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This North County gardener plants wildflowers with a purpose that goes beyond beauty

This cornflower is among the wildflowers blooming in Henry Hilgert’s half-acre garden at his Garden Farms home north of Santa Margarita. It is a huge pollinator garden.
This cornflower is among the wildflowers blooming in Henry Hilgert’s half-acre garden at his Garden Farms home north of Santa Margarita. It is a huge pollinator garden. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

It is estimated there are more than 20,000 species of flowering plants in North America, belonging to about 300 different families. Those that grow in the wild on their own, without cultivation, are considered wildflowers. In San Luis Obispo County we are fortunate to have fields of yellow, pink, blue and purple wildflowers self-seeding in the surrounding hills each year.

Henry Hilgert, who lives on Walnut Avenue in Garden Farms just north of Santa Margarita, has long planted his own field of beautiful, uncultivated wildflowers for us to enjoy. But this year he wanted to do more — to save the pollinators so that they in turn can keep plants and crops alive.

Hilgert was surfing the web one day and came across S.H.A.R.E. (Simply Have Areas Reserved for the Environment). S.H.A.R.E. is a growing community of gardeners who are providing habitats for pollinators such as bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Hilgert is also part of the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, a similar garden community.

To prepare his half-acre garden of wildflowers, Hilgert first discs the soil on his 61-year-old tractor. He then decides how much of the field he wants to plant and scatters the seeds throughout. He didn’t water this year, but he has during drought years.

Birds typically eat a portion of the seeds or young plants as they sprout, but as it rains and flowers grow, the birds leave the wildflowers to mature. Hilgert hand hoes the weeds so they don’t overtake the wildflowers, and he removes dead plants as needed.

This year he bought an “All Annual Wildflower Seed Mix” from American Meadows to grow his garden — 22 varieties, with plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria), Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella) and none-so-pretty (Silene armeria) among the most colorful.

Although the annual wildflower plants will not regrow next year, they do produce seeds that will self-seed in the ground. These seeds will sprout next year, providing another beautiful wildflower garden. The wildflowers will die back by May and will be mowed so they are not a fire hazard.

The first several rows of Hilgert’s wildflower garden are baby blue eyes (Nemophila menziesii) followed by pot marigolds (Calendula officinalis). The rest of the garden is a kaleidoscope of color — including lupine (Lupinus) and California poppies (Eschscholzia californica). Soon baby’s breath (Gypsophila elegans) and dwarf sunflower sunspot (Helianthus annuus) will be blooming.

The mix includes flowers that will bloom early spring, late spring and early summer, so Hilgert will always have something new. Also included are flowers that will bloom in the fall, depending on the rain.

On a recent visit, there were so many blooms that the bees seemed to be fighting one another for the best flowers. The non-native honey bee (Apis mellifera) seems to be the most common bee known, but there are more than 1,600 native bee species recorded in California. Two of the most common bees you would see in a wildflower garden are the California bumble bee (Bombus californicus) and small carpenter bee (Ceratina acantha).

Hilgert’s garden is planted on private property, but he welcomes those who would like to drive by or stop to take a few photos. If you do so, please respect garden boundaries and surrounding neighbors. Above all, remember that the flowers are beautiful but were planted for a very important reason — to help provide pollen and nectar for pollinators.

Pollinators perform a task that is vital to the survival of agriculture. One-third of our global food supply is pollinated by bees. Without bees and other pollinators to keep plants and crops alive, we wouldn’t have very much to eat!

Tami Reece lives in Paso Robles and has been gardening and preserving its bounty for 30 years. Email her if you know of a unique or beautiful garden at rosepetalranch96@gmail.com

Tips

  • Buy seed varieties online or at local nurseries or garden stores.
  • Because our rains are in the winter months, plant after the first frost. Any earlier and the seeds may sprout and die during the frost. The seeds will lay dormant until there is enough rain and warm soil to sprout.
  • Your planting area will need at least six hours of full sun.
  • Mix your seeds with sand for better visibility. Press lightly into the soil but do not cover.
  • Pull weeds as needed so your wildflowers don’t have to compete for water or soil nutrients.
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