Gardeners get so much conflicting advice, it’s a wonder that more of us don’t go nuts. Or maybe we do, but we call it eccentric.

Take mulch, as an example. People are advised to use bark mulch to keep weeds down in the garden. But while fighting weeds, the mulch also prevents some plants you like from seeding themselves and providing beauty at no cost.

Your mulch use should depend on the type of garden you want. If you want predictability and order, with the same plants blooming in the same place every year, mulch heavily.

If, however, you like joyful chaos, with surprises popping up out of the soil all season long, cut down on the mulch to promote self-seeding.

The garden where we grow vegetables is prime ground for self-seeding. We let poppies, Johnny-jump-ups, feverfew, forget-me-nots, sunflowers, foxgloves and lupines seed themselves as long as they don’t crowd out the vegetables – the prime purpose for that piece of ground.

Page Dickey, a garden writer who spoke at New England Grows in December, is a fan of letting plants seed themselves.

“The older I get the more I appreciate the extraordinary beauty that can result from the self-seeding of plants,” Dickey said.

With a lot of these plants, self-seeding is OK if it is limited. A perfect example is forget-me-nots, with their tiny true-blue flowers. They are self-seeding annuals that produce a sweep of brilliant blue in the spring. Once they go by, however, pull them out before they seed or they will take over the garden. In fact, if you try to pull every forget-me-not you are going to miss so many that you still will have a good crop of them the next year.

You also can pull plants selectively. While we love Johnny-jump-ups, we prefer the ones with yellow and blue flowers rather than the all-blue versions. We weed out the blue ones and let the blue and yellow ones seed.

One of Dickey’s friends rated gardens based on Johnny-jump-ups.

“When she saw Johnny-jump-ups she knew it was going to be her type of garden, a friendly garden where things are going to crop up where they want to crop up, not where you want them.”

Some people consider feverfew – an annual with small daisy-shaped flowers – a weed. We let it grow because it is a great filler in summer flower arrangements.

Sometimes you have to encourage self-seeding. We have a lot of poppies in our garden – both the lettuce-leaf or opium and the Flanders Field varieties. After they have gone by, we lay the seed pods in the garden so they will sprout. If you dig poppies up as soon as they sprout in the spring with a big scoop of soil, you can transplant them elsewhere. If you wait until the sprouts are more than a half-inch tall, transplanting won’t work.

Once you have a self-seeding verbena you have it forever. It is a perennial that is only marginally hardy in Maine, but will self-seed in protected areas next to a fence or a building. If you recognize the plants when they are small – go online and search for images – you can move them around in your garden before the sprouts are large.

Many self-seeders are spring ephemerals, in which the blooms, while gorgeous, last for a day at most. Among those Dickey mentioned are bloodroot, snowdrops, May apple, Claytonia and Jeffersonia. With these, you let them show themselves in the spring but have other, later sprouting perennials planted in the same place to fill in when the ephemerals have gone by.

One of my favorite self-seeders is columbine (officially a perennial in Maine but short-lived), whose dainty bell-shaped flowers bely its absolute toughness. If the seeds get lodged in a small crack in some ledge or a space between stepping stones, columbines will sprout and bloom there. It’s always a surprise when you find them.

Foxgloves are biennials, meaning they bloom and produce seed in the second year of their life. We have some that come up most years in a wooded area next to our house, and we can never tell where they will be or if they will be yellow or lavender. We welcome them either way.

Dickey says that if you want more foxgloves, you should cut them after they produce seed and shake them all around your garden. We tried this last summer and will see if we get some baby foxgloves this year.

Sunflowers are classic self-seeders. For years we never planted sunflowers but always had them because a neighbor fed the birds, and the birds planted the sunflowers for us. That neighbor moved into assisted living, so we stopped getting sunflowers. Last year I planted some and let them go to seed – so I hope we have more for several years to come.

Many native perennials self-seed. Pulmonaria is a wonderfully decorative plant, with variegated leaves and delicate flowers, that seeds easily.

Rudbeckia, or brown-eyed Susan, spreads so well that when gardeners try to create wildflower meadows, often the only flower you see are the Rudbeckias.

I could not depend entirely on self-seeded plants for our flower gardens, but if you go easy on the mulch and let seeds do what they will, you will have a surprise in your garden every week – if not every day.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at [email protected]


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