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Desert wildflowers for fall planting

Who says the desert lacks color?
Who says the desert lacks color? Linda Strader

While many parts of the country are getting ready to put their gardens to bed; lucky southwest desert communities are planning their winter gardens. Fall is a perfect time in the desert to plant many species of plants. The days are cooler, nights are mild, and the promise of winter rains always keeps us hopeful.

October and November are perfect for sowing desert wildflowers for a spring show. While some species do well starting from seeds, you can also shop around nurseries for seedlings. Just remember seedlings will need careful, frequent watering.

Preparing the planting area

Yes, they are wildflowers, but you can’t just toss them out in your yard and have them come up! Wildflower seeds are not cheap, so to ensure the best germination, you want to prepare an area for planting.

The perfect spot needs at least 6 to 8 hours of sun per day. Using a garden rake, loosen the soil about 1 inch down. To ensure good, even seed coverage, mix the seeds with sand, fine textured mulch or soil at a rate of 2 cups to 1 teaspoon of seed. Scatter the mixture and rake in lightly. Water the area with a sprinkler several times a week (skipping a rainy day if you are fortunate to get one or more). You may need to cover the area with burlap or straw to keep seed hungry birds away. After all, you want flowers, not a giant bird feeder.

Wildflower Options

Below are a number of varieties to try. Check with your local cooperative extension service to make sure these will work in your climate. They can also provide you with a list of suggestions.

  • Golden dyssoida (Dyssodia pentachaeta) has tiny yellow daisy-like flowers on plants reaching 6 inches tall and reseed themselves readily. They attract butterflies.
  • Spreading fleabane (Erigeron divergens) grows to about 1 foot tall with white to pinkish daisy-like flowers. It also attracts butterflies and reseeds itself.
  • Mexican gold poppy (Eschscholzia californica ssp. mexicana) also reseeds, and has golden yellow flowers.
  • Red flax (Linum grandiflorum ‘Rubrum’) has bright red flowers on 2 foot tall plants.
  • Blue flax (Linum lewisii) is also a 2 foot tall plant, but with blue flowers.
  • Arroyo lupine (Lupinus succulentus) has violet-blue flower spikes on 3 foot tall plants.
  • Five spot (Nemophila maculate) is an unusual wildflower with white petals sporting a purple spot on each. It reaches 8 inches tall and wide. Seeds are hard to find, but worth the effort.
  • Desert bluebell (Phacelia campanularia) is a must have wildflower, with true blue flowers having you wonder if they are real. Desert bluebells grow to 1 foot tall and wide, and reseed.

After spring bloom, these plants will go to seed. You can either collect them to replant next year, or leave where they fall for another show. It’s best to do a little of both, in case the rains don’t cooperate or birds eat all of next year’s plants. Cut stems to the ground or pull out to neaten up the area.