First, a big thank-you to everyone who requested seeds through last month’s giveaway. Several hundred packets have, I hope, made it to new homes around the globe. (If you sent in a request and didn’t hear back from me, or if I confirmed your request but your seeds haven’t arrived yet, please don’t hesitate to leave me a note here or contact me directly.) And a special thanks to those of you who shared seeds and other surprises in return—the generosity of gardeners is unsurpassed!
Since last fall, I’ve been writing about some of the many good reasons to make seeds part of your gardening experience. I obviously spend way too much time thinking about seeds: collecting, cleaning, packing those I already have, buying or trading for new ones, and—best of all—getting them all growing.
I think the only thing I like more than having lots of seeds to sow is having seeds I don’t have to sow—more than once, anyway. “Self-sowing” annuals, biennials, and short-lived perennials are such a gift to gardens and gardeners, from an aesthetic standpoint as well a practical one. Granted, they can get a little too enthusiastic sometimes, but their good points generally far outweigh the bit of management they may require. Unfortunately, self-sowers tend to be hard to find for sale as plants, for various reasons. So, even if you normally don’t choose to grow from seed, I encourage you to consider making an exception to get some of these gems growing in your garden.
We’re encouraged to space our plants “properly,” taking into account their ultimate height and spread and giving each enough room so that they’ll just touch when they’re mature. That would be fine if plants were programmed to grow at a consistent rate from season to season, from year to year, in any site, and in any climate. They’re living things, though, and even the same species or cultivar can vary a great deal in how fast it reaches that mature size, depending on the size you start with, the growing conditions your site offers, the weather, and a slew of other factors. One plant may reach its full size in just two or three years, look great for a few more, and then start declining or need division before a slower-growing but longer-lived partner comes into its prime. Self-sowers can be a big help in coping with this challenge.
Another traditional design guideline is to site short plants toward the front of a border and tall plants at the back. That makes sense to a certain extent, but it can create a somewhat boring stair-step effect. Letting self-sowers come up where they please, then doing a little (or a lot) of “editing,” can create the layered look, with some taller plants coming up through lower ones.
Quite a few self-sowing annuals and biennials offer out-of-the-ordinary germination patterns and growth cycles, providing possibilities for early or late-season color. Once they’re growing in the garden and have the chance to mature and drop their seeds on their own schedule, rather than ours, they may jump into growth weeks or even months before we’d think about starting them.
Tassel flower (Emilia javanica) and grass pea (Lathyrus sativus var. azureus) are two other self-sowers that can usually complete two rounds in one growing season here.
If none of those myriad benefits tempt you into trying self-sowers, think about this: When you work with seeds that start themselves at their preferred time, right in the garden, you don’t have to deal with pots, sowing medium, labels, plant lights, sowing schedules, and the hardening-off dance necessary when days are mild but nights are still too chilly for pampered seedlings to stay outside.
The transplanting issue is one reason many excellent self-sowing annuals aren’t easy to find as started plants. That’s partly the issue with finding started biennials too. They tend to do best when moved while they’re still young, which is usually in late summer—a time when most gardeners aren’t thinking about plant shopping. And since the first-year growth of most biennials isn’t very eye-catching, most nurseries don’t bother making these plants available for sale.
There’s so much more to say about self-sowers that I’ve divided this post in two, to be continued in March. I’ll cover more of the practical aspects of getting self-sowers going, and how I like to manage them once they make themselves at home, along with details on more of my personal favorites among these valuable garden additions. See you then!
I am passionate about collecting and growing seeds. In the links below, you can find out more about why I started my own one-person seed company and how it works. The library page is a collection of articles I've written on seed-related topics.