As the seasons turn, gardens can start looking a bit tired. Not that I’m ageist — there’s as much beauty in seedpods as in spring flowers — but as nights become cooler and dewier, the baby seedlings springing up under the skirts of older plants are telling us it’s a natural time for garden renewal.
Self-seeders are the type of weeds everyone wants. These are plants you don’t have to buy, carry home, plant or water. They just pop up by themselves, making a gardener’s life much easier. Welcome them in by not being too quick to ‘tidy up’ plants that have gone off to seed, and shaking a few seedheads into areas that you want colonised.
The randomness of self-sowers gives gardens a relaxed, romantic feel. But there can be a fine line between ‘natural and relaxed’ and ‘totally falling apart and out of control’. The art is in the editing, choosing which seedlings to leave and which to pull up or move. Self-sowers can smother less vigorous plants if left unthinned. A self-sown clary sage beside a path, releasing its fragrance as you brush past, is lovely; a few centimeters further into the path, and it’s just annoying.
Which plants self-sow best? In the vege patch you might find parsley, rocket, lettuce, silver beet, mizuna, mustard, coriander and dill (autumn is the best time to sow coriander to start off the self-sowing cycle.) My best winter salad greens are all self-sowing, popping up year after year with minimal intervention. Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) is a Californian native with mild, tender, spinach-like leaves, and is a great salad staple over the colder months. Start it off from seed now and once you have it, it will return every winter. Land cress (Barbarea verna) also pops up every year; I use it like watercress or rocket to spice up salads, pasta and potatoes. Rocket is a warmer-weather green but, like coriander and dill, does best in the damp ‘shoulder seasons’ of spring and autumn. After a few years, rocket may interbreed with weedier brassicas, becoming coarser and less tasty; at that point, it’s best to buy some more seed.
In other parts of the garden favourite self-sowers include nasturtium, a useful ground cover as long as it’s kept out of prime growing spots, where it can become a thug; foxgloves, especially the white ones, for shady spots; vibrant crimson Lychnis, lovely among grasses; poppies of all kinds — early, bright red Anzacs, drought-tolerant golden Californian poppies or ruffled, tall opium poppies; borage for bees; stately, fragrant clary sage; sweet alyssum for dry, sunny spots; and calendula around the vegetables, flowering for nine months of the year.
Got a minute? Look around under mature plants that have gone to seed, to identify self-sown seedlings.
Got five minutes? Thin out seedlings to give them more room, leaving the strongest and best placed to grow in situ. Water afterwards.
Got 15–30 minutes? Move some seedlings to new positions, or pot them up to grow on or give away. Always water them in well to prevent wilting. Transplanting is a good job for an evening, or a damp, overcast day.
Indoor job: Hunt down self-sowing plants in online seed catalogues: try Kings Seeds or LovePlantLife.