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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Home and garden

Gardening: Wildflowers, native plants can be difficult to establish in landscapes

By Pat Munts For The Spokesman-Review

As I write this in the first week of May, we are celebrating National Wildflower Week, a time to celebrate the spring abundance of colorful yet ephemeral blazes of color throughout the region.

In our climate, wildflowers need to take advantage of spring soil moisture that will disappear when it gets hot. That means they need to grow, flower and go to seed quickly and go dormant until next spring.

Many people try to grow wildflowers in their gardens or create wildflower meadows or even lawns. While our intensions are good, getting a planting of wildflowers to grow is easier said than done for several reasons.

First, wildflowers are adapted to the places they came from. That means over time, they have adapted to the soil, moisture, temperature and elevations in which they grew. A particular wildflower might have the same botanical name across a wide region but has developed subtle difference that help it grow well in its native range but not in other areas.

Wildflowers, for the most part, don’t want to be spoiled with lots of water, fertilizer and compost unless their native habitat had that. Most of the wildflowers that grow away from stream banks, marshes and ponds like their lean soil and seasonal rainfall. That means gardeners have to take a hands-off approach watering sparingly and keeping weeds at bay.

Preparing a planting area for wildflowers takes some work. First, weeds need to be controlled because native plants are slow at getting established. This means clearing an area several months ahead of time and catching weeds as they come up. Don’t till the ground or add compost, as this just brings up lots of new weed seed.

Seeds or plants? In the long run, buying wildflower starts from the native plant nurseries is much more successful than using seed. Wildflower seeds often have low germination rates, which means fewer plants. They might need to be planted in the fall rather than the spring because they need the winter cold to break the seed coat or germinate over the winter and develop roots before they pop up in the spring. Finally, many wildflower mixes, especially the inexpensive ones, contain seeds from a broad region that might not be compatible with ours. They are broadly described as “Western wildflower mix,” which is a huge area. Look for seed grown for Eastern Washington or the northern Rockies. Good quality, regionally specific seed can run tens of dollars a half pound.

Plants, on the other hand, are already growing and can hold their own in a bed. The challenge is finding the native plant nurseries that will have them available. Many of these nurseries sell only in the spring, which means you have to order quickly and then plant quickly. Check out for a list of native plant nurseries in our region.

Tip of the week: Start bringing out your vegetable and flower seedlings during the day to harden off. Return them to a sheltered area at night and keep the frost protection handy.

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