Wildflowers…Now’s the time to plant

Everyone in Texas wants bluebonnets. Their velvety leaves topped with blue flowers announce that spring is here. I have a friend who plants them in pockets around his yard and then mows around them until they have dropped their seeds.

Bluebonnets are not the only wildflowers native to Texas. In fact there is a long list of beautiful plants and flowers that thrive in the fertile soils of southeast Texas and particularly in Montgomery County

Another friend has planted wildflower seeds in garden beds alongside more exotic species.

I on the other hand, am actually making new beds just for wildflowers. Several of my neighbors, used to our water-guzzling St. Augustine lawns, have looked askance at my antics, as I ripped out large patches of the weed and replaced it with some good organic soil. My objective: eventually to have a yard full of native and drought-adapted plants.

My back yard is already that way. I have Texas star hibiscus, both red and pink Turk’s cap, passion vine, American beautyberry, lantana, coral bean, wood fern, lanceleaf coreopsis, angel’s trumpet and salvia. Several small red buds and a Mexican plum live there as well. My backyard also sports a raised 4 foot by 20 foot vegetable garden, placed to receive maximum sun in my shady backyard.

My front yard is slowly becoming something like my backyard. Already bushy bluestem and inland sea oats, both unique and beautiful native grasses, grow there –   as do porterweed, verbena, parsley hawthorn, salvia, Louisiana irises, milkweed, native roses, and more lantana.

In the spring, the patches of soil I’ve laid bare will sprout wildflowers. Lots of them.

I’m doing this not only because I like wildflowers. I’m also doing it because native wildflowers are easy to grow here.  After all, for millennia before humans ever set foot in Texas, these plants have been existing and thriving…watered only by rain and fertilized by the rich soil of this area.

Although Montgomery County is technically in the southwestern corner of the Pineywoods Region of Texas, three other distinct ecosystems exist on its borders -the Blackland Prairies and Post Oak Savannah in the northwest and the Gulf Prairies and Marshes to the south and southwest.

These four ecosystems have created a widely diverse collection of plants which do extraordinarily well in gardens here.

Take for instance  the purple coneflower.  Native not only to Texas, but to all of the southeastern U.S. and much of the Midwest, it is a great accent plant, especially when planted in groups. There are also hybrid varieties now which feature light pink and white.

Or black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). This plant loves to reseed itself and rewards with some spectacular blooms that continue well into the summer.

Indian blanket is one of my favorite plants. It’s scientific name is Gaillardia pulchella (pulchella being the Latin word for “pretty.”) And it certainly is a pretty plant.

Here are some other natives or adapted wildflowers:

  • Scarlet flax
  • Cosmos
  • Drummond phlox
  • Tickseed
  • Coreopsis
  • Evening primrose
  • Mexican hat
  • Milkweed

In addition to beauty, many of these plants are hosts to the larval stage of desirable butterflies. Others provide nectar for adult butterflies and hummingbirds. The dried seed heads provide food for birds during the winter.

As I see it, there’s no downside to wildflowers and native plants. A beautiful palette of colors and shapes grace my yard, the flowers attract desirable flora and fauna.  I save money by not having to provide water, fertilizer and other chemicals to an always thirsty and hungry lawn, much less mow it. And I give my neighbors something to talk about. Everyone wins.

Two valuable books on wildflowers that you might want to own:

Wildflowers of Houston and Southeast Texas, John and Gloria Tveten, University of Texas Press

A Field Guide to Texas Wildflowers by Campbell and Lynn Loughmiller, University of Texas Press.

Fall is time to sow spring blooming plants

Everyone becomes a gardener in spring. However, it takes a determined gardener to see ahead to the net season. If you want beautiful gardens in the spring, now is the best time to sow or transplant wildflowers and many perennial spring bloomers.

There are many plants gardeners can put in the ground now that will bring color and texture to spring and summer gardens.

Native wildflowers

The list of native bloomers which are grown from seed is quite large. Purple coneflower, Texas blue bonnets, Indian Paint brush, black-eyed Susans, Drummond phlox, liatris, mealy blue sage, purple clematis, blanket flower (gaillardia), evening primrose are a few. Wildflowers add splashes of brilliant and subtle colors, shapes, and textures to an otherwise boring garden. While native seeds can be planted in very early spring, planting in the fall is more in keeping with their nature. Wildflowers propagate themselves in natural surroundings by dropping their seed in the fall. The seed drops to the ground and spends the winter in dormancy. When spring arrives, the seeds germinate. Most of the wildflowers require full sun but some, like the purple clematis, are quite happy in the shade.

Many people think that just strewing wildflower seed on the ground is sufficient for the seed to germinate. Instead rake the soil lightly first, then sow the seed (strewing is okay at this point). Then tamp the seeds into the soil by walking on them, or, for larger areas, use a roller. Do not fertilize. Native wildflowers are adapted to growing in low nutrient soils. Lightly shower to allow them to sink into the soil. Too much water may cause them to germinate too quickly.

A light covering of hay or pine straw is okay, as long as you can see the soil through the covering.

Native grasses

Residents of southeast Texas are extremely lucky to have a wide variety of attractive native grasses: bushy bluestem with its white tufts and straw colored stalks; inland sea oats, it’s attractive seed pods trembling in the wind, and reflecting sunlight; several varieties of muhly grasses that are not only native to Texas, but specifically native to SE Texas and our coastal regions. Plant any of these grasses now for lush green foliage and interesting textures in the spring and summer and spectacular shows next fall and winter. Sow seeds for native ornamental grasses in the fall as well.

Bulbs and rhizomatous plants

Plant (or separate and transplant) narcissus, Dutch hyacinths, crinums, lilies and amaryllis, irises, monarda (bee balm) and yarrow now. This allows the plants to establish their root systems in time for them to burst into color after the end of winter.

Other transplants

Fall is also a great time to transplant Texoma stans (yellow bells), spirea, cross vine, lantana, Pride of Barbados and a variety of other spring bloomers.

When transplanting any plant, make sure the transplant hole is already dug and prepared before you dig up the plant. The old adage “don’t put a $10 plant into a $2 hole” holds true for transplants, either from your garden or from a nursery. Except the price of plants has risen considerably. A crinum, for instance, costs upwards of $20. Dig the hole twice as big as the container, or if you’re transplanting from your yard, twice as big as the root spread. If the hole is too deep, add some of the soil back into the hole and tamp it down. Also, add some compost, and, if you want, a little organic, slow release fertilizer.

Planting in the fall has two benefits for gardeners: it prepares the landscape for spring and it gives inveterate gardeners their soil fix before winter sets in.

Earthworms: Free fertilizer for lawns

“It may be doubted that there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lowly organized creatures.”

-Charles Darwin, The Formation of Vegetable Mould through the Action of Worms.

The best method to judge the health of the soil beneath a lawn is to discover how many earthworms are present.

Earthworms can restore the hard pan of compacted dirt so prevalent in lawns. Their castings are rich in nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, three major elements necessary for plant growth and photosynthesis. Castings also contain magnesium, carbon, calcium – all very important plant nutrients. In just one year, a thousand earthworms (and their descendants) can transform one ton of organic waste into high-yield fertilizer.

Some important ways earthworms help transform the soil:

  • They tunnel through the soil, aerating it as they go.
  • Their channels also allow water to enter and penetrate the soil more quickly.
  • Grass roots can also grow better in soil loosened by earthworms, resulting in a deeper root system and healthier lawns.
  • Earthworms neutralize the soil, either lowering the alkalinity or raising the acidity. Turf grass likes soil nearer to the middle between acidic and alkaline.
  • Earthworms consume organic material (like thatch).
  • Worms can compost four times quicker than a well-managed composting bin.
  • A large population of earthworms helps control pests. Many soil-borne diseases are reduced significantly when earthworms are present.

How to attract earthworms:

  • Spread ¾ inch of organic material twice a year onto the lawn (mid-October and mid-April are the best times).
  • Use a mulching lawnmower and let the clippings drop back onto the lawn. Earthworms will bring much of this material below ground to eat and digest.
  • Don’t use pesticides or use them in extreme moderation. Choose organic pesticides if necessary. Pesticides are indiscriminate and kill earthworms and other beneficial organisms.
  • Don’t use man-made chemical fertilizers. “Chemical” fertilizers contain sulfuric and hydrochloric acids which are deadly to earthworms. Few worms exist in soils treated with chemicals. Use organic fertilizers instead.

There is no need to add earthworms to your lawn. There are earthworms in the area and will be attracted to chemical-free, organic ally rich soil. And the turf grass will be well on its way to being healthy and green.