Spring comes late to the Wood River Valley, so when your annual seed catalogs no longer satisfy, consider a field trip to the pastures along Timmerman Hill.
While the Valley is still covered with snow, with nary a leaf peeking through nor a sign of buds swelling, the sagebrush flats on Highway 75 south of Bellevue offer a secret for the curious. Look closely—miniscule wildflowers are tucked in everywhere.
The sweet yellow bells nodding at you are Yellow Fritillaries (Fritillaria pudica). Beckwith Violets (Viola beckwithii) beckon with their white lower petals and two reddish-purple upper petals.
Use your hike for information gathering—with a few photos and notes, you can replicate what you see in your own backyard.
Imagine a garden with an airy, colorful feel reminiscent of those childhood meadows where you ran free. A rainbow of color can be concocted of Mariposa Lilies (Calochortus macrocarpus), Blazing Star (Mentzelia laevicaulis), Common Evening Primrose (Oenothera strigosa), and Showy Penstemon (Penstemon speciosus). Even the Common Evening Primrose, often dismissed as a weed, can endear itself when spotted on a cold winter’s day protruding dutifully above the snow, serving as a buffet for hungry Pine Siskin and American Goldfinch.
“Not everyone will be happy with the relaxed and uncontrolled look of a wildflower garden,” opines local master gardener, Carol Blackburn.
But for the maverick gardener, the rewards are plentiful. Not only is the scene a lure for birds and butterflies, even the most conservative of gardeners can appreciate that wildflowers require little water and have fewer diseases and pests because they are adapted to their environment.
To get started, take a look at your hiking notes and compare the habitats. Do you have many trees or a creek running through your property? Established trees and a creek put you way ahead of the game. Is your lawn already established? Is it hilly, or rocky? Or are you starting from scratch with bare land?
Decide where you would like your new garden, and whether old gardens need to be removed to make way for some new “natural” habitat. Keep your favorites near your house, and let your gardens get wilder the farther out you go. Although the appearance of a wildflower garden is random, you can plan pockets aimed at the different fauna you hope to attract. Try a parcel dedicated to butterflies and their caterpillars, one with seed heads that the birds love, another with tubular wildflowers just for the hummingbirds.
If your property is rocky or hilly, you can create little nooks and crannies with wildflowers tucked in between the rocks. Build paths around them and enjoy strolling among the flora as butterflies float from flower to flower. Bury boulders halfway down to create a natural effect, and watch your plants thrive with the extra warmth a rock provides. >>>
Bare land offers a clean palette and can be manipulated to match your memory of a particular scene you saw in nature. If this is your jumping off point, plan a trip to the Stanley Basin, where you can gaze on an entire meadow of Elephant Heads (Pedicularis groenlandica) and Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon alpinum) for inspiration.
Decide whether you would like an annual, perennial, or combined garden. Annuals will need to be re-seeded each year. A fall walk through the garden, rubbing the heads of the flowers, will distribute seeds, and just a little extra seed in the spring will guarantee a full garden. A perennial garden may take a few years before it comes into its true glory, so combining the two will give you flowers within the first year.
If it’s early enough in the season, try watering the soil first; this will stimulate whatever weed seed is in the ground to germinate, so you can pull or till them under before planting. It’s a good idea to have your soil pH tested and to add organic soils if necessary. Your local extension office can provide a test kit. Rake the ground and spread the seed (dampen five parts sand to one part seed), then rake the seed in lightly and tamp down. Keep the soil moist until the seed germinates—usually three to four weeks—and water often in the first year to establish your garden.
Bear in mind that you must choose your flowers and grasses based on water needs and soil type, whether they like sun or shade, and when they bloom. Not all plants are transferable, so choose carefully.
If you decide to gather your own seed, follow a few simple rules:
1) make sure what you are collecting isn’t rare;
2) collect from different sources;
3) take no more than one-third from any one plant or plant population.
As an alternative, once you have selected your plants, you can get your seeds here in the Valley from High Altitude Gardens, a local, family-owned business.
Even though not all wildflowers will adapt to being planted in your yard you can just plan on visiting those that won’t in their natural state—say, on a hike like the one you took to get you started.
Before you know it, you may be taking up more and more lawn and joining those of us who enjoy the rainbow of colors and wonderful wildlife that a wildflower garden can bring. Those of us who like to live on the wild side.
Poo Wright-Pulliam says living to a ripe old age runs in her family. In the late 1980s she decided it would be wise to keep her mind fit if she still had a half-century to go. She began to teach herself about the local wildflowers and to paint them. In 1995 she started learning about birds, and in 2001, she became a Master Gardener. Imagine a walk with her—she looks at the ground, the shrubs, the trees, and the sky. Sometimes she trips, but she always enjoys!