Self-sowers are a blessing, not a curse, in gardens

Erin Schanen

It is amusing to me how many people won’t touch a plant that has even a hint of self-sowing tendency. The theory, apparently, is that reseeding plants will run rampant and lay waste to gardens. So gardeners adverse to self-sowers not only avoid planting them but seek to destroy the progeny of these plants, layering on smothering blankets of mulch sure to put an end to the young lives.

And these are unfortunate gardeners indeed, because they are missing out on some of the best plants you could ask for in a garden.

I say this as a person who has spent a fair amount of time  over the past week plucking the fat, round leaves of Nicotiana out of every crevice, path and edge of the garden. And despite the fact that almost all these seedlings end up in the compost pile, I can assure you I’ll never be without Nicotiana alata in the garden.

I’m partial to the variety rather unimaginatively called ‘Lime Green,’ but I now grow so many other varieties, including Nicotiana langsdorfii, which has tiny green tubular flowers that nod like bells, that there’s no telling what the self-sown flowers may look like.

Breadseed poppies — the “nice” name for Papaver somniferum, which is also known as the opium poppy — is perhaps the most remarkable reseeder. It is always amazing to me that I can find poppy seedlings nowhere near where I’ve grown the plants in the past. These are lovely not just for their beautiful flowers, which range in color and shape, but also for their stunning blueish seed pods, which alone make them worth growing.

If it weren’t for self-sowing, I might never have one of my favorite annuals, Verbena bonariensis, a 5-foot tall small purple flower on a stick-like stem that pops up among other plants as a mini exclamation point in the garden and a major butterfly attracter. My attempts to grow it from seed are met with limited success, but I move the self-sown seedlings to where I want them.

This year I’m growing another self-seeder called Jewels of Opar. Talinum paniculatum has fat, succulent, chartreuse foliage from which tiny pink flowers held on wiry stems emerge. Although I’d seen it before, it wasn’t until I saw it mass planted at Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania last year that I appreciated all it had to offer.

Of course my announcement that I was growing it this year came with the usual warning: “Once you have that you’ll never get rid of it.” I wonder what is so bad about that.

Seedlings can be easily relocated or dispensed with, but allowing a few to grow where they choose so often creates the best moments in the garden. A poppy in the middle of a gravel path will stop anyone in their tracks to appreciate it in a way that an entire field of flowers won’t.

Gardeners can’t plan moments like that. But never fear, Mother Nature and a few good self-seeders will take care of it for us.


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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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