As Ye Self-Sow, So Shall Ye Reap

As winter closes in, I find myself turning more and more to that emotional survival trick of gardeners everywhere: obsessing over what I’m going to plant next spring. As I peruse my books and catalogs, I keep running into an ominous phrase: “self-sows freely”.

Experienced gardeners know what this means. It means that you are bound to a plant in holy and implacable matrimony, no divorces or annulments allowed. It means this plant will be in your garden forever. It means you will be pulling out seedlings far and wide, or watch this plant choke out the competition.

Or perhaps not. “Self-sows freely” is perhaps a phrase that is more ambiguous than ominous, since it does not adequately describe the variety of self-sowing behaviors exhibited by garden plants. To remedy this problem, I provide the following glossary of variations in self-sowing.

Self-sows charmingly. Pops up with endearing randomness around the garden. A good example of this would be Wild Columbine (Aquilegia canandensis). Sure you’ll find seedlings showing up in odd and inconvenient places (in between pavers, for example). But it’s impossible to be mad at a columbine, isn’t it? Of course, it is! Just move the seedling or, if you have to, scratch it out.

Native flowers in a front yard garden
A gauntlet of self-sowers: Brown-Eyed Susan (yellow daisies to right), Anise Hyssop (blue spikes to left). Not to mention the Purple Coneflower!

Self-sows quixotically. Insists on germinating in places it couldn’t possibly survive for more than a year or two. My Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba), for example, is always emerging in unlikely spots, such as next to the base of a huge Siberian Elm tree.  Apparently, it dreams the impossible dream.

Self-sows maliciously. Puts down roots where you don’t want it, AND the seedlings are stubborn little buggers. Example: Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium).

Northern Sea Oats, Chasmanthium latifolium, native grass for the garden
Sure, it looks nice, but Northern Sea Oats has a definite mean streak.

Self-sows perversely. Self-sows, but never in the places where you want it to spread. Example: Calico Aster (Symphyotricum lateriflorum).

Self-sows exuberantly. Every single one  of a multitude of seeds germinates, carpeting the land with seedlings. Example: Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum).

Blue Stem Goldenrod seeds are very enterprising.

Self-sows adventurously. Example: Blue Stem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia). Seeds travel far from the mother ship, I mean plant, boldly going where none of their species has gone before.

So what other types of self-sowing have you seen in your garden, and what are the self-sowing plants you love or hate the most?

24 Comments on “As Ye Self-Sow, So Shall Ye Reap

  1. I agree with your assessment above (my columbine has been spreading just as you describe – love it!), but what seems worse are those plants that spread by their roots: Canada thistle, mint, trumpet vine, etc. Seedlings can be smothered with mulch, but those roots just find a new place to pop up.

    • True, those that spread by roots are a more persistent foe. But those unwanted seedlings can be like playing botanical whack-a-mole.

  2. Ha, I love it! My yard is not so fertile as to allow the perverse, exuberant, and adventurous to become a nuisance. I’ve got the columbines between the pavers, but I always feel sad for them because I can’t seem to remove them without destroying them. Even Sea Oats and Blue Stem Goldenrod are well behaved in my crappy soil. I love self sowers, or at least I haven’t met one I don’t like yet.

  3. I love this, Jason:) You’re absolutely right that “self-sows freely” can mean many different things. I’m thrilled that my coneflowers and Rudbeckias do self-seed, but I’ve seen some malicious self-seeders, too. I had one adventurous self-seeder this year–a phlox that mysteriously appeared in my shade garden this year, far away from all my other phlox. Of course, it also might have hitched a ride in another plant I was given. I wish my Aquilegia would be a little more charming and adventurous!

    • I’ve not had experience with a lot of self-seeding by phlox. The good thing about the coneflowers self-seeding is that I know ho matter how many I pull out because of aster yellows, there will always be more coming along.

  4. I love this! I just picked up a northern sea oats from a friend and I’m very apprehensive about putting it in the ground.

    • Thanks. You’re right that while self-sowing can be an annoyance, it is one of the things that makes gardening an unpredictable joy.

  5. This is the kind of post that we gardeners should print out, and make sure to leave a large print copy on top of our collection of seed catalogues. A good reminder, both in caution, and in hope that the seeds we choose will do our will.

    Jen @ Muddy Boot Dreams

  6. Ah, we’ve yet to be plagued by self-sowers (but give them a year or two and we may be). Nasturtiums, borage and calendula self sow pretty vigorously, but are easy to spot and pull up if they are in the wrong place. Putting spent borage plants, flowers and all, on the compost heap last year was a huge mistake though! They tried to take over the vegetable patch in the spring!
    I like the relatively gentle sowing of aquilegias and opium poppies about our garden. And the occasional surprise :).

  7. Love the humor of this post! I haven’t had too much problem of plants self seeding because we really have such inhospitable soil. The columbine has spread but I love how they grow in unexpected, random places. I am hoping many more of my plants will readily self seed because I have space to fill in.

  8. And I was just reading an article that Rudbeckia triloba is less invasive than R. hirta, which is what I have. I had no idea about Sea Oats…hmmm, I had thought about planting it, but maybe I should reconsider. I chuckled out loud while reading this post. Thanks for the helpful info and the smiles!

    • Oh, you should definitely plant the R. triloba, it’s wonderful. It does self-sow quite a bit, but the seedlings are easy to pull. The goldfinches will also eat the seeds. I removed some of my sea oats, but I’m keeping some because it is very lovely. The seedlings are a @#&&* to pull out though.

  9. Perfectly apt descriptions! 🙂 Usually I am extremely pleased with self-sows (I am with you on the columbines) and I allow most of them to carry on doing their thing.

  10. I agree. I’d rather have too much self-sowing than none at all. My exasperation with some of the plants is generally affectionate.

  11. Jason, I love this post, and especially the distinctions you’ve made. All the things that self-sow maliciously in my garden (e.g. blackberries) are things I never planted; they just come with the property. On the other hand, I’m quite willing to take the responsibility for the siberian irises and tradescantia that seem to self-sow both charmingly and adventurously in unlikely places (like growing up between the boards of the back steps).

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