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Free-Range Flowers Love To Roam


Written by Maria Gaura

Farm & Garden

SANTA CRUZ - Flowering plants look so sedentary in their garden beds, so docile, so dependent. But turn your back for a few months and, before you know it, they’re wandering all over the place.

It’s not just the urban critters that roam in my garden. I count nearly twenty different flowering annuals that sprout up every year, wherever they please, forming thickets beneath the porch stairs and twining around the compost bins. Oriental poppies shoot up in a new spot every winter, blooming at eye level and dying off just as we’re planting the summer vegetables. Mounds of nasturtiums billow beneath the fruit trees, and brighten neglected corners.

But I haven’t purchased any of these plants in years.


Free-range clarkia, viola and cosmos spill onto a gravel pathway


My yard is bursting with color right now, and it occurred to me that a lot of my favorite blooms have really been gardening themselves for years. Some, like the four o’clocks, California poppy and red valerian, were here when we moved in 20 years ago. The breadseed poppies were planted from a single seed packet about five years later. I have no idea when the feverfew, nigella and columbines arrived.

All of them thrive on my city-sized lot, coming up year after year with only minimal assistance from the resident humans.

A Light Touch

Free-range flowers enjoy a light touch when it comes to garden maintenance. Aside from my raised beds, which are reserved for vegetables, and the lawn, which is reserved for soccer, the rest of my landscaping is kind of unpredictable. But thanks to selective interventions, much of the backyard jumble is bright, lush, and wildlife-friendly.

‘Free-range’ doesn’t mean ‘neglected’. Realistically, none of my feral flowers would have a chance if they had to go mano-a-mano with the crabgrass. I just let selected plants choose where they want to grow, lend a hand in keeping the bad weeds at bay, and appreciate the constantly-changing arrangements.

To encourage floral volunteers, it is essential to weed by hand. Free-range seeds fall in place when the parent plant expires, and they like to lie undisturbed until nature tells them it’s time to sprout. Avoid hoeing or scraping the earth, which disturbs the soil structure and kills seedlings indiscriminately.

Instead, get out there when the growth is young and the soil is soft. Hand-pull the noxious plants and leave the friendly ones in place. If you’re not sure which seedlings are which, leave a few in strategic locations, and keep an eye on them as they grow. Next year you’ll be able to spot the good guys as soon as they germinate.

Hand-weeding also lets you thin the flower seedlings, which often sprout in too-thick clumps. While I still flinch at yanking out healthy cosmos and sunflowers, crowding leads to stunting and disease.

Going To Seed

To keep the flowers coming year after year, let the prettiest and healthiest of your volunteers go to seed before you pull them out. You can also shake the plant’s mature seed pods into various corners of the yard. Zealous neatness can eliminate an entire species from your yard, as I discovered the hard way with our dearly departed forget-me-nots, the Mexican evening primrose, and a pretty chocolate-colored scabiosa.

Letting plants go to seed also benefits birds, who will scatter the seed they don’t eat.

Over time, some naturalized plants will lose their interesting hybridized features to natural selection. The purple alyssum I planted faded to pink, and then to white, over a period of years. The frilled pastel cosmos reverted to a mixture of solid pinks and whites. But the nasturtiums, which have been entrenched for more than 20 years, seem to constantly come up with vivid new stripes, swirls and hues.

And a beautiful branching sunflower I planted four or five years ago has spawned generations of equally gorgeous red and gold progeny.

Not Just For Borders

While many of our range rovers are happy playing a supporting role, some can become spectacular focal points for the landscaping. Biennial Madeira geraniums, which I introduced about five years ago, seed like crazy, grow to five feet tall, and produce a ball of purple blossoms three feet across. Pride of Madeira echiums are also enthusiastic seeders, and can grow to six feet tall in two years. A couple of these big boys are enough for most gardens, but the extra seedlings are easy to pull out, transplant or give away.

For all of our whining about the summer fog, Santa Cruz is blessed with two of the most forgiving gardening zones on earth – Sunset Gardening zones 16 and 17. No scorching in summer, no freezing in winter, no hurricanes or typhoons or oppressive humidity. Sure, tomatoes are a challenge, and peonies won’t bloom. But there are dozens of beautiful flowers out there that will happily roam your garden, if you give them the chance.

Free Range flowers for Santa Cruz gardens – Zone 17

Alyssum, borage, bachelor buttons, Breadseed poppies, California poppy, clarkia, cosmos, columbine, echium, feverfew, forget-me-not, four o’clocks, nigella, scabiosa, sunflower, Madera geranium, Mexican evening primrose, nasturtium, scabiosa, valerian, viola