Plants are self-sowing and staking out their turf

Summer is by no means over and plans are already underway for next year’s garden. You’re not the one making them, though. It will be months before the new seed catalogs arrive, and what with weeding and watering you might not have had a chance to come up with a scheme for next year. But the garden has plans of its own.

All over the yard, plants are setting seed and staking out their territory. In the flower garden, the annuals have been especially busy. Sweet alyssum, Chinese forget-me-not, mignonette, tricolor sage, sunflowers, cosmos, snapdragons, nicotiana and Verbena bonariensis are flinging seeds left and right in their desire to perpetuate themselves — and set the color scheme for 2020.

You might thwart their efforts by deadheading the spent blooms before the seeds have matured and dropped, but there are hundreds of seedheads, millions of seeds. It’s nature’s way of colonizing bare ground — and reminding you that you are not always in control of her world.

Next year you can survey this population explosion, taking note of biennials like foxgloves, lupines and hollyhocks as well, then decide which well-placed ones get to stay and which must go.

For me this is all part of the fun. Tidy gardeners, with hoe always at the ready, have no patience for these eager volunteers, but I find them useful. In a year when I’m too busy to grow annuals at all, there they are, ready to fill in the gaps between clumps of perennials, and introduce a sort of recurrent theme. They lend an informal note, and are often more vigorous that the ones I start myself, since they time their own planting dates, choose their own sites.

In the vegetable garden the same thing would happen if I allowed it. Here the plants are nearly all annuals, and many are notorious self-sowers. Tomatoes that fall on the ground and rot will leave a legacy of seedlings for next year, no matter how much hoeing or tilling I do in an effort to start with a clean slate.

Even tomatoes that spend a year or two humifying on the compost pile can be reborn as seedlings in years to come, so viable are the seeds.

Even squash, pumpkins, peppers, lettuce, beans and other food crops will sometimes self-sow. This might be from seeds that have waited a year to sprout. With a cabbage or a Brussels sprout, it‘s a root left in the soil that produces “babies” in a circle around it. With potatoes it’s usually the tiny one you missed when you dug the last crop. Some of my favorite naturalized wild greens, like miner’s lettuce (claytonia) are downright weedy.

Like most vegetable gardeners, I am too traditional to go along with a scheme that incorporates volunteers. I rotate my crops, as an insurance policy against overwintering pests and diseases and to avoid placing the same nutritional demands on a given spot each season.

My maintenance program is based on nice straight rows, not random patterns. When it comes to my food supply, I’m the grouch with the hoe.

I also like knowing exactly what will come up, because I have certain tastes I look forward to savoring at harvest time. The problem with seeds dropped by hybrid vegetables is that they will not produce plants identical to the ones you first planted. Even open-pollinated varieties, which do breed true from their seeds, can cross with one another if you have planted more than one variety.

Some gardeners enjoy the surprise of these mystery vegetables. Practitioners of permaculture, for example, encourage volunteers in combination with perennial crops in order to create permanent gardens. And even I will sometimes nurture a stray plant, as a sort of pet, if it comes up in a tolerable spot.

In the herb garden I’m fussy about basil varieties, but by and large it’s a volunteer army. Threaded among the perennial herbs such as tarragon, sage and thyme is a profusion of cilantro and dill, all of which I allow to bloom and drop seed.

I mix these in with certain flowering annuals — self-sowers all — that go especially well with herbs: bright orange calendulas, red Shirley poppies and the mousy-looking but powerfully perfumed night-scented stock.

Many volunteer herbs come up right where they are supposed to, and I count on them. Gorgeous purple perilla, which I use in rice dishes, fills in between the alpine strawberries that line the path and the hollyhocks along the house wall, masking the hollyhocks’ lower leaves when they turn yellow in late summer.

Chamomile, with its clouds of tiny white daisies, showers so many tiny seeds that there is a mossy carpet of seedlings in spring. After beheading all the flowers and drying them for tea, it’s best to pull out most of the plants. It’s important to do this before they turn an ugly brown and go to seed.

I’m pretty sure I got them in time this year. But just in case I think I’ll go out and apply a thick bark mulch. It’ll make that bare patch look nicer anyway. And I’ll be in charge.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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