Self-seeding Weeds

Self-seeded vs weeds – how to be more relaxed about your garden. Find the balance that is right for you and try a new gardening style. Gardening with self-seeding plants can be fun and rewarding. Here are its benefits and tips on getting started. Some crop plants are self-seeding. With a bit of light management each generation can be coaxed into providing seeds season after season.

Self-seeded vs weeds – can you achieve the magic balance?

I’ve been thinking about the balance of self-seeded vs weeds in my garden this year.

This is my main border. In May and June it is full of self seeded alliums. lychnis coronaria, euphorbia and a self-seeded Rosa glauca in the front by the bench.

We are open every year for the Faversham Open Gardens & Garden Market Day It’s always on the last Sunday in June. And June is the best time of year for self-seeders in my garden.

So I am doing some last minutes prinking. And I’m wondering, as always, whether I have got the balance right between self-seeded plants and weeds.

As garden writer, Helen Yemm, once told me – you need to be quite an expert gardener to tell the difference between self-seeded vs weeds when they are both small.

And when I first came to this garden sixteen years ago, I knew nothing about gardening. And I was very busy, so often didn’t have time to weed thoroughly, although we did have a few hours of paid gardening help every week.

The result of my neglect is that our June garden is a blaze of self-seeded plants. But the weeds in my garden are also horrendous.

Either I have not got the balance between self-seeded vs weeds right. Or there is no balance to be achieved. Maybe you can’t have one without the other.

Both sets of alliums and the euphorbia are self-seeded. However, I did originally grow the euphorbia from seed fifteen years ago, and it has romped around the garden since. Around 10 years ago,I bought a few alliums (Allium Christophii and Allium Purple Sensation). Since then, they have just sorted themselves out.

Are weeds becoming ‘fashionable’?

However, after going to this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, I feel more positive about my weeds. The David Harber Savills garden had buttercups growing up through crevices, and the Welcome to Yorkshire garden actually had nettles. On the Canals and Rivers Trust garden at BBC Gardeners World Live, there was encouragement to keep your grassy edges shaggy.

So is my garden part of a new wave? Or are we all going to regret our new found relaxed attitude to weeds in a few years time when we find ourselves strangled by them?

This yellow weed is very pretty in the shady bed, with a backdrop of oak leafed hydrangea and self-seeded Angelica. I have tried to identify it but the closest I have come is ‘nipplewort’ or Lapsana communis. Please do correct me if I’ve got that wrong.

Is the self-seeded vs weeds balance psychological?

A couple of friends who are involved with the NGS have asked me if I’ve ever considered putting my garden forward for possible opening. I’ve explained about the weeds, usually feeling rather embarrassed.

But now I’ve seen ‘weeds’ at Chelsea, I could explain that I’m aiming for a balance in self-seeded vs weeds. It’s actually my gardening style. I no longer need to feel embarrassed about it.

This bed definitely doesn’t have the balance between self-seeders and weeds right. There is terrible bindweed, plus brambles, plus nettles..but I do weed it, I promise. I’m thinking of making it a wildflower bed, and allowing the nettles to flourish for butterflies to enjoy. But the bindweed has even beaten back self-seeded fennel, so this happy idea may not be possible.

But it is important to be honest. Self-seeders are wonderful, free and gloriously relaxed, but my garden is full of weeds because I am a bit lazy about weeding. And there’s no virtue in that.

And weeding is definitely linked to self-seeding, even if you are an expert gardener. When I last wrote about the best self-seeding plants, some expert gardeners told me that plants ‘never self-seed’ in their gardens. However, this complaint only ever comes from people who are diligent weeders and have gardens full of beautiful blooms that they have actually planted.

Structure helps you get away with weeds

One reason why people don’t initially realise that my garden is full of weeds is that the weediest parts have a strong structure. The left hand back border is infested with bindweed, nipplewort (if that’s what it’s called), docks and more.

But, from a distance, the graceful Robinia frisia and the tailored outlines of topiarised holly and holm oaks disguise the muddle underneath.

Spot the weeds! You have to go close up, but next Sunday’s Faversham Open Gardens visitors will. Perhaps I’ll find out whether it’s definitely called nipplewort or not.

Interestingly, the other border on the back wall needs less weeding than anywhere else in the garden. It’s full of Japanese anemones. Could this be linked? Do Japanese anemones even beat off bindweed?

One year’s weeding saves seven years seeding

There’s no doubt that this saying is true. I probably now spend as much time weeding as those with immaculate gardens who have never allowed weeds to take over. One of the main arguments in the self-seeded vs weeds debate is that it seems almost impossible not to have both.

This week, I have filled a one ton sack full of weeds. And I have a wonderful friend who says that weeding is a good stress-reliever. She has relieved her stress to the tune of around five one-ton sacks this year.

So, although I love the more relaxed approach seen in this year’s Chelsea Flower Show and Gardener’s World Live, I think we should be honest about the consequences.

Even the vegetable beds have self-seeders – parsley, coriander, rocket, spinach and nasturtiums. They’re in the far bed, top right of this picture. In the foreground are a selection of common weeds.

Put the mower away…

One of the best things you can do for wildlife in your garden and for the environment is to put your mower away. Or use it less.

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With the right treatment, the result should be a beautiful meadow lawn. Find out more in How to Create A Mini Meadow Lawn.

However, you will have to decide which plants in your lawn are wildflowers and which are weeds.

And you’ll need to weed out pernicious perennial weeds while leaving the wildflowers in. For more advice, see Meadow Lawn Mistakes and How to Avoid Them.

So what’s the conclusion about self-seeded vs weeds?

Last year, I wrote a post on how to create a mini-meadow in your garden. It may look as simple as simply ‘not mowing the lawn’. But after talking to many people who have mini meadows in their middle-sized gardens, I realised that there is work involved. But it’s a different sort of work and it takes place at a different time.

If you decide to go for a more relaxed self-seeded and weed-friendly garden, the same applies. It won’t necessarily be less work overall. But it may suit you better. It’s right for my gardening style and it may be right for yours.

But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s low-maintenance gardening. Those who weed regularly, wrenching a weed out the minute it pops its head up, probably ultimately spend less time weeding than the rest of us. True low-maintenance gardening is about easy care shrubs and well planned hard landscaping.

Where to buy tickets for Faversham Open Gardens

Tickets are £6 or £10 for two, available from the Faversham Society, 13 Preston St or the Faversham Open Gardens stall in the Market Place from mid-May. You can also get them posted to you if you ring 01795 534452. There are no tickets for sale at individual gardens.

And for listings of beautiful (weed-free) gardens to visit throughout the year, see the NGS Yellow Book. (Links to Amazon are affiliate, see disclosure.)

Tips for Using Self-seeding Plants in the Garden

Sometimes gardeners shy from using plants with a propensity to seed themselves around the garden, for fear that these self-seeders will outcompete neighboring plants or upset the overall planting design. These are valid concerns, yet gardening with self-seeding plants has its upsides:

False indigo (Baptisia australis) is a perennial that gently self-seeds in my garden. Its seedlings are easy to identify because of the plant’s unique foliage. Because this is a tall plant, I move chance seedlings when they pop up at the front of the garden, where they will block the view of other plants.

It can be of great benefit to bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects. Self-seeding plants typically flower abundantly, providing plenty of food for these insects while also creating a lively, colorful display.

It requires less in the way of resources. If plants are happy to “volunteer” in your garden, they are happy with its conditions—no need for supplemental water, soil amendments or fertilizer.

It offers surprises that can be gorgeous, and it’s the chance to turn “garden design” into a partnership with nature, rather than a struggle for control.

Creativity is not lost. Although plants will pop up where you didn’t plan for them, you don’t have to leave them there. You can, but there’s always the option to pull or move them.

Getting started with self-seeders:

Experiment with those that may already be in your garden. Allow some seedlings to develop wherever they pop up. If you decide you don’t like how they look later, you can still pull them or move them. Ask local gardening friends for chance seedlings that appear in their garden, and for their observations of plants that self-sow and to what degree.

To encourage volunteer seedlings, don’t mulch. The mulch that suppresses weed seeds will do the same to desirable seeds. You will need to weed, but the amount of weeding could taper off after a few seasons, especially as you encourage a thick tapestry of plants that are ideal for the site. If you can’t skip mulch altogether, opt for a shallow layer of a fine material such as shredded leaves or pine needles, and/or wait until summer to apply mulch, so that volunteers have a chance to come up in the spring.

It goes without saying, but avoid including invasive plants in your garden. The goal is to encourage some self-seeding, not overtake a neighboring ecosystem. Research the plants you’re adding to your garden and consult with local extension agencies, botanic gardens and wildflower societies for planting ideas and locally native species.

Use straight species or naturally occuring varieties rather than hybrids or cultivars, which often have been rendered sterile to prolong their bloom time and therefore will not produce seed, or if they are fertile, their offspring may be weak or show less desirable traits. If you use non-sterile cultivars, be aware that the seedlings may not precisely resemble the parent, particularly if you are growing more than one cultivar, as they may cross-pollinate. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) For more on this topic, see this post from South Dakota State University Extension.

Thin your volunteer seedlings so that they can develop. Sometimes a bunch will pop up in one place; when they begin to crowd against each other, pull some and compost or transplant them.

Familiarize yourself with how your plants look as seedlings vs. how common weeds in your area look, so you won’t mistakenly pull a garden plant and leave a weed. This knowledge will accumulate over time; when you’re starting out, don’t be afraid to let a potential weed develop a bit or even flower if you’re unsure. (Just don’t let it go to seed if you realize it is a weed!)

Related recommended reading

If you want to start gardening more intentionally with self-seeding plants (and take a less controlled approach to gardening altogether), check out these books:

This book is all about gardening with self-seeding plants. It describes how to choose plants, prepare the soil and edit seedlings so that the garden retains structure. It includes visits to several beautiful gardens of self-sown plants for inspiration and guidance, plus descriptive lists of plants for specific situations.

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This book describes how to create a low-budget yet beautiful garden by propagating your own plants and using spreading plants. There is a great section on making the most of self-seeders. (There’s also lots of practical info on wintering tender plants, collecting and storing seed, dividing plants and more, plus recommended plants that self-sow, spread by their roots or overwinter easily.)

This book presents an ecological approach to gardening, explaining how to assess your site and create a plan based on ideally suited plants that will evolve to contribute to the surrounding ecosystem while requiring less input from you. Among many other lessons, the book shows how to choose and site appropriate spreading and self-seeding plants, which build on your initial design and eliminate the need for purchasing and installing replacement plants should something fail.

This book provides an excellent entry for home gardeners into the world of ecological gardening. Norris provides much background on plant behavior and needs and he explains how they grow best in communities with one another. He shows gardeners how to design their own plant communities that will mature in fairly predictable ways while still allowing for happy surprises. The book also includes guidance tailored to specific sites around our homes, such as shady spaces, foundation beds, curbside strips and more.

Self-Seeding Crops You’ll Never Need to Replant

To encourage biennial crops to overwinter, cover them with a row cover. They will develop seeds in spring.

One of the characteristics of a truly sustainable garden is that it produces at least some of its own seed. This is most often done when gardeners select, harvest and store seeds until the proper time for planting the following year. But some self-seeding crops produce seeds so readily that as long as you give them time to flower and mature, and set seed, you will always have free plants growing in your garden. You can simply let the seeds fall where they are, or toss pieces of the seed heads into the corners of your garden, or whichever area you want them in — no harvesting, storing or replanting required. With most self-seeding vegetables, herbs and annual flowers, you’ll just need to learn to recognize the seedlings so you don’t hoe them down. Should seedlings require relocation, you can simply lift and move them — after all, they are sturdy field-grown seedlings.

In addition to getting all the free garden plants you need (and some to share with family and friends), nurturing self-seeders is also a great way to provide a diversity of flowers that supply pollen and nectar for beneficial insects. Self-seeding flowers, herbs and vegetables that show up in early spring include arugula, calendula, chamomile, cilantro, dill, breadseed poppies and brilliant red orach (mountain spinach). Nasturtiums, amaranth, New Zealand spinach, and even basil or zinnias appear later, after the soil has warmed.

Starting a new colony of any of these annuals is usually a simple matter of lopping off armloads of brittle, seedbearing stems in the fall, and dumping them where you want the plants to appear the next season. It’s that easy. Most of the seedlings will appear in the first year after you let seed-bearing plants drop their seeds, with lower numbers popping up in subsequent seasons.

Working with reseeding, or self-sowing, crops saves time and trouble and often gives excellent results, but a few special techniques and precautions are in order. Some plants that self-sow too freely — especially perennials such as garlic chives or horseradish — will cross the line into weediness if not handled with care.

Spring Seeds for Fall Crops

The first group of plants to try as self-sown crops — both because they’re the easiest and they’ll be ready the same year — are those that tend to bolt in late spring. If allowed to bloom and set seed, dill, radishes, arugula, cilantro, broccoli raab, turnips and any kind of mustard will produce ripe seeds in time for fall reseeding in most climates. Lettuce will take a little longer, but often gives good results in Zone 5 or warmer.

One way to encourage self-seeders is to select vigorous plants from a larger planting, and let these plants grow unharvested until they bloom and produce seeds. This will work well enough, but it’s often bothersome to have one lone turnip holding up the renovation of a planting bed. To get around this problem, use a Noah’s ark approach: Set aside a bed or row and transplant pairs of plants being grown for seed into the ark bed. As the weeks pass, weed, water and stake up seed-bearing branches to keep them clean, but don’t pick from the “seed ark” bed.

When seed pods dry and begin to shatter, gather and store some of the seeds as usual for replanting next year (just in case the reseeding effort isn’t successful). Shake and crumble the rest where you want the next crop to grow, and pat the soil to get good contact between soil and seeds. Or, simply lay well-broken seed-bearing branches over a prepared bed and walk over them. This will shatter seed pods and push seeds into the soil at the same time, and the stem pieces will serve as a starter mulch. With fast-sprouting crops such as arugula, a drenching rain or good hand-watering is all it will take to bring on a lovely fall crop.

Many of the seeds that hit the ground will rot or be eaten, but hundreds will survive winter and sprout in spring. Their strength is in their numbers. When you sow a bed of cilantro, for example, you might plant between 25 and 50 seeds. But when nature is in charge, a single plant may shower your garden with a thousand fresh, plump seeds. Cilantro seedlings are easy to dig and move, and they make well-behaved “weeds.”

Managing Annual Self-Seeding Crops

Many annual crops will reseed themselves if you leave them in the garden long enough for the seeds to mature and the fruit to decompose. Annual veggies that frequently reseed and provide volunteer seedlings include winter squash and pumpkins, tomatoes and tomatillos, watermelon, and New Zealand spinach.

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There are two issues to consider when managing this band of garden volunteers: disease and location. The two most serious diseases of potato and tomato — early and late blights — can actually be perpetrated by encouraging disease-carrying volunteer plants. Especially if you saw late blight in your garden the previous season, you should seriously consider breaking the disease cycle by digging up and composting potatoes that sprout from the previous year’s patch, along with all volunteer tomatoes and tomatillos that appear early in the season.

However, sometimes in late summer, I do adopt tomato volunteers that have a potato-type leaf, because I know what they are. ‘Brandywine’ is the only potatoleaf tomato variety I’ve grown in the last five years, so any potatoleaf volunteers are highly likely to be ‘Brandywines.’ You also can recruit healthy volunteer tomatillos based on their distinctive leaf shapes. I locate these foster children around the garden as single plants, spaced far from my main ripening crop. Or you can consider moving volunteers to containers and growing them outside of your garden as a disease safety precaution. With late blight, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Volunteer Veggies

If you’re growing open-pollinated (OP) varieties, it can be fun to let volunteer winter squash, pumpkins, gourds and watermelons ramble along the garden’s edge, or scramble over wire fencing. (Remember that seeds from hybrid varieties usually won’t grow “true to type.”) Check the plants weekly for signs of powdery mildew disease, which is a common problem with older open-pollinated varieties. Squash or pumpkin plants that show signs of powdery mildew before the fruits have set should be pulled out, but don’t worry if the white mildew patches appear later on when the fruits are almost ripe. The plants will still bear a good crop. If volunteer winter squash are always a part of your garden’s landscape because so many seeds survive in your compost, you can introduce powdery mildew resistance to your local population by growing OP varieties which are resistant to powdery mildew, such as ‘Honey Nut’ butternut and ‘Cornell’s Bush Delicata.’

Controlling Rampant Self-Seeders

Several useful herbs and greens reseed with such abandon they must be handled as potentially invasive plants. Plants behave differently depending on the climate, but in general, expect the following crops to become obnoxious if not given appropriate discipline: borage, chives, garlic chives, edible docks and sorrels, herb fennel, lemon balm, horseradish and valerian. Here are the house rules:

  1. Grow only as many plants as you can monitor.
  2. Don’t allow seeds to be shed in your garden without your permission. This is done by pruning off flowers or immature seed heads, many of which make fine cut flowers.

When experimenting with herbs from around the world, I have learned to be cautious, because one year’s seed can be many years’ weeds. Start with small plantings of nigella, perilla, and seed-producing sorrels and docks to make sure you can keep them under control. Intervene early should a reseeding plant you don’t want start popping up everywhere. Weed ruthlessly until it’s gone, because ill-mannered thug plants have no place in a well-managed garden.

34 Easy Self-Seeders

Herbs: basil, chamomile, cilantro, cutting celery, dill, parsley

Vegetables: amaranth, arugula, beets, broccoli raab, carrots, collards, kale, lettuce, orach, mustards, New Zealand spinach, parsnips, pumpkin, radish, rutabaga, tomatillo, tomato, turnips, winter squash

Flowers: bachelor button, calendula, celosia, cosmos, nasturtiums, poppies, sunflowers, sweet alyssum, viola

Bountiful Biennials Set Seeds in the Spring

If you can get them through winter in good shape (a challenge north of Zone 7), openpollinated varieties of beets, carrots, collards, kale (especially Russian strains), broccoli, parsnips and parsley can be added to your list of self-sown crops. These crops produce their seeds in the second year. Cold frames or low tunnels work surprisingly well at enhancing the winter survival of these plants, or you can try replanting stored beets, carrots or parsnips in late winter, as soon as the soil thaws.

To get prompt, strong flowering and seed production from most biennial vegetables, it’s important to have nearly mature plants that have been exposed to at least six weeks of cold with soil temperatures in the 40-degree-Fahrenheit range. In the spring, warming temperatures and lengthening days trigger overwintered biennials to flower profusely, eventually producing great stalks of flowers for bees and beneficials, followed by thousands of seeds — a single parsley plant may shed the equivalent of 10 packets of seeds. You will see most of these seedlings in the first two seasons after a reseeding. By the third year, it’s time to repeat the drill.

The best time to plant biennial seeds is late summer to early fall, using the seed ark approach described earlier. For example, you might grow pairs of carrots, Russian kale, and parsnips together, and protect the young plants through winter with a low plastic-covered tunnel. By midsummer the following year, you should have enough fresh seeds to save and scatter where you want new seedlings to grow, just in time for fall planting.

Managing Self-Seeders

  • In the fall, toss seed heads wherever you want seeds to germinate. Or, next spring, transplant volunteers to the spots where you want them to grow.
  • Be sure not to hoe “weeds” too early in the spring.
  • Learn to identify the self-seeder seedlings.

Contributing editor Barbara Pleasant gardens in southwest Virginia, where she grows vegetables, herbs, fruits, flowers and a few lucky chickens. Contact Barbara by visiting her website or finding her on Google+.

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