As fall-colored leaves begin to drop, we know the change of seasons will bring a quiet solitude to the garden. Blooms will fade, perennials will settle in for their long winter’s nap, and the landscape will transform into subdued shades of brown and gray.
But don’t stop working in the garden yet. Now is the time to sow seeds for a beautiful blanket of color in the spring. Each year, landscapes across Texas announce the arrival of the new season as bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, Indian blanket and other wildflowers cover Central Texas. Vibrant colors billow in the breeze, changing from month to month as a succession of different wildflowers open up, each in their own time.
If wildflowers can survive in the harsh conditions along Texas highways, you can grow them in your garden, too. With just a little preparation, you’ll be ready to go. Frankly, the most common problem for home gardeners is that they baby seeds too much.
Wildflower seeds need a sunny spot to get started, and they don’t like mulch — it prevents the ground contact they require to germinate. Even if one does germinate under some mulch, it’s unlikely it will be able to push through that barrier.
You’ll have the most immediate success if you plant in an area with a high percentage of bare soil. If you’re not starting on a bare patch of soil and are sowing in an existing meadow area, you’ll have less contact, but over time wind and weather also will help some seeds find their way down to the ground, just like Mother Nature does every year. It might just take a little longer. You also can help that along by raking the seeds into the soil or sprinkling a light covering of soil over them.
Seedlings also need regular water to germinate and should be kept moist until they come up and are stronger, taller seedlings. Don’t use the jet setting on your sprayer though, as that will splash the seeds all around. Use a watering can or nice, gentle shower setting. Once they’re up, you should water them very lightly about twice a week for two to three weeks. Then you can water occasionally, depending on whether we get rain this fall. But don’t overwater them once they’re up and going.
Most wildflowers also prefer well-drained soil. If you garden in heavy clay, you might want to amend the planting area with something like a little decomposed granite.
Remember, when those spring bloomers germinate in the fall, they start developing a little foliage to carry them through the winter. And though they aren’t growing quickly or blooming, they will spend the cold season growing roots and getting ready for spring. If we’re not getting any rain at all, you’ll have a much better crop of flowers if you give them a drink now and then. But don’t fertilize them once they’re growing — that will encourage lush, healthy foliage, but you won’t get many blooms.
Which wildflowers to plant
You’ll have the best success with native Texas wildflowers because they are accustomed to our different soil types. Bluebonnets do particularly well in the alkaline soil and limestone here in Central Texas. You might want to start with a Texas wildflower mix. Note which ones seem to do best in your garden, and then plant more of those seeds next fall.
You also can get ideas at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in South Austin at 4801 La Crosse Ave. The beautiful grounds of the Wildflower Center are open year-round to inspire and educate visitors.
You can find ideas on the center’s website at wildflower.org, which offers an online library of more than 7,200 native plants and detailed information about what to grow and how to grow it.
Wildflowers are a gift Lady Bird Johnson gave to the country. While her husband was president, Lady Bird Johnson was instrumental in the passage of the Highway Beautification Act, which called for control of outdoor advertising and other items along highways and encouraged scenic enhancement of our nation’s roadsides.
In 1982, on her 70th birthday, Lady Bird Johnson founded the National Wildflower Research Center, a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to the preservation and re-establishment of native plants in natural and planned landscapes. She donated 60 acres of land to establish the center. In December 1997, the center was renamed the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in honor of Johnson’s 85th birthday.
Johnson was chair of the Wildflower Center’s board of directors until her death in 2007. She accomplished much in her lifetime and left us an amazing legacy by raising awareness of the importance of preserving natural and native beauty in our nation.