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Originally published Saturday, February 25, 2012 at 7:00 PM

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Wildflower mixes: the good, the bad, the ugly

You get about two to three years out of them before something takes over. One or two species are usually downright invasive, elbowing the others out to create a monoculture.

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Valerie Easton writes in her blog about gardens and the people who make them.
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HOW TEMPTING is the idea of scattering a $2 seed mix and, in a few weeks, watching hundreds of flowers pop up to cover the ground?

The front of the can or packet shows a tempting kaleidoscope of flowers, and if you believe the words on the back, all you need do is broadcast the stuff and enjoy months of colorful meadow. But according to Keith Hopkins of Hobbs & Hopkins in Portland, those cans don't contain much actual seed. The contents list shows they're more than 90 percent vermiculite and other fillers.

Hobbs & Hopkins sell a wide variety of bulk seed mixes in which flowers have been selected for different heights, colors and bloom times. But are they really native seed? "Wildflower is just a nice name; the mixes are basically domesticated flower seed you could buy separately," says Hopkins. "Seed from native plants is too expensive because it has to be collected by hand." So the Hobbs & Hopkins mixes may not be the natives implied by the name "wildflower," but at least they're 100 percent flower seed.

The Hobbs & Hopkins website advertises custom seed mixes, so I asked if they could create a special mix of all-native, noninvasive seed for me. "For about $750 an ounce," Hopkins says with a laugh.

Their affordable Meadow Bouquet Wildflower Mix is what Hopkins uses at his place near Mount Hood to grow around old stumps. It includes more than 20 kinds of perennials and annuals, many chosen as good cutting flowers. The city of Portland buys Hobbs & Hopkins Portland Wildflower Mix, 25 pounds at a time, to seed along roadsides.

"You get about two to three years out of them before something takes over," says Hopkins of the wildflower mixes. One or two species are usually downright invasive, elbowing the others out to create a monoculture rather than the habitat you hoped for. The first year, dozens of different flowers bloom through spring and summer, but soon enough you end up with nothing but lupines all dying down at the same time.

Hopkins emphasizes that wildflower seed mixes still give a great return on the dollar. You can expect a pound of seed to cover 4,000 to 5,000 square feet of earth. The biggest problem his customers report: The seed is so tiny that people tend to plant far too thickly. Hopkins recommends mixing the seed with a cup of sugar so you can better see your spreading radius.

If you plant in early March, a wildflower meadow will take 40 to 45 days to flower; then the only constant is change as the various flowers bud, mature and die down. The flowers will finish blooming by late September, but Hopkins says to leave your meadow be until the seed is ripe and falls, then cut the tatters down for winter.

Five years ago, the Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park on the waterfront used native plant seed to create flowering meadows along the spine and slopes of the park. "The first year was great with lots of flowers, but the second year the grasses started taking over," says gardener Bobby McCullough. Do any of the original flowers still bloom? "The California poppies are bulletproof, they're still coming back," says McCullough. The lupines, clarkia and Western columbine have persisted, too. Each spring he lightly tills the soil and tosses out seed of several new types of native annuals. So far, Clarkia amoena has been by far the most successful bloomer.

Results depend so much on soil, conditions and specific plants. So balance ease and affordability against the possibility of introducing invasive plants and the reality that for most of the year meadows look a mess. And remember that "wildflowers" means nothing more than flowers you could, and maybe should, have brought seeds for separately.

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "petal & twig." Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com.

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