Text and photos ©Nancy J. Ondra
A month or two ago, I read a blog post somewhere on low-maintenance gardening, and one of the tips was to avoid self-sowing plants. I’ve been pondering that ever since. In many ways I agree wholeheartedly, especially in the case of self-sowing perennials. Being confronted with thousands of bronze fennel or hundreds of golden lemon balm seedlings can do that to a person. (To be fair, I completely accept the blame for that; if I’d have spent just a few minutes deadheading them last year, I would have saved hours of weeding them out now.) When it come to annuals, though, I consider the self-sowers to be some of my most valuable time-savers.
Granted, self-sowing annuals too can be overgenerous with their offspring, which does entail some extra weeding time with a full-size or hand hoe. And that weeding can get time-consuming, as you try to figure out which seedlings are the good guys and which are the weeds. I’ve learned not to be too quick to do my spring weeding, because telling them apart is much easier when the seedlings are several inches tall.
On balance, though, self-sowing annuals save me a lot of time. They come up when they’re ready, saving me the trouble of starting them indoors, pampering and potting them up, and then planting them out. With so many other seeds that *do* need that extra attention, anything that’ll sow itself is golden in my world.
Self-sowers save money, too, because they fill space that I’d otherwise have to buy or grow stuff to fill.
And from an aesthetic standpoint, self-sowers offer several benefits over transplants. For one, the self-sowers often grow more steadily and are more vigorous in the long run, I guess because they never have to deal with root disturbance from transplanting. It’s true that they can take some weeks longer to come into bloom than their jump-started indoor-sown counterparts, but I consider that a good thing, because they’re just coming into fresh bloom at a time when earlier-started gardens are looking tired.
Best of all is the way that self-sowers create some phenomenal combinations, putting themselves in places that I’d never even consider. A sunflower right at the front of a border? A mass of verbena laced through tightly planted ornamental grasses? Sometimes they come up in tough sites where I couldn’t or wouldn’t even dream of trying to squeeze them in with a trowel. With a mostly hands-off approach, tempered by a little editing on the gardener’s part, self-sowing annuals are some of the most brilliant designers around.
So, to celebrate the return of the plants that can save me time, save me money, and make me look like a really good gardener, too, I’m sharing a top-10 list of my favorite self-sowing annuals.
To start, the stunning solid-red Amaranthus ‘Hopi Red Dye’. (These seedlings are looking rather lacy from last year’s cucumber beetle problem, but they quickly outgrow that sort of summer damage.)
Bupleurum rotundifolium (thoroughwax or hare’s ear):
Celosia – primarily the spiky types, since I don’t seem to get many volunteers from the cool crested kinds. This one showed up where ‘Punky Red’ and ‘Wine Sparkler’ were growing next to each other the previous year.
Consolida – larkspur in a mix of colors is a joy for spiky accents in early summer.
Euphorbia marginata (snow on the mountain). Yes, it can even be weedy, but the big seedlings are easy to spot and pull out where they’re too abundant.
Helianthus annuus (sunflowers): in this case, a self-sown seedling of the stunningly variegated ‘Sunspots’, with some bonus seedlings of ‘Kingwood Gold’ jewels-of-Opar (Talinum paniculatum) at its feet.
Lactuca sativa (lettuce): specifically, the marvelous ‘Merlot’, which, unlike most lettuces, looks lovely even when bolting into bloom.
Nicotiana (flowering tobaccos). This one is the hybrid ‘Ondra’s Green Mix’; others are excellent self-sowers too.
Nigella damascena (love-in-a-mist). A fantastic filler, self-sown love-in-a-mist is always superior to transplants. This one, with white flowers and purple pods, is ‘Cramers’ Plum’.
Persicaria capitata ‘Afghan’ (formerly Polygonum capitatum), making an ultra-cute groundcover (the image below is of some of its self-sown seedlings).
Persicaria orientalis (Polygonatum orientale) ‘Shiro-gane Nishiki’, variegated kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate, which, at eventually 6-feet-plus, is anything but a groundcover.
And finally, Verbena bonariensis (Brazilian vervain). I know this one can get out of hand, but it sure is a nice mingler.
Ok, that was 12 plants, not 10. But with self-sowers, it’s all about getting a little extra!