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There are few people who could fail to be touched by the remarkable beauty and exuberance of a field of Texas bluebonnets in early spring. But you needn’t despair if you don’t have that kind of space – bluebonnets can be sown in small spaces, containers and raised beds and are stunning paired with other native favorites such as California poppy, Drummond phlox and Indian paintbrush.
Seeds are sown in fall, develop strong roots over the winter and send up flower spikes of blue-violet topped with white in early spring. Bluebonnets are a lupine, and as such, have attractive foliage with smooth, palmate leaves. However there are some tricks to growing them successfully, starting with intentionally planting seeds in fall, (or scarifying the seed coat) and making sure that they make excellent soil/seed contact.
Taking time to understand the needs of Texas bluebonnet will make the process easier and much more successful for the home gardener.
Seeds are best planted in the fall (late August – September in hotter climates) in well-draining sandy soil with full sun exposure. They will germinate and overwinter as low-growing rosettes (leaf spirals) and bloom in early spring.
There are a few tricks to ensure good germination before planting.
Small Spaces/ Garden Beds: Soak the seeds up to 48 hours in a couple changes of water, or scarify the hard outer seed coat with a nail file or rough sandpaper to make small, visible nicks in the outer seed case. Plant shallowly (1/8 inch deep) and tamp down earth to make strong soil/seed contact.
Large Spaces / Meadows: Soak the seeds for up to 48 hours, changing the water twice. Plant shallowly (1/8 inch deep) and tamp the soil down firmly by walking over it (either directly or with a board in between your feet and the earth) or by using a seed roller. Be sure to make strong soil/seed contact.
Light: Bluebonnet needs a sunny position to do well. 8-10 hours of full sun is recommended.
Soil: Texas bluebonnet is a survivor; however, it needs well-drained soil – preferably on the sandier side – to thrive. Seeds can germinate in a heavy clay soil, but will eventually peter out due to an excess of moisture. If planting in containers, an average potting soil can be used, but good drainage is essential.
Spacing: If broadcasting seeds, rake and roughen area well and plant at a rate of approx. 2 oz per 100 square feet (1 pound per 700 square feet). If planting individually, plant 2-3 seeds together with ten inches between the next planting, thinning to one strong plant after true leaves develop.
Planting: Bluebonnet is an annual plant which germinates, grows, flowers and sets seed over the course of one year. If conditions are favorable in your garden for the plant to set seed and re-seed itself, you can be assured of a carpet of bloom for years to come.
Planting Times: This is a fall-planted seed for spring flowering. Transplants should also be planted in the late fall.
Growth Habit: Texas bluebonnet germinates in late fall and creates a low growing rosette of foliage (whorled leaves) that will overwinter, sometimes reddening after the first frost. In early spring it will expand to 12-18 inches, sending flower spikes just above the foliage. After flowering, the plant will set seed and die back to the ground.
Staking: No staking required.
Watering: Bluebonnet is a terrific choice for low rainfall areas as it benefits from underwatering. Too much water will decrease the gardener’s chances of success. Water when planting and sporadically thereafter, allowing natural fall and spring rains to do the job for you.
Fertilizing: No extra fertilizer is necessary, but Bluebonnet will not be harmed if you apply a balanced organic fertilizer in early spring, which may result in bigger plants.
Deadheading/Trimming, or Pruning: Deadheading blooms can encourage side blooms to develop off the main flower stalk; this would be more practical in a container or small raised bed than in a meadow setting.
Mulching: In nature, soil erosion and end-of-season detritus (the dieback and fall-off of the plant’s foliage) is all the mulch self-seeded bluebonnet needs to germinate. Heavier mulches will conserve moisture and limit light to germinating seeds and is not a good idea.
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If you wish to collect and dry Bluebonnet seeds, the time to do that is in late summer when seeds have set. Before re-broadcasting, remember to soak your seeds, or manually scarify them for better germination.
Dividing and Transplanting: In the early spring, as plants are starting to grow strongly, give them a little help by making sure they are not overcrowded, thinning plants to 10-12”.
Pests & Diseases: Bluebonnets are at their most vulnerable as seeds and tiny seedlings. Birds can be an issue with seeds that have been broadcast without sufficient soil to hide them. Pill bugs (roly-polys, sow bugs) are the main insect predator for bluebonnet seeds and seedlings. Too much water can result in damping-off disease which will kill the seedling.
Additional Concerns: Bluebonnets are not edible, and can be toxic depending on season and species. Most toxicity is present in seeds, and if planting with children, care must be taken to ensure little hands do not put them in their mouths.
Seed scarification is essential if you wish to have a good germination rate with bluebonnets. This can be most simply achieved by planting seeds in fall, when winter weather will naturally scarify the seeds for you. Otherwise, be sure to soak your seeds before sowing.
Favorite Companion Plants and Design Advice: I didn’t think there could be anything more beautiful than orange California poppies mixed with the purple and white of Texas bluebonnets in a friend’s raised bed last year… until I saw bluebonnets paired with the delicate pink petals of Mexican evening primrose.
A classic Texas combination is Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa), which sets of off Bluebonnet’s beautiful purple blooms with their orange-red flames. Whatever you decide to mix with bluebonnets, you will probably want to think about the ‘off-season,’ when little plants are developing and not very showy in the garden.
Try interplanting with cool season yellow pansies or violas for color; or red or green kale for foliage. Once the bluebonnets begin to expand in spring, the other plants can be thinned or pulled to allow them to shine.
Ecological Uses: Bluebonnets are a legume, and as such are a good nitrogen fixer for poor soils. They make an excellent choice for the wildlife friendly garden or meadow as bees and butterflies are highly attracted to the brightly colored flowers in early spring.
There you have it - now you know how to grow Texas bluebonnet!
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