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Gardening with the master gardeners

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FOR RELEASE CONTACT – Elayne Arne, 361 790-5456

August 27, 2007




Bluebonnets! These beloved spring wildflowers are reflexively linked in our hearts and minds as an image of Texas which is as significant as the Fleur de Lis is to France, the Edelweiss to Switzerland or the Sunflower to Kansas.

Since the 1980’s important plant cultivation improvements have come about that have dramatically affected ease of cultivation, availability of seed and nursery transplants and how we manage the plants themselves once they are in our gardens. The biggest development is that you can now buy Texas Bluebonnet, Lupinus texensis, seed that has undergone a process of chemical scarification before packaging. This type of seed will germinate in 10 days versus the months it could take without scarification. Processed scarified seed has a much higher rate of germination (80% versus 20%)and more vital seedlings. Seed for the coastal sand bluebonnet, Lupinus subcarnosa, is not available to purchase commercially.
Bluebonnet seeds can be planted here on the coast any time from late August and into mid December if temperatures remain mild. Plant now rather than later and you will be rewarded with more blooms because the plant develops underground over the fall and winter. Heat is needed to germinate the seed, but cool weather is needed to develop the bluebonnet's root structure. Full sun of 8 to 10 hours is an absolute must for the plant. Also, sharp drainage is needed, but pure coastal sand needs to be amended with organic matter for success with Lupinus texensis variety of bluebonnets. DO NOT OVER WATER! Bluebonnets like almost drought like conditions wherever they are growing.
Surface scatter seed and cover the seed by just scratching lightly. Then water lightly. Don’t bother to scatter seed into grass. This is a waste of seed and only feeds the birds because the seed must be covered lightly to germinate. Look for germination in about 2 weeks. If planting nursery seedlings, plant them about 12 to 24 inches apart dependent upon how much interplanting you plan to do. In South Texas, put nursery starts in by Valentine’s Day at the very latest. Pill bugs may attack young plants. Be on the look out for them.
As plant growth progresses through fall and into winter, if there is a freeze, the foliage may look a little red. This is normal. The top of the plant may not appear to be doing much over the fall and winter but underground, a large root system is forming. Don’t fertilize bluebonnets. They are legumes and create their own fertilizer via nitrogen fixing, symbiotic bacteria in their roots.
Some Texans struggle with incorporating such a long, fall/winter-growing annual into their overall planting scheme. While waiting the months until bloom time, when the weather cools, interplant winter companion plants - pansies, dusty miller, dianthus, spring-flowering bulbs, ornamental cabbage or kale. As the bluebonnets expand in March they will take center stage just as the flowering companion plants are ending their season.
When the bluebonnets begin to fade in late spring, good summer perennials to interplant are lantana, mealy cup sage, autumn sage, and Michalmas daisy. These can be cut to the ground next fall when you restart a new cycle of bluebonnets from seed or seedlings.
As for the bluebonnets, after they complete their spring bloom, just take them out rather than waiting for seed set and maturity. “What?!” you ask in amazement. It’s true and this is great news for gardeners - the problem of the ugly plant is finally solved! With high yield, scarified seed now so readily available, why look at a dying plant for a couple of months just waiting for seed that only has a 20% germination rate in the best of times?
We throw out other annuals like petunias, pansies and marigolds rather than collect seed because new seeds and new plants are reasonably priced and more reliable than saving seed. Due to the advancements in bluebonnet commercial seed preparation, the chemical scarification process and the availability of bedding plants, this has now become the most efficient way to grow our state flower in the home garden. Unless you are managing a large meadow-like, naturalized area, ditch those dead and dying plants from your flowerbeds. The following fall plan on buying fresh, high germination rate, commercially scarified seed for your home beds or seedlings from a nursery.
With good drainage, bluebonnets perform well in large containers like whiskey barrels and patio pots. They can replace spent warm season plants, growing over the fall and winter to give you a delightful spring show.
For more information or questions about local gardening, contact an Aransas/San Patricio Master Gardener at Texas Cooperative Extension, Aransas County Office, by email at, by phone 790-0103, or Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., at 611 East Mimosa, Rockport. Visit the Extension web page and Master Gardener Newsletter at Extension education programs serve people of all ages, regardless of socioeconomic level, race, color, sex, religion, handicap or national origin.
Green Acres Demonstration Garden is co-located with Texas Cooperative Extension, Aransas County. The gardens are free and open to the public during daylight hours, seven days a week.

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