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Rains herald optimal conditions for planting wildflowers

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Sherri Osaka/Special to the Town Crier
California native wildflowers, including clarkia, above, are simple to grow and attract pollinators.

It’s time to go wild with wildflowers. The days are shorter, the nights are cooler and, according to the “Old Farmer’s Almanac,” rain is forecast for early November. This is the optimal season for sowing wildflowers.

But why do it? What are the perks of California native wildflowers other than being eye candy in the garden?

Sherri Osaka of Sustainable Landscape Designs in San Jose answered these and other questions during a recent program sponsored by the city of Mountain View and the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency.

“For gardeners, there is little work involved with wildflowers. Annuals self-sow and perennials live on. They’re well adapted to this area,” Osaka said in an interview. “For pollinators, insects and birds, they’re life-sustaining. Bees are under attack and there’s an insect Armageddon. We’re not seeing nearly the quantity.”

Native wildflowers are attractive to honeybees, as well as the 1,600 varieties of native bees. Insects find them irresistible and birds rely on insects, notably caterpillars, to feed their young.

Osaka likes to scatter seeds just before or when it rains because “the rain pushes the seeds in the soil.” Beforehand, she “roughs up” the soil. She advises picking a sunny spot – four to eight hours of sun is great. And locate the wildflowers where they can be seen.

“When I’m designing landscapes, I put trees and shrubs in the background and colorful perennials and annuals up front,” she said.

It isn’t necessary to improve the soil.

“They don’t need rich soil because they can take our lean, alkaline clay soil,” Osaka said. “After all, they grew up here.”

However, poor drainage can be a problem. She suggests making a “gentle mound of dirt” for the seeds, thus providing good drainage.

First-time gardeners might get discouraged because it takes a while for seeds to germinate. They may wonder, “What did I do wrong?”

Osaka recommends planting some native flowering bedding plants from the nursery, in addition to scattering seeds, because the plants provide a promise of what is to come. And it’s good to stagger bloom time.

What to plant?

A go-to resource is the website calscape.org, which lists approximately 8,000 plants native to California. Simply enter your address and click the map.

Among annuals, Osaka is partial to Elegant clarkia and Farewell to Spring clarkia.

“They have gorgeous drop-dead flowers and are good re-seeders,” she said. “Globe gilia reseeds itself but is not as showy as clarkia.”

As for ever-popular California poppies, she cautions, “They can get rambunctious, so use them with care.”

California fuchsia – not to be confused with the plant with the ballerina blooms – tops the list of Osaka’s favorite perennials.

“Everyone has to have one. That’s my rule,” she said. “They have a long bloom time, from June until December, and hummingbirds love them.”

Because hummingbirds are territorial, Osaka suggests planting one in both the front and back yard. That’s what she has done in her own garden, which boasts more than 100 native varieties. Rather than lawn, there is a little meadow in front.

“I garden for the birds, the pollinators and myself. It’s very entertaining to watch them gather and rummage around,” she said.

Osaka, who earned an electrical engineering degree from the University of Michigan, started Sustainable Landscape Designs in 1997 after tiring of her high-tech career.

“I needed to be outside … not driving to work in the dark and leaving in the dark. I wanted something more creative,” she said. “I looked up different careers and hit on landscape architecture.”

Now a licensed landscape architect, she is a member of the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s Landscape Advisory Committee and chairwoman of the Santa Clara Valley Chapter of the California Native Plant Society.

Osaka believes gardening is very healing and reduces the body’s cortisol.

“When I get stuck on a project, I walk through my garden and it seems to do the trick,” she said.

The final program in the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency series in Mountain View is scheduled 6-8:30 p.m. Nov. 7 in Redwood Hall at the Mountain View Community Center, 201 S. Rengstorff Ave. Deva Luna, principal designer with EarthCare Landscaping in Cupertino, will speak on maintaining healthy landscapes.

To register and for more information, call 349-3000 or visit bayareaconservation.org/landscape. Walk-ins are welcome.

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