Self Seeding Plants for a Low-Maintenance Garden

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Learn to manage vigorous self-seeding plants and you’ll never have to buy seeds again.

By Barbara Pleasant 

Annual veggies that frequently reseed and provide volunteer seedlings include winter squash and pumpkins, tomato and tomatillos, watermelon and New Zealand spinach.

A garden that produces some of its own seed is truly self-sufficient. Generally, gardeners save seeds by selecting, harvesting and storing seeds until planting time the following year.

But some crops make creating a more self-reliant garden even easier, producing seeds so readily that—provided they are given time to flower, mature and set seed—you will always have free plants growing in your garden. Starting a new colony of self-seeding annuals is usually a simple matter of lopping off armloads of brittle, seed-bearing stems in the fall and dumping them where you want the plants to grow next season. It’s that easy. Most of the seedlings will appear in the first year, with lower numbers popping up in subsequent seasons. In spring, make sure you determine which seedlings are your baby self-seeders so you don’t hoe them down. Should you want to relocate your self-seeded seedlings, you can simply lift and move them—after all, they are sturdy field-grown seedlings.

Nurturing self-seeding plants is a great way to provide a diversity of flowers that supply pollen and nectar for beneficial insects. Self-seeding flowers, herbs and vegetables that show up in early spring include arugula, calendula, chamomile, cilantro, dill, breadseed poppies and brilliant red orach (mountain spinach). Nasturtiums, amaranth, New Zealand spinach, basil and zinnias appear later, after the soil has warmed.

Working with reseeding, or self-sowing, crops saves time and trouble and often gives excellent results, but a few special techniques and precautions are in order. Some plants that self-sow too freely—especially perennials such as garlic chives or horseradish—will cross the line into weediness if not handled with care.

Spring Seeds for Fall Crops

The first group of plants to try as self-sown crops—both because they’re the easiest and they’ll be ready the same year—are those that tend to bolt in late spring. If allowed to bloom and set seed, dill, radishes, arugula, cilantro, broccoli raab, turnips and any kind of mustard produce ripe seeds in time for fall reseeding in most climates. Lettuce takes a little longer, but often gives good results in warmer areas.

You can encourage self-seeding plants by selecting a few vigorous plants from your garden plot and letting these plants grow unharvested until they bloom and produce seeds. This works well, but if you’re replanting all season, it can be bothersome to have one lone turnip holding up the renovation of a planting bed. To get around this, use a Noah’s ark approach: Set aside a bed and transplant pairs of plants you’re growing for seed into it. As the weeks pass, weed, water and stake up seed-bearing branches, but don’t harvest anything from the bed.

When seedpods dry and begin to shatter, gather and store some of the seeds as usual for replanting next year (just in case the reseeding effort isn’t successful). Shake and crumble the rest where you want the next crop to grow, and pat the soil to get good contact between soil and seeds. Or lay well-broken seed-bearing branches over a prepared bed and walk over them, which will shatter the seedpods and push the seeds into the soil. A bonus: The stem pieces serve as starter mulch. With fast-sprouting crops such as arugula, a drenching rain or good watering is all it will take to bring on a lovely fall crop.

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