There’s something magical about plants that seed themselves. I sowed a pack of annual love-in-a-mist about seven years ago, scattering seeds randomly in a sunny border at the back of the garden. I may have raked over the soil and possibly even given the area a quick water. But then I forgot all about them. I don’t think I really expected them to come up. I was certainly surprised a few weeks later when the delicate-looking shoots emerged, soon topped with cobalt buds opening to flat, wide, sky-blue flowers in a sea of feathery fronds.
That ocean of azure is still there. It’s come back year after year, the clump getting bigger and better. It’s moved slightly, shifting into stronger sunlight away from the expanding canopy of the pear tree, and straying into the gravel that surrounds my raised veg beds, mingling with the raspberry canes I planted against a south-facing fence. It’s very pretty and I don’t mind a bit.
Another epic self-seeder is Alchemilla mollis, or lady’s mantle. I adore this plant. It’s a gorgeous perennial and absolutely fuss-free, thriving in shade, heavy clay soil and even in very dry areas. In spring it mounds up, its downy, slightly glaucous leaves fanning out into pretty scalloped forms. After rain or heavy dew, at the centre of each leaf sits a fat rounded jewel of water. Then in June rosettes of deep yellow shoot upwards to create a foam of lime green flowers above those handsome leaves. In my opinion it’s the best edging plant you can buy.
Plus, of course, once it’s in your garden you’ll soon have many more, especially if you have gravelled areas. In my garden it self-seeds among the gravel down the side return of the house, as well as around the vegetable beds. Here the gravel is bedded in with a honeycomb structure to stop it drifting. It’s hard to see how it manages to find the space to grow, but it does.
Foxgloves are great self-seeders, too. Sadly, in my experience they rarely spread to where you want them. I started off with a handful in a shady bed a few years ago, since when they’ve gradually inched their way into sunnier areas of the garden, especially favouring the pots I hide down the side return, once their contents have finished flowering. This spring I have five containers of spent daffodils packed with foxglove seedlings – they clearly prefer a nice bit of compost to my London clay. Nevertheless, I’m carefully trowelling them out and replanting them, either in gaps at the back of my borders or into little pots to give to friends.
And then there are forget-me-nots, a fabulous haze of spring blue and pink just when you need it most. Mine are just going over now, but I love the fact they’ve seeded amongst my pots, muscling in among the thuggish mint where little else stands a chance….apart from the seedlings of my pink hardy geranium.
I’m not entirely sure of the variety (it could be Geranium endressii or oxonianum), but a friend gave me a seedling from her garden a few years ago. It’s been brilliant in a dry, north-facing bed underneath a pyracantha, often flowering twice in a season if cut back in July. It’s evergreen too, so great for greenery year round. A word of warning though: it’s a prolific self-seeder and I’m constantly pulling it out – from gaps in the patio paving, from borders, from pots, from gravel. It’s amazing for those tricky dry, shaded areas alongside walls, fences and under trees, but plant it only if you’re prepared to be vigilant!
This self-seeding thing is all very cottagey in style, and if that’s what you’re after, look out for seeds and perennials that will multiply, then let them do their thing. The resulting semi-organised chaos can be lovely indeed.
Here’s a list of my favourite self-seeders:
1 Foxgloves – will start in shade and make their way to semi-shade.
2 Aquilegia (or granny’s bonnet) – likes a sunny spot to kick start.
3 Love-in-a-mist – a sun lover.
4 Verbena bonariensis – will self-seed in well-drained soil in sun.
5 Forget-me-nots – unfussy and will seed everywhere.
6 Annual poppies – definitely prefer sun and well-drained soil.
7 Fennel – the bronze one is particularly gorgeous. Again a sun lover.
8 Lady’s mantle – good in shade and semi shade.
9 Nasturtiums – also good in sun or semi shade and great in a veg patch to attract blackfly away from your crops.
10 Pheasant’s tail grass (Anemanthele lessoniana) – great for sun or semi shade, but be vigilant or it gets everywhere.
If you’re in any way a lazy gardener, these will make you very happy indeed.
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer