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.
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26 thoughts on “Make the Most of Self-Sowers (Part 1)”
Nan your posts are always so beautiful and encouraging. I love seeing the overall pictures of your garden. They make my heart go pitty patter especially this time of year when everything is so blah. I have so much shade/part sun areas that I wonder if any of these plants will perform in my garden. I haven’t had the best of luck with self seeders. I am probably a little too nit picky too.
Great to hear from you, Lisa. I’m finally starting to get some shade too (only took 20 years), but I still have a whole lot of sun for these self-sowers. One that does really well in my shady spots is the widow’s tears (Tinantia erecta). It’s easy to see where the seeds are forming, so if you don’t want to let it reseed, or if you want to collect the seeds so you can scatter them yourself, you can do that.
What a delightful post for a 15 degree February morn, Nan! All those wonderful beds of blooms are a sight for sore eyes. Oh, how the self sowers do love the spaces between the pavers of walkways, with coneflowers and tall verbena coming immediately to mind. And I find black eyed susans to be total garden thugs, how about you? Looking forward to part two next month.
Good morning, Ginny. Yes, brrr–it is 7 degrees here. Where did our early spring go? You’re right, self-sowing perennials are a whole other issue, which is why I tried to focus only on short-lived ones along with the annuals and biennials. My garden would likely be nothing but Rudbeckia fulgida and Phlox paniculata if I didn’t intervene.
I love self-sowers. I encourage them. They definitely changed my gardening style. More of a wild look and I love it. The pollinators seem to enjoy them too.
Growing any thing new this year?
That’s a really interesting observation, Mel, about the pollinators. Quite a few of the self-sowers have umbels or daisy-form flowers, so maybe that accounts for it. Am I growing anything new? Oh, so many things. I had a lot of fun hunting for seeds online this winter! I hope they do well so I will have them to share next winter.
Your photographs are so inspiring and your sharing of specific information on plants is a treasure- can’t wait for March follow up! Spring is right around the corner, Judy from Maine
Good morning to you, Judy–another early riser on such a cold morning. At least it is sunny here, so it looks like spring, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Thinking about growing things makes even this crazy weather tolerable!
Hi, Nan ! Such joy to awaken to your post and pics and one of my favorite subjects also…self sowers !!! I’m not a fan of ‘structured’…lol….
So true that they pop up in places where I would not have thought to plant them and I then realize that it’s the perfect spot for whatever it is…and being more crowded than I would have planted it is just right also.
The Mexican Feather Grass being a case in point…things that come up in abundance giving me the choice of leaving it where it is, moving it elsewhere, using it as filler since I get plenty to pull it later if I choose….
The Verbena bonariensis that in all my years I’d never planted…..wow….am hoping it lives up to its reputation for self sowing a lot…lol…I usually see pics of it being ‘airy’ and maybe 5′ tall, here in my ‘still new to me’ area (6 years now), the V. bonariensis is 7′ tall and sturdy….I can see its use as screening mixed in with the taller shrubs.
Also get volunteers of plants quite plentiful to this area, and underappreciated here because of it, that I love for their wild look…Asters and Ox-Eye daisies, various Willows and now also a Pacific Wax Myrtle that I’ve not used before…..the garden is always full of surprises….
So….I see all of your wonderul, beautiful pictures this a.m. and it gets my heart beating…lol…not light yet and still quite cold, but I want to get out there and look around , see what is being gifted to me today…
Also want to share with you what I learned of gardening this year. I have a neighbor and also another couple of friends in their mid-90’s who are avid gardeners still…and it’s easy to just say, “Well, it’s their love of gardening that keeps them going….” It’s one thing to say that, it’s quite another to suddenly feel the intensity of it…the ‘experience’ of it……..I’m 73 and there are days when I can think that it’s okay with me if I die tomorrow, I’ve done enough…then, several days ago I was out when it was sunny, walking around and looking at how quickly the shrubs on the South side of the property have grown…REALLY fast….the climate is here is so much cooler and wetter than I’d been used to that seeing the rate that things grow, I suddenly had this really intense desire to see and experience what it would look like by this coming Summer…..WOW, it’s going to be fantastic ! I sure wouldn’t want to miss that !!…perhpas I should live a bit longer….lol.THIS, I think, is what keeps some gardeners going and going and going…they can’t wait to see what it’s going to LOOK like, what it’s going to become…..I think that you must feel that also…..
That is beautiful, Sherry, and yes, I know exactly what you mean. I find myself wondering why I’m starting seeds of trees that I may not even be around to see when they finally reach flowering size. But it’s so exciting to see the next thing sprout, and then another, and to envision what they might eventually look like. And if I’m not here to enjoy them, I hope someone else will be!
By the way…7-foot-tall Verbena bonariensis? Holy cow! For me, it’s about 4 feet max–5 feet every once in a while if a plant overwinters, which doesn’t often happen with my winter-wet soil.
Sherry, I’m with you on the “It’s okay if I die tomorrow” thoughts. (But who would feed the cat?)
Nan, maybe it’s time for a collection of original essays by gardeners who are at the age where we wonder how the heck we got to be this age, whatever that number might be. We could call it I Can’t Die Til Garden Season Ends.
I like that idea, Erin–particularly because the gardening season never really ends, does it?
One of my friends in his mid-90’s still plants trees from seed on his property….the doctors thought he would be gone a year ago…nope, still with us…..
That’s terrific to hear!
Allegheny vine (Adlumia fungosa) I was unable to star from seed if I ever see it as a seedling I will definitely be getting it!
Yeah, that one can be tricky to get going. When it’s in the garden, some of the seeds drop in time to get a warm, moist period in late summer and fall, then cold, and then germinate in spring. Giving them that warm-cold-warm cycling can be challenging when you’re trying to do it artificially.
I love self-sowers and they are the backbone of my (Automatic) garden. I often move the volunteers to a space where I want them to grow. I do have a problem starting seeds in containers. Have you done a post on that process?
Hi there, Judy. Ah yes, I can get the connection between self-sowers and automatic–neat! I’ve never written here about ordinary seed-sowing. I don’t really do anything out of the ordinary, so I don’t think I have much of interest to say about it. But if you want to share what specific problem(s) you experience, I’d be happy to help troubleshoot with you.
Nan, thank you for this wonderful post. I am always so appreciative of your articles because they are so beautifully and carefully composed, with accurate information, names, and gorgeous photography. I learn a ton. A ton. Practical, actionable and inspiring information. I’m in Westchester County, New York, zone 6-7, (I have several microclimates on my property), and am gearing up to start about 76 different varieties of annuals, perennials, and veg. It’s chaos every spring and early summer with hundreds, even thousands, of seedlings and starts in various stages of growth and potting on— and I can’t wait. Today is bitterly cold, and your post has all my gardening juices flowing. Thank you so much for the time you take to do this. I’m sure I speak for many when I say how much I love learning from someone who knows more than I, despite my 25 years of gardening. I’ve always found gardeners (and dog people interestingly) to be extremely generous with their knowledge and you’re perfect proof.
Thank you again.
You really made my morning, Tracy; thank you ever so much. There are obviously quite a few of us who are happy to think about gardening on this cold winter day. It was a lot of fun putting this post together, though it took ages trying to whittle down the photos. If I hadn’t split the post, this would have ended up being an ebook!
I too am eager to get started with the (somewhat) controlled chaos of the seed-sowing season. Well, I did start back in December with the stuff that likes the cool conditions in my basement, and I stare at those pots daily trying to make seedlings appear with the force of my will. Sometimes it works! But there’s much more immediate gratification from the warm-sown seeds. I’m attempting to hold off on those for another two weeks, at least, but I’m intending to start getting the stand and lights set up this weekend–woo hoo. And just think, by the time I post the rest of this piece, it’ll nearly be spring for real!
Nancy, I always love your mix of text and photos – I feel as if I’m visiting your garden, in spirit at least.. I just came in from scattering some Papaver s. paeoniflorum seeds in the snow, my yearly winter sowing ritual. I grow many of the self-seeders that you mentioned but some were new to me as self-sowers – thank you for sharing and inspiring!
Another great self-sower for me is Rudbeckia triloba – I love the dark wiry stems and it is a butterfly and bee magnet here in the late summer and fall; it also transplants easily and is a little more deer resistant than other Rudbeckia.
Thanks, Lynn, for commenting–and also for reminding me that it’s a good time to get the poppy seeds out. I have a new-to-me one I’m hoping to get started this year. How interesting that your deer give you a problem with rudbeckias. I don’t think I’d mind if mine developed a taste for Rudbeckia fulgida–I have loads of that one!
Thank you for this encouraging post! My garden is a mish mash of self sowers, weeds to others (not to me), and perennials I planted. And you are right: the plants that plant themselves are so much happier than the ones I try to plant. I love my less than predictable garden! My neighbor, God bless him, is always asking if I’m “cleaning up” when I am outside looking around for a self-sown treasure. That’s his subtle way of asking when I’m going to clean up the mess, but I would hate to miss one single poppy, rudbeckia, zinnia, lychnis, Dutch iris (Yes, they just appeared one spring and kept coming back!), dianthus, Echinacea, rose, etc., than to have an ordered garden. I have to admit, the OCD side of me admires his neat rows, his half inch mown grass, his herbicided gravel paths, but I know my yard is healthier for me, my pup, and the myriad insects, birds, lizards, frogs, and whatever else we coexist with. I have so many beautiful sports of different plants that have hybridized themselves that are mine alone. I love seeing what they do each year. You have given me so much inspiration for how I can improve my mishmashy look to be even more full and keep the show going spring through fall, winter even with voilas and pansies, but have less soil showing. I have a bird sown(I assume) rose that only blooms once in spring, but the fragrance is something that people probably paid good money for once! After it blooms, I cut it back to the ground and it pops back up for next year. One year I forgot to cut it back and it climbed into the maple tree! I thought the maple tree had suddenly decided to have pale pink blooms! It was amazingly beautiful! But little too much because the rose was taking over my self-sown chrysanthemum bed. The chrysanths are actually fragrant and not the normal chrysanth pungent fragrant but floral fragrant. Without self sowers, I wouldn’t have these!
Wow, Kristy–what a wonderfully wide variety of self-sowers have graced your garden! They obviously know that they’re more welcome to live with you than in your neighbor’s yard. You’re so right about getting the natural hybrids, too; I’ve noticed that as well–an added benefit to being open to a bit of unpredictability.
Thanks for the beautiful post. As I look out at my garden of snow, I very very much miss spring.
Hi Erin! Ugh, sorry to hear about the snow. For some reason, this February seems to be lasting forever, even though we were promised an early spring on Groundhog’s Day. Hmmph.
I’m finally going to have Lunaria “Pennies in Bronze” in several gardens around my property this year, from seeds I originally got from you. I was shocked at how hardy the tiny seedlings were, surviving winter seemingly unphased. Can’t wait to see what other spots it chooses to pop up in next season, and to share this superb self-sower with others.
That’s fantastic news, Gabriella! ‘Pennies in Bronze’ hasn’t flowered here in a while, but back in the fall, I found a few seedlings from what must have been 2- or 3-year-old, self-sown seeds. I really hope they flower this year.
Hi, Nan. What others have said here, a wonderful post on a VERY chilly New England morning. The photos are gorgeous and make me eager to get my hands back in the soil. Fingers crossed that all the Orlaya I planted last summer self-sows everywhere. Thanks.
I send you positive thoughts for a bounty of Orlaya this spring, Jan. Don’t they have neat seeds? Like little currycombs.
Thanks for another terrific post Nan! These self-sown combinations are a lovely inspiration. I also enjoy self-sown Verbena bonariensis in my garden, as do the butterflies. I sprinkle the verbena seeds around in the fall, and sometimes have to supplement with nursery bought plants. All well worth it for the tall, airy presence they lend to the beds. Looking forward to your post in March!
Thanks so much, Joan. It’s funny how some of these self-sowers, like the Vebena bonariensis, can be so abundant for a while and then nearly or completely disappear, while others reappear year after year. Just the nature of these seedy beasts, I suppose!
What a feast for winter weary eyes! Makes one want to go with all Self-Sowers in the garden. The best combinations come from the hand of God. So pleased to enjoy your photo blog in my inbox again!
I’m with you, Amy. I sometimes think that, when I get older or if I couldn’t manage the garden as I do now, I wouldn’t mind terribly if the meadow plants took over. Take care!
I love seeing your garden. It gives me hope that if your location can support those beautiful beds and plants so can mine. I am in Southeast Pa where it is so awfully wet the last 3 years I have almost given up. I have a lot of “borrowed” shade” i.e. from my neighbors too- tall- and- too- big- for- their- yard trees. But I keep trying and planning and this post excites me! I am horribly impatient and have not tried seeds but maybe this will be the year!
Hi Desiree! I’m in the same area, so I know what you mean about the wet. The last few years have been ridiculously soggy, haven’t they? Shade *and* wet is particularly tough. Who knows what this year will bring us? The only thing to do is keep trying, as you say!
I love the cottage garden style. I had it in Boston but here in Atlanta area I have voles. I make cages for all of my perennials and most annuals, but the voles weave inbetween them and munch the roots of most plants. :( So, self sowers are pretty hit and miss in my yard, but I leave the ones that come up and hope the voles are eating somewhere else at the time.
Ohhh, voles, yeah. I resorted to doing all my garden cleanup in fall in self-defense. I missed the seedheads, though, and tried leaving everything this year, and I’ve found so many holes in and around my perennials, grasses, and roses. Sigh. More room for new things, I guess, and I will go back to fall cleanup.
I’m going to be dreaming about that combo of Nigella damascena and Prunus persica for quite awhile.
Thanks–that’s a favorite of mine too! The stripey pods of regular Nigella damascena would probably look good too, but the solid-dark ones of ‘Cramers’ Plum’ are my preference.
I’m a big fan of self-sowers and I just learned of several new ones reading your post. I’m glad to see you have the adlumia. That one just showed up in my former garden and some seeds came over in the root balls of plants I brought with me. It’s native, but I have never seen it in the wild.
It’s thanks to you that I have it, Kathy–the seeds you shared with me last January germinated easily, and the plants actually started flowering in July instead of waiting for the second year. I’m really hoping they self-sowed, but if not, I collected seeds and will try to start some too.
Thank you so much Nan, for brightening up what is a very cold, wet and windy day in NW England. I am in full agreement with you regarding self sowers. As you have shown in your beautiful photos, nature has a way of beautifying our gardens, making perfect companions by self sowers. As you say if we don’t like them we can easily pull them out. My particular self sower is Rays Golden Campion (silene dioica), I just weed out the green leaved ones.
‘Ray’s Golden Campion’ is a favorite with me too, Allan. I was careless with the rogueing for a couple of years, though (as evidenced by the patch of the straight species in one of the photos) and nearly lost the gold-leaved strain. I managed to salvage a couple and hope they bloom this year, so I can build it up again.
One of my favourite things in the garden is gathering huge pots of seed from Papaver somniferum (mostly ‘Lauren’s Grape” and her wayward children) and from various Nigella varieties (and one can get very large quantities of seed from these two). Then in late summer and early spring standing with my back to the borders, grabbing a handful of seed and throwing it with abandon over my shoulder. Then waiting.
You don’t always get what you expect and want, but it always is very interesting.
How fun, Nick! I’ve never tried backward seed flinging, but I will have a go at it this year. I’m sure my neighbors will consider me even more eccentric than usual, and that’s a pretty high bar.
Campion, lunaria, phlox and some sort of campanula have all self sown into our landscapes, presumably from home gardens in an adjacent neighborhood. There is always a concern that they may become invasive, like crocosmia has, but so far, all are remaining docile and contained. Not much escapes into the surrounding dark forest. Fleabane grows on stone walls, but takes a while to get established. It really is surprisingly easy to get rid of if it shows up where we do not want it.
Those sound like lovely volunteers, Tony. You’re right about the potential for being invasive; I’ll address that a bit in the second part. I have to admit that the idea of crocosmia being invasive always surprises me; I have a really hard time growing it here.
Nan, as always a simply beautiful and informative selection of plants. It is so nice to be able to see the self sown plants rounding out your garden. My husband likes to refer to my garden as a wild Scottish garden, as my plantings and volunteer plants mingle with native wildflowers. It makes for great garden enjoyment. I also like to do a bit of winter sown pots to set outside and have had some great luck with perennial plants that way.
Thank you for sharing your garden!
All the best
Aw, Jean, your garden sounds absolutely charming–and well-loved, too, clearly. I really appreciate you taking the time to read and comment!
It feels like the winter has been particularly long over here. Seeing all the bright colours and flowers just makes me happy inside. What a lovely and informative post!
Ah, you too, huh? I’m glad I could help a little. Thanks so much for visiting…and here’s hoping you see spring soon!
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