For most of last spring our orchard was primarily overrun with invasive grasses and thistles. Removing them early in the season might decrease the number of them that reappear each year, but rather than stare at bare dirt, our goal was to replace the weeds with plants that are not only more pleasant to look at, but also more beneficial for the native pollinators, and honey bees on the farm.
Last September we ordered a variety of native wildflower seeds to plant throughout our orchard. As we hand prep the orchard site due to the severity of the slope, weeding, digging, and raking is a time consuming process. Slow prep, and an early start to the rainy season last fall resulted in us not managing to plant all of the seed we had intended. We did get the Goldfields and Baby Blue Eyes sown though. Hopefully the remainder will still be viable enough to plant this fall.
To attack the entire orchard slope at once was simply overwhelming. Instead we prepared small areas across the slope to sow swaths of seed. Our hope is that some of the wildflowers will produce seed of their own and self sow for next year, and we’ll augment that with additional seed sowing later this fall in the areas we didn’t plant last year.
Overall, replacing the undesirable plants with desirable ones will be a gradual process, but we hope the slope will improve year over year decreasing the amount of weeding necessary each spring.
By purchasing individual seed in bulk, rather than buying a seed blend, we could select just those seed varieties we wanted, and focus on seed types most appropriate to this region. The other advantage of avoiding the wildflower-seed-mix-in-a-can, is that we could sow each type in individual swaths.
Bees, just like us, tend to have favorite foods. When a honey bee favors a particular bloom her foraging is significantly more efficient if she can travel between adjacent flowers of the same type, all planted together in an area, rather than have to travel significant distances between her favorite flowers. She’ll gather nectar and pollen much more quickly, and return to the hive with more provisions over a shorter span of time.
Of course, over time seeds will move around.
Wind, rain, and woodland creatures will cause some blending of the bloom types over time, blurring the borders between drifts, but the majority of seed as these plants self sow will be concentrated near to where they’re set, hopefully helping to build a patchwork of blooms over time.
The greatest challenge this spring, while the plants get established, has been keeping weeds at bay. March was so wet we avoided disturbing the slope at all so as not to worsen some of the erosion on the slope, and in some areas the thugs out competed some of the smaller patches of wildflowers we’d sown.
Lessons learned this last year are that it’s almost impossible to sow the wildflower seed too thickly. Denser stands of wildflowers were much more effective at out competing the invaders. Areas that were sparsely sown, were overrun, especially by weedy grasses, and the crimson clover.
In an attempt to squash some of the more aggressive weeds on this slope, we had sown some crimson clover a few years ago as a cover crop. This is a non-native clover, which successfully competes with the grasses, but it also won’t let anything else grow. This meant we had to repeatedly weed it out of the wildflower patches this winter and spring. In hindsight we realize we never should have sown it, but we’re slowly eradicating the clover from the orchard slope in favor of the wildflowers. This spring we left a little to bloom for the bees, but we’ll cut the clover down in the coming week before it has a chance to set much seed, and turn under any green growth that reappears with the winter rains.
It’s a beautiful clover, but it doesn’t belong here, and we need to stop it from spreading to other parts of the property.
We also discovered this year that the upper slope area, due to the very sandy nature of our soils, tends to dry out alarmingly fast once the late winter rains give way to spring. Flowers on the lower slope haven’t needed any supplemental irrigation yet, but those at the top of the slope are needing more water to keep them looking their best. The vile voles this spring also took their toll on some of the plants…
In spite of the weeds, and the voles, a number of other native blooms are thriving in the orchard this spring, now that the deer have been kept at bay. The endemic trailing snowberries (Symphoricarpos mollis) are putting on a more impressive show this spring with their tiny blossoms.
The white globe lilies (Calochortus albus) are appearing in much larger numbers this spring, and just now heading into their peak bloom period.
Some of the transplants recently acquired are also thriving, including the Chia (Salvia columbariae)…
…and the Silver Bush Lupine (Lupinus albifrons).
The Blue Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium bellum) planted last spring is just starting to rebloom.
Overall our first season of wildflower sowing has gone well, and it’s tremendously rewarding to walk out into the orchard now amidst a sea of blooms, and hear the low hum of thousands of contented honey bees and native bees as they buzz between the blossoms.
We’ll sow more varieties of wildflowers in the fall, and by next spring we hope to see a more impressive floral display, not to mention significantly fewer weeds!