimans had moved their operation to Junction and begun to focus on the production of seed. Native American Seed now showcases nearly one hundred native Texas species, including native grasses, in its catalog (800-728-4043) and at a few native-plant nurseries.

Both Wildseed and Native American Seed sell wildflower mixes; available by mail order or at some nurseries that specialize in native plants, they can help a novice gardener bloom. While Wildseed’s Texas-Oklahoma mix features mostly natives (bulletproof species like Indian blanket and Mexican hat), consumer demand for color resulted in the inclusion of such non-natives as rocket larkspur and corn flower (the mix sells for $27.50 a pound, which will cover 2,500 square feet, or $9.95 for a quarter pound). Purists who want only natives can buy seeds of individual species and make their own mix, or they can sow Neiman’s mix, a blend of eight native Texas species ($27.50 a pound or $2.50 for a packet that will cover twenty square feet). “These have the genetic information to survive the worst drought, the worst flood, the worst freeze,” Neiman says. Non-regional mixes, which can contain everything from Iceland poppies and chicory to vermiculite filler, should be avoided. “The Meadow-in-a-Can is a gift item, not a garden item,” cautions John Dromgoole, the owner of Austin’s Garden-Ville Nursery.

Of course, you can really go native and collect your own seed from plants near your site. The indiscriminate picking of flowers or digging of plants from the wild is strictly taboo (with the exception of those in the shadow of a bulldozer or on your own land), but if you gather a handful of seed from a field of Maximillian sunflowers, the natural world won’t collapse. The most accessible wildflowers are along highway right-of-ways, thanks to the 60,000 pounds of seed planted annually by the Texas Department of Transportation and the absence of cattle grazing the roadside. When harvesting seed on public lands, “preservation” is the watchword among collectors—meaning, don’t be greedy, and take seed only from abundant patches. Timing is crucial. Dan Hosage, Jr., who owns Madrone Nursery outside San Marcos, suggests you “get to know the plant a little bit.” Watch the seeds or capsules as they go from green and succulent to brown and dry; then it’s harvest time. Some plants are freer with their seed than others. Following a good bloom year, bluebonnets, for instance, will actually shoot their seeds at you. Lay a drop cloth under a plateau goldeneye in late October or early November, shake the plant gently, and you’ll have enough seed to share with a scout troop. Then you have stubborn mountain pinks, which enclose their germ-size seed in tiny, sticky pods that are as hard to pull off the plant as chewing gum from a toddler’s hair. Harvesting Indian paintbrush gives even a professional like John Thomas fits because its seeds are so tiny and must be hand-harvested: Twenty Wildseed workers spend three weeks collecting less than 120 pounds of seed.

Separate the seeds from their pods and any stems and leaves you snatched while gathering by rubbing the dried plant material you’ve collected between gloved hands. (Do this inside a large paper bag so the seed will fall to the bottom of the sack.) The more chaff you remove, the easier the seeds will be to store and scatter—and the less danger there’ll be of moisture damage during storage. Seeds keep best in a dry, cool place; stored in correctly, they will lose 10 percent of their viability every thirty days. In the vaultlike seed room at the National Wildflower Research Center, most of the seed is stored in crumpled, well-used brown paper sacks.

Lay the Groundwork

YOU’RE NOW ONLY TWO STEPS AWAY from achieving meadowhood—preparing your site and planting your seeds. Wildflowers don’t care what you look like. So forgo the fancy gardeners’ threads from that mail-order catalog and spend your money on what John Dromgoole considers the essential wildflower tool: a high-quality rake with flexible wire tines (it will set you back about $40). I suggest a good pair of gloves, although I can never seem to find mine. The ones I’m always losing are Tillman’s, available at welding-supply shops for about $14 and made of leather supple enough to grasp little seed packets but tough enough to endure hand-to-rock digging in limestone. If you have a weed problem, you’ll need a hoe for tilling; for larger meadows, borrow or rent a gas-powered garden tiller.

Weeds like African Bermuda grass and nut grass will choke out your wildflowers, and getting rid of them can take months—so the time to start is now. The best approach is a combination of many strategies. First, till the soil (but no deeper than one inch or you risk awakening more dormant weed seeds than you have to) and remove the clumps of vegetation. Next, in a kind of “good cop—bad cop” tactic, water thoroughly to stimulate weed growth. Then, depending on your organic inclinations, nuke the pests with (a) repeated tilling, weeding, and watering; (b) solarization, or sterilizing the soil by “cooking” it under heavy black plastic or pieces of carpet for a couple of months (your neighbors will love this look); (c) a dosing of non-residual herbicide such as Roundup or Finale; or (d) all of the above.

A Time to Sow

THE BEST TIME TO PLANT MOST WILDFLOWERS is in the fall from mid-September to the end of October. Sow your seeds too early and rodents, bugs, and birds will scarf them down before they have a chance to germinate. Wait until the spring  and you’ve missed out on the crucial winter chill.

Start small. One of the greatest disappointments in creating a meadow comes from trying to cover too big an area with too little seed (picture a bad hair transplant). The Wildflower Center’s Wildflower Handbook includes a mind-numbing formula for determining pounds of seed per acre that is so complex you’ll wonder whether you’re planting a wildflower meadow or building a neutron bomb: You figure density and ratios by multiplying the number of seeds per pound times their germination rate times the percentage of species desired times . . . Let’s boil this ox down to a bouillon cube and say you need six to ten seeds per square foot.

If your meadow is lucky enough to be sown over an existing field of native grasses, simply mow the vegetation as close to the ground as possible, then rake the thatch aside to expose patches of dirt. (Caveat: Some native grasses, like buffalo, really hate to be scalped, and experts say mid-sized to tall grasses should never be sheared shorter than six inches.) To scatter the seed evenly, especially the fairy dust—like seeds of paintbrush or bluebells, mix one part seed with four parts fine sand. Marcia Herman wouldn’t plant bluebonnets without their species-specific inoculant, the bacterium rhizobium, which can be purchased at many native-plant nurseries.

When broadcasting the seed, remember that it should either rest on the ground or, at most, be gently tamped down with an understated stomp. Although different species have different requirements, a general rule is, Don’t bury your seed deeper than one eighth of an inch or it may not have the energy reserve to push through the dirt. At this point in the process, the experts agree to disagree. Dromgoole suggests a very thin top coat of Dillo Dirt, a compost made from municipal sludge, followed by a light watering for a wildly successful meadow. Bill Neiman prefers to let nature take its course, eschewing even an initial watering: “Once you start watering, you can’t stop.” He figures if the seeds don’t germinate this year, they’ll save themselves for a time of ample rainfall. John Thomas says Wildseed Farms doesn’t have one piece of irrigation pipe, and his spectacular fields of color testify to the success of his dry-land farming techniques, which rely solely on rainfall. On the other hand, author Geyata Ajilvsgi, as passionate about butterflies as she is about wildflowers, wants a garden full of blooms, so she lays in soaker hoses to help her flowers through droughts.

Depending on your neighbors’ attitudes or your aesthetic requirements, you may want to clear out the raggedy remains of some wildflowers after they have gone to seed, particularly the taller varieties like coreopsis and Maximillian sunflowers. You can yank the offending plants up or, in a large meadow, mow them down. If you do decide to mow, raise your lawnmower blade to its highest setting to avoid damaging emerging seedlings.

A Garden of Delights

CONSIDER KEEPING A JOURNAL OF YOUR WALK on the wild side to track its ever-changing nature—and yours too. During the first year, you will note how the annual species dominate the site. Some perennials may sprout, but they won’t bloom until the second or third year. You might begin to notice more butterflies around your yard. By the second year, you may spot a few places where you need to reseed, and maybe you’ll want to transplant some of that standing cypress, a stately plant topped with a bright red cluster of blossoms, to a flower bed. After consulting one of your field guides, you might decide that a bed of mealy blue sage would be just the thing to replace that azalea that has never bloomed. By the third or fourth year, you’ll be listing all the native plants that have sprung from seeds planted by visiting birds snacking on butterfly larvae in your meadow. And you may find yourself scribbling a plan to rip up your chinch-bug-plagued Saint Augustine and start a second meadow. Wildflowers seem to have this effect on people.

You may not even be content to leave the flowers outside; Wanda Lancaster and Wanda Fielder certainly aren’t. Every week, the two Wandas arrange wildflowers to grace the cafe tables, the gallery, the gift shop, and a few lucky offices at the Wildflower Research Center. During last summer’s drought, when I couldn’t imagine what they could possibly find to use, they would emerge from their workroom with vase after vase of stunning arrangements of dainty yellow broomweed and daisylike purple coneflower and spikes of lavender gay feather. When winter rolled around, they made the most of dried grasses and branches of red-berried possumhaw holly. “I think it’s almost basic human nature to cut flowers, bring them in, put them in a vase, and look at them,” says Wanda F., who advises putting the flowers in water as soon as they’re cut: “Take a bucket out to the field with you.”

While bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush top their list of wildflowers for arrangements, they can’t disguise their enthusiasm for other species: “Bluebells are the best. They last the longest!”

“Drummond’s phlox! A lifesaver this year.”

“Purple coneflower,” they coo in unison.

“Thistles!”

“There’s always something available if you don’t have preconceived notions,” says Wanda L. Then she gives me some advice I think I can use in life as well as in wildflower arranging: “Take the givens and make the most of them.”

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