Fields of Flowers; Past and Present, Native and Not

Call it a ritual or a pilgrimage or just an old habit. Whatever you call it, every spring I must get eye-level with as many flowers as I can manage.

For me personally, if comes from my childhood – where my family took, what we called “Sunday Drives”, in the spring. We loaded into the family car and headed out into the country roads, of California’s central coast, where I grew up, looking for seasonal flowers in the oak studded grassland of San Luis Obispo County.


family wildflower vintage

Stopping for a photo in a field of California wildflowers (circa 1966).



It was a family activity my parents happily agreed on. My mother, raised in the old Rancho town of Santa Margarita, had grown up doing it. Thanks to her dad, who was also raised in SLO, in the hills surrounding the soon-to-be Cal Poly campus.  And my father, raised on an almond orchard in northern California, he just loved to drive… anywhere.


San Luis Obispo County wildflowers

Spring wild flowers in oak grassland of San Luis Obispo County. – photo by Joy Albright-Souza



But of course, the urge to surround oneself with the beauty and the vigor of spring, is not unique to my family, it is a deep-seated human need common to most cultures in some form or another.

While I still make pilgrimages to some of my favorite spots and have fun exploring new ones, in recent years I’ve also been growing an easy and relatively accidental version of this childhood memory. A“happy accident” provided by nature with no extra water or well-timed planting involved.


johnny jump ups with boules

A rusty petanque ball nestles amongst the violas in a gravel bed. -photo by Joy Albright-Souza



It turns out that the gravel petanque court that I created – the prototype of the many I have since suggested or designed for others – is a lovely “nursery” bed for certain types of seedlings.  In particular, a few violas, planted in nearby beds, went to seed before I pulled them out one spring and the next year, some seedlings germinated in the shallow gravel of the playing court, with the cool winter rains.



A homegrown, water-wise  “meadow” is a spring pleasure. – photo by Joy Albright-Souza



A couple of years later, by not pulling up the violas until after they too had set some seed…and viola’… My own personal field of “wild” flowers, to enjoy from about February through April (depending on winter weather), then tidied up in May, when I’m ready to use the space for a game of boules, for which it was designed.

This trick, if you find it appealing, will work in gravel driveways and other spaces with a bit of “grit” (as the English like to say). The gravel provides surface drainage and aeration for the tender roots, and the compacted base rock below, keeps out the nastier tap-rooted weeds (although this also means it doesn’t work well with California poppies or other tap-rooted flowers), allowing the gentler ephemeral plants to be easily removed, when desired.


violas asst vertical

Violas, aka Johnny Jump Ups, do surprisingly well in compacted gravel, needing only the winter rains of a Mediterranean climate to bloom and set seed for the next season. -photo by Joy Albright-Souza



This may seem counter-intuitive to the traditional idea of a well-amended, well-watered “meadow”. But, in the west, some of our best remaining native flower fields are actually in challenging soil conditions, such as serpentine outcroppings or vernal pools in thin soil over clay hardpan.

Agriculture has traditionally used the areas with deeper, more fertile soils and filled in flood plains early in our history.  But Many of our native annuals can thrive in poor soil conditions, where they originally evolved, which allows them to have a chance of competing with the non-native plants and grasses that have replaced the pre-European wildflowers in much of our state.


wildflowers sandy soil

California native wildflowers; lupine, goldfields (Lasthenia) and baby blue eyes (Nemophila) can thrive in poor soil and with moderate livestock grazing. -photo by Joy Albright-Souza



While my violas aren’t native to California, of course, I have found that the gravel surface also works well with polygala, nemesia, linaria and even tough little bulbs like crocus, that appreciate good drainage. Natives such as clarkia and nemophila work well and next year I think I’m going to try a couple of additional native annuals, such as Gold Fields or Tidy Tips, just like the fields of my childhood.

So, whether you “visit” flowers or grow your own – create a spring ritual that will celebrate the joys of the season and make your heart sing. ————


Joy in flower field

Vintage smile; Joy in a field of wildflowers.



————  With the increasing awareness  of removing thirsty lawns, in the drought-plagued West, more people are using gravel for large garden areas. So whether you want to encourage certain plants or discourage all plants, here are some recommendations ———

Organic Weed Control For Gravel Areas;

Best; Hand pull plants before seeds mature or  hoeing for larger areas.

Next Best;  Boiling water or small propane torch to kill the plants with heat. Pros; kills unwanted, un-germinated seed as well. Cons; kills good soil bacteria within the immediate area.

Not recommended; Vinegar or other home-made weed-killers. These affect the soil biology and pH for a pro-longed period, until the substance has leached through the soil profile.


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Categories: Garden Inspiration, Native Plants


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4 Comments on “Fields of Flowers; Past and Present, Native and Not”

  1. April 12, 2015 at 11:46 am #

    Another delightful piece with lovely photos, Joy! I have the same nostalgia for the blooming peach and almond orchards around Modesto where I grew up.

  2. April 13, 2015 at 2:43 pm #

    Thanks for the compliment Claudia. The landscapes of our youth have such power over our perceptions of beauty, don’t they? Thank you for sharing your memories of blooming orchards. Spring is certainly the best time to be in Modesto!

  3. April 14, 2015 at 2:01 am #

    California wild flowers and your violas–spectacular!!! Plants and humans–beautiful.

  4. April 15, 2015 at 10:13 am #

    Awesome post Joy. Sweet faces, sweet flowers, and sweet memories. See you soon!

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