Monday, February 25, 2008

Volunteers: Hardy Annual and Biennial Self Seeders

Hardy volunteers are a welcome gift from the garden. I have several reseeding annuals and biennials which each year enrich the garden. These plants which spring up where they please provide necessary filler and continuity within the borders. The advantage of volunteers is they weave themselves naturally into the garden. By doing so they hold the other plants together and give it a more relaxed feel. Also, they sometimes pop up where I would not have thought of planting them or could not have planted them. Reseeders also fill any holes in the plantings offering a sense of abundance. I have two types of volunteers: accent plants and unifiers.

The Accent Plants
The accent types tend to be large: having height, large leaves, or heavily textured leaves. They draw attention to themselves. They cause you to stop and touch them. These have to be ruthlessly thinned out, or else they loose their impact.

Amaranthus 'Hopi' is a very tall, red stemmed plant which I grow in the Cutting Garden, Egg Garden, and Long Border (it is pictured here between the Egg Garden and the Front Border). I bought Hopi from Annie's Annuals three years ago. It is a generous self seeder which requires thinning out of the seedlings in the spring since I only want about five or six plants. The birds love the seeds so I usually don't worry about too many seedlings. I also cut off some of the flowers as the seeds mature to keep for fall decorations.

When the amaranthus is young, I transplant some into containers or to other spots where I want them to grow. I keep more in the cutting garden for arrangements and to be dug up at a later date to fill in any holes which develop.

Sunflowers are always welcome. Due to the birds, I only get a few of these, but they are greatly appreciated.

Verbascum bombyciferum is a plant I love. The rosette of large, felted, silver leaves are even more spectacular than the yellow candelabra flower spikes. I had a hard time establishing this biennial. Since it likes better draining soil than the clay in most of my garden, it took me several tries before I got it to survive the winter, flower, and set seed. The seedlings, however, have found the better draining soil or the areas that get the least water. So now, every year I am assured of having this in my garden.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is nicotiana which seems to grow everywhere. Luckily, the roots are shallow making it easy to thin out. I have a tall variety named 'Bella' growing in my garden. It has white, pink, and lavender flowers which open during the day and are fragrant. I bought the original plant for Select Seeds.
Each year I get one or two hyacinth bean plants in the Cutting Garden. As self seeded plants, they do not come up until well into summer, but grow quickly.

Plectranthus appears very late in the season. This is a beautiful plant for it's soft, grey leaves. It's good to place this near a plant whose leaves die down in the summer like oriental poppies. It very nicely fills its place. The seeds do not travel around my garden, so plant it where you would like it to reappear. It usually blooms for me in September.

The Unifiers

The unifiers are allowed to seed more prolifically, mixing with the other plantings. Usually, they look better in groups and often have thin, wiry stems that mix with other plants and grow up through them. I allow only one of these per border, so the border does look jumbled. Below are my top ten unifiers.

Verbena bonariensis generously weaves itself between and among other plants. It adds interesting height, butterflies love it, and it makes great filler in the border as well as in floral arrangements.

Cosmos are great as reseeded plants because they usually grow a lot stronger than the ones bought as a six pack or transplanted as seedlings. The stems don't tend to fall over as much either. However, since the plants seem to slow down once they set seed, I deadhead them until the end of August.

Inspired by Mottisfont Abbey (, I have white foxglove in the Rose Garden. Most of the seedlings which I don't thin out grow in situ, but others are moved to the Cutting Garden. I try to keep the foxglove in the Rose Garden white, so any which bloom non-white are cut for arrangements. If you don't like having the spent flower stem left up, it works quite well to cut the stalk and lay it on the ground. I find that once the upper most flowers have bloomed the seeds from the bottom ones are mature. Cutting the stems also has the added advantage of stimulating the plant to produce more flowering side shoots.

Sweet William, a biennial, is another heirloom plant which is extremely easy to grow, but often overlooked (pictured here under the wisteria). The flowers of the older varieties like Holborn's Glory are fragrant and make a nice edging in the front of a border. I have these in the Cutting Garden and Long Border.
Larkspur is a wonderful, old fashioned annual. It needs very little care to produce long wands of deep blue flowers for the front to middle of the border.

Blooming calendula is always a happy sight in the garden. The glory of self seeded calendulas is that they come into bloom at different times, so you'll have calendula in the garden from the early spring to the hard frost. I also like the light green leaves of calendula which add a lot of freshness to the look of the garden.

Forget me nots are wonderful grown as a carpet underneath tulips and daffodils. After they have had their show, I pull the plants up and scatter the seeds throughout the garden where I want them to grow on for the coming spring.

Queen Anne's Lace is confined to the Cutting Garden as it is great mixed with other cut flowers. It took me several years to get it to grow which leads me to believe that the freshness of the seed makes a great difference in establishing it. Since then, I have had no problems keeping it. With fresh seed it reseeds quite a lot; after all, it is a weed to many. To prevent it from going beyond its welcome, I do not allow it into other areas of the garden; I cut a lot of it; and I thin it out when I have too much.

Spider flowers (cleome) are big and are sometimes hard to plant in the garden without them looking like stiff soldiers. But once spider flowers are allowed to self seed, it transforms them. They look very natural growing through other plants and often to different heights depending on where they are. They also have a range of color. In the front of Goldberry Hill, I only allow violet ones. In the Egg Garden, I try to keep more white than pink. In the Children's Garden (pictured), they are mostly pink because my daughter loves pink. Also, as the first plants become leggy, plants from seed which germinated later reach up to cover up the old bare stalks.
Bloodflower (Asclepias curassavica) is another treasure in my garden. Each year it is one of the favorite sources of nectar for the butterflies and a food for monarch caterpillars. It also gives me wonderful orange and yellow flowers right up to the hard frost in addition to great seed pods.


Frances said...

This was a wonderful post, and thanks for showing us many parts of your lovely garden. The volunteers are treasures in our garden, like you say, choosing places to grow we ourselves would not have thought of.

Frances at Faire Garden

Vanillalotus said...

Wow you have a wonderful garden. It's so very plush looking if that makes any sense. I love at the plants you named off. Some of the plants I've never heard of and will be searching right now to find out more. Sweet William are one of my favorites I have some growing right now and can't wait to see them flower. I'll keep these in mind to try when I have a garden and not a balcony. I like how you have different sections in your garden. That's a wonderful idea to have certain themes going on.

Melanie said...

What a fantastic post! I love self seeders and yet see many here I didn't know about. Verbascum is a favorite of mine, I had to sneak across the street and dig it out of their curb one night to get it started here :-)

Never though about the sweet williams, I'll have to add some this year.

Robin's Nesting Place said...

Thanks for the information. I have several of these winter sowing now. They should do fine since they readily self-seed.

jodi said...

What a wonderfully informative post this is! I just wish some of the self seeders would selfseed here--never has V. bonariensis returned for me. I live in hope...this year I'm seeding it directly into the garden, plus growing some as transplants, and if I can get my mitts on some transplants at a nursery, I'll put them in too. ONe of the most lovely annuals I've ever seen!

Anonymous said...

thanks for the plant tips.

Anna--Flowergardengirl said...

I like how you gave so much thought to how each plant will grow and mature so the whole garden flows. I start out thinking that and then I see something I can't live without. I too have many of the plants you recommended. But..they will be going to the person who buys my house. Boo hoo.

Matron said...

The only persistent hardy volunteer in my garden is the Californian Poppy. I bought some seeds about 10 years ago and they turn up everywhere! I love them.

Lisa at Greenbow said...

It is fun to see where Cleome will pop up in the garden. They seem to move about. I have never seen birds eating the seed and I don't purposely scatter them so I am always amazed when they pop up here and there.

heirloomgardener said...


I'm trying to get the poppies to self seed, but I haven't gotten them to work yet. Maybe this year!

Heirloom Gardener

James Golden said...

Thanks for the advice on Verbascum bombyciferum. I haven't had success in my heavy clay. Now I know to try it in the most well drained place I can find and let its seeds practice their own "natural site selection." That's what our native mullein has done, but it can't come close to V. bombyciferum for visual effect. said...

In my view everyone have to glance at it.

Search Heirloom Gardener


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