Wandering beauties

Gardeners love the serendipity of flowers that self-seed in unexpected places


Be careful what you weed. Some of those little green shoots aren't unwanted weeds at all. They're the seedlings of last summer's flowers.

Larkspur, poppies, cosmos and other colorful annuals have a way of finding their own spots in your garden. No matter where you plant them this year, next year they'll have chosen places that they find more suitable. They come up like little spring surprises.

"That's part of why gardening is a joy and an art, and not a science," says Renee Shepherd of Renee's Garden Seeds. "You don't always know what's going to happen."

Poppies, alyssum and Nigella all self-sow in Shepherd's home garden in Fulton, Calif. She sometimes allows them to come up in the cracks of the driveway.

"Self-sown flowers provide a lot of serendipity, which is one of the reasons people garden," Shepherd says. "When they come up, it's a delight."

Allowing annual flowers to go to seed in the fall and then waiting to see where they come up the following year is a time-honored practice. You could harvest the seeds at the end of the season, save them in an envelope and replant the following year, but if you forget to gather seeds, nature will do the work and save you the trouble.

Shepherd's business (reneesgarden.com) specializes in old-fashioned flowers of all kinds, and she says her customers tell her of their experiences with self-sown flowers. Larkspur and poppies are among the most reliable self-sowers for gardeners in every climate. Some customers report that sweet peas go to seed and come back every spring.

Violas, petunias, impatiens, snapdragons and spider flower (Cleome) are good self-seeders. California's rainy winters can limit self-seeding, Shepherd says. Every gardener's experience is different.

Perennial columbines, asters, hellebores, biennial hollyhocks, foxgloves and sweet William also spread by seeds. Most such plants do not become nuisances, but that depends on what you're trying to do in your garden.

Shepherd says that in her garden, the splashy purple morning glory 'Grandpa Ott's' produced so many plants from seed that she had to weed them out to make room for something else.

Still, "one man's nuisance is another man's pleasure," she says. "If you don't mind things coming up unexpectedly, it's wonderful."

If you're planting any of these self-sowing plants for the first time, early spring is a good time to start the seeds. Larkspur and poppies, particularly, should be sown outdoors while the weather is still cool. In the Midwest, old-time gardeners used to sow poppy seeds right on the snow over flower beds.

Nasturtiums can be planted in very early spring, when the first daffodils bloom. For cosmos, Nicotiana and cockscomb, wait until the danger of frost is past, then plant.

To get the devil-may-care effect of self-sown flowers this year, even if you are sowing them yourself, don't plant in rows. Sprinkle a few seeds here and there. Let some fall in a gravel path, along a garden wall or among the roses -- or start them in seed flats and plant them in twos and threes around and about.

You can also buy plants at a garden shop. The six-pack of larkspur you plant this year is likely to be a great growth investment, returning with more and more flowers every summer.

The tumble of a cottage garden seems particularly appropriate for self-sown seedlings. In such informal plantings, no flowers are ever really out of place. A few flowers in unexpected spots make formal gardens more beautiful, too.

"Sometimes a self-sown flower will surprise me," Shepherd says. "I may have thought I didn't want anything there, but when they start to bloom, I'm enchanted."

If you're not sure whether the green shoots in your garden are flowers or chickweed, leave them alone for a while and keep an eye on them. The ferny foliage of larkspur will quickly distinguish itself from quack-grass and dandelions.

Delicate poppy shoots, which look a little like parsley, are easy to tell apart from purslane and crabgrass. If a thick patch of annual salvia comes up among the daisies, you may want to move them to a bare spot where they can spread out and bloom all summer long.

Self-sown flowers are pretty good garden designers.

"Oftentimes, despite the fact that you don't think two colors go together -- when they sow themselves, they look fabulous," Shepherd says.

And when the neighbors comment on your spectacular display, you don't have to admit that you had a little help.

Marty Ross is a garden writer in Kansas City, Mo.

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