Self-seeding plants are the key to gardening on automatic. The less you do, the more they grow.
And they’re free. You buy one packet of seeds or one plant, and get a lifetime of exuberant flowers.
But I did feel rather guilty while going round my garden today. I counted over 25 different kinds of self-seeding plants.
This section of the main border is wholly self-seeded: alliums, euphorbia, rosa glauca and crocosmia…
Do I actually ever plant anything? Do I even lift a finger in the garden?
I promise I do. But without self-seeders, my garden would be much less vibrant. And I would have to spend much more time and money on it.
What are self-seeding plants?
It’s not a silly question. When patrolling the garden, I had to ask myself ‘is this a self-seeder or a clump-former?’
A self-seeding plant is one which plants itself. If you’re a bit lazy about dead-heading, then self-seeders will flower. They turn to seed and drop on the ground. If you’re also always a bit behind with the weeding, they will pop up again in spring.
The wind or birds may also carry the seed, so self-seeding plants can pop up in any part of the garden.
My two most prolific self-seeders are wild gladioli and euphorbia.
Some plants, such as day lilies, have all expanded from one or two tiny plants into huge clumps. But they don’t wander round the garden, establishing themselves wherever they see fit. So I don’t call them self-seeders.
Which plants self-seed in your garden can depend on your soil type as well as how good you are at weeding and dead-heading.
Aquilegias and eryngium are both defined as top self-seeders by Gardeners World, but I have planted one or two aquilegias. I still have only one or two aquilegias, exactly where I planted them. I know they’re not the same plants, but I wouldn’t call them a top self-seeding plant for my garden.
And my eryngium has also stayed where I planted it, without invading anywhere else.
We have clay soil, by the way, with some flint.
My very favourite self-seeder
One of our friends was born in this house in 1939. He remembers the wild gladioli in the garden when he was a very young boy. It’s likely that they were already well established by then as most gardening in the Second World War was growing for food.
So these wild gladioli have been in this garden for a hundred years or more. It’s their garden, more than it’s mine.
Gladiolus communis subsp. ‘Byzantinus’ to give wild gladioli its proper name. It comes from the Mediterranean but has been grown in Britain for centuries. In our front garden it lines itself up along the wall. My favourite self-seeder, because of its history.
The best self-seeding flowers
After wild gladioli, my number two self-seeder is cerinthe. It’s an unusual looking plant, and people always ask ‘what’s that?’ But it’s no trouble at all.
I grew some cerinthe (Cerinthe major ‘Purpurescens’) from seed about fourteen years ago. They didn’t do particularly well, but the following year, they established two self-seeded clumps in the garden, and have thrived on total neglect ever since.
Alliums ‘Purple Sensation’ and Christophii
These are the self-seeding plants I couldn’t do without. I find that both Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ and Allium Christophii self-seed vigorously. I originally bought 15 Purple Sensation about ten years ago, and now have around 50.
The tall lollipops are Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ and the shorter pale lilac fireworks are Allium Christophii. Seen here with self-seeders Euphorbia oblongata and Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’.
There was one Allium Christophii in this garden when we moved in 15 years ago. We now have around 80-100.
I particularly love this combination as both plants self-seeded themselves here. Allium Christophii knew it would look good with Rosa glauca.
The common poppy or Papaver rhoeas is brilliantly colourful and so charmingly simple.
I’d like my poppies to be that pretty lilac colour, but my garden has other ideas. Am I in charge here or not? Not. Although I think the lilac ones may have mixing with my reds…
Otherwise know as ‘rose campion’, this has cheery pink flowers and a nice grey felted foliage. Some of my lychnis has planted itself in a neat circle around a tree. It’s too close and isn’t particularly good for the tree, but I do admire the way it has synchronised itself.
This rose campion (Lychnis coronaria) may look sweetly shy and retiring, but give it an inch and it’ll take a mile.
Erigeron or ‘seaside daisies’
I love seeing clouds of these growing out of walls and steps. Though I do have friends who don’t like them…you know who you are.
Seaside daisies with lady’s mantle, or – if we’re being posh – Erigeron karvinskianus with Alchemilla mollis.
Where would a summer garden be without foxgloves? Here is a photo of the back border, which is actually full of plants which I planted. Except for the foxgloves, who kindly decided that I needed a bit more vertical interest.
The spires of foxgloves improve this border, most of which was actually planted. Although I keep digging up the Japanese anenomes – they’re spreaders, not self-seeders and would survive anything.
This is a surprise entry for this section. You are supposed to be able to grow coriander as a herb in Britain, provided you plant it late enough in the year to stop it bolting.
I have never managed to get more than a handful or two of the coriander leaves for the kitchen, but it flowers and self-seeds so beautifully that I think it probably works better as a flower for me.
Coriander grown from seed. It bolted but has since come back twice, and I rather love the flowers.
Self-seeders for foliage
My top self-seeders for foliage or greenery are:
It’s unstoppable in its bid for world domination. Some of my other euphorbias, such as Euphorbia palustris, don’t self-seed or spread at all.
This Euphorbia oblongata knows that you should always plant yourself in threes….the spiky leaves between them are self-seeded Crocosmia, who also appear to have been reading about garden design and the importance of contrasting leaf shapes.
Lady’s mantle froths happily between pavers and pops up in beds. I have no idea where it came from. One day it wasn’t there, and then it was.
This Alchemilla mollis (also known as Lady’s mantle) has planted itself amongst some low-growing roses.
This is another vibrant early summer green that looks after itself. I bought three plants from Great Dixter over ten years ago, and now have two huge clumps. It’s exceptionally long-lasting as a cut flower and disappears completely around the end of June.
Smyrnium perfoliatum – a vigorous self-seeder for shade. It looks a bit like euphorbia and lasts a long time in a vase.
You can eat both marigolds and nasturtiums. I have known komatsuma and spinach to self-seed and be good to eat, and also rocket.
Definitely my top self-seeding herb. It took a good year to get established from seed, and I was initially disappointed by its growth. But in its second year, it took off around the garden, where it serves as foliage, garnish and an ingredient for parsley sauce.
The parsley goes where it likes. Here it’s decided to share with a row of beetroot.
Self-seeding companion plants
It’s helpful if self-seeders can be useful. Marigold and nasturtiums are both valuable in the veg patch, where they help deter pests.
People can be snooty about these, and I do often pull them out, but their smell repels greenfly and blackfly. They also attract hoverflies which live on blackfly, so they are generally a good thing.
Marigolds in the rhubarb beds – they seem happy to grow anywhere in the garden, but I pull them out elsewhere.
Sculptural plants are vital in any garden, and self-seeders can be wonderfully sculptural.
It takes a couple of years to establish because it’s a biennial, but once it gets a cycle going, you’ll never have to give it another thought. Brilliant in May and June, collapses a bit after that, but you have to leave it or it won’t self-seed.
Angelica archangelica used as a temporary hat stand over a long lunch….
There was a patch of Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’ in this garden when we arrived fifteen years ago. It is now everywhere, but I do like it. Its seed-heads are wonderful, both in the vase and in the garden.
Crocosmia Lucifer with another sculptural self-seeding plant – verbena bonariensis.
This doesn’t self-seed quite as vigorously as I’d like, so I occasionally have to re-plant it. But it seems to need very little attention, and wanders about the garden, occasionally planting itself in a pot.
This is so obliging that many people consider it a weed, but I love its sculptural creamy flowers.
The best self-seeding plants for shade
Angelica archangelica, foxgloves, smyrnium perfoliatum, lamium (dead nettle), primroses and Solomon’s seal all do well in shade. Solomon’s seal takes several years to get properly established, but I know have two generous clumps – from just one or two plants.
A trio of beautiful self-seeding plants that love the shade: Angelica archangelica, foxgloves and smyrnium perfoliatum.
Solomon’s seal now grows in two large clumps but it was not an overnight success. Patience is required, but not much effort. These plants were in a shady spot, and have gently self-seeded over around 10 years.
When NOT to allow self-seeding
Some plants do not make good self-seeders. In the veg bed, you won’t get any reasonable flavour out of anything that has self-sown from an F1 hybrid. That’s because an F1 hybrid has been specially created. Its seeds are usually disappointing.
However, heritage varieties of vegetable may self-seed, or it’s worth keeping the seed.
Similarly some garden flowers don’t come true from seed. My lavender self-seeds but I have been warned by the grower I bought it off that it won’t come true. He advised me to take cuttings rather than rely on self-seeders.
Faversham Open Gardens & Garden Market Day on June 24th
Come and see my self-seeders (and weeds) on June 24th for Faversham Open Gardens & Garden Market Day. There will be 29 gardens open and a wonderful garden market in Faversham’s historic Market Place. Posy Gentles’ garden will also be open, and there’s a video preview of her long, thin town garden here:
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