The sheer joy of finding unexpected plants popping up here and there — and sometimes in the most surprising places — is, for a gardener, an absolute pleasure of unparalleled dimensions which — deny this if you dare — engenders facial expressions that, if caught on camera, would certainly make quite a picture!
Ooooooh! A completely unexpected scattering of thriving hollyhock seedlings amongst carefully spaced out spring cabbages brings a hazy memory into focus: a balmy, early summer day of bee-buzz and butterfly dance when, as I happily carried a carefully harvested, shallow basket of ripe hollyhock seed from two-year-old plants towering six to eight feet tall, up through the garden towards the house, a sudden gust of warm breeze had blown some of them up and away and I had simply shrugged my shoulders and let them be. Now, on a grey January day, here they were, sprung to life and — judging from appearances — quite determined to have their day and other than thinning them out a bit, transplanting the seedlings to garden boundaries, they are more than welcome.
It can, all depending on personal gardening practices of course, be that your garden begins to grow itself in the second year of its existence and, again all depending on your reaction to seedlings popping up at will, be that within three to four years, an incredible variety of plants will have created a durable paradise all of their very own design.
So what if there are sweet Williams in amongst the carrots, larkspur in the celery bed, Phacelia tanacetifolia ornamenting the potato patch, Antirrhinums thriving in cracks in the footpath and Feverfew flourishing in places — such as in among a carefully stacked heap of empty clay pots — where the seed would never have grown if it had been sown there on purpose?
Plants — not just flowering ones but herbs and many vegetables too — have growing ideas all of their own and if borage wants to colonise the area set aside for this year’s tomato crop, then so be it, especially as borage is an excellent ‘companion plants’ for tomatoes: maybe the borage was fully aware of human gardening plans and pre-empted them!
Allowing plants to do as they wish, to grow in spots they themselves have, one way or the other, arrived in, is not lazy gardening, although gardeners who martial their plants into perfectly straight rows, each plant equidistant from the next, and who endlessly dig or spray any out of place, germinating seedling — irrespective of its antecedents — to death, may very well think otherwise.
Gardening design does, of course, have its place but — exactly as culinary recipes are tailored to personal taste by free thinking cooks — personalising designs is to create that special stamp of individual expression which releases and acknowledges the artist inside. But if plants themselves have an inbuilt, natural desire to add their own drift and flow to the living palette then they should, within reason of course, be allowed to make this contribution: a contribution that birds, bees, butterflies and the legions of beneficial insects that are the backbone of an organic garden, will welcome with a massive thanks.
Flower species which — providing the original seed is ‘heirloom’ not hybrid or otherwise tampered with — will merrily seed themselves around, germinating when the weather is suitable to their individual requirements, include the following: Petunia, viola, cosmos, sunflowers, gaillardia, rudbeckia, cornflowers, flax, coreopsis, yarrow, stocks, ageratum, dahlia, Queen Anne’s Lace, scabosia, escholtizia, zinnia, bellis perennis, linaria, brachycome and the aforementioned antirrhinum, sweet Williams, larkspur, phacelia tanacetifolia and hollyhocks.
Herbs with a mind of their own include: borage, feverfew, nasturtiums, calendula, sage, rocket/’arugula’, thyme, oregano, chives, garlic chives, dandelion, parsley, coriander, mint, borage, aniseed, ajwain, lemon balm, chamomile, dill, fenugreek, hyssop, marjoram and savoury.
On the vegetable front, if allowed to flower, then set and ripen seed, a surprising number of vegetables will self-seed with good success: lettuce and other salad greens, mustard, giant red mustard, mizuna, spinach, Swiss chard / leaf beet, cabbage and other members of the Brassica family, carrots, parsnips, peas, beans, asparagus, globe artichokes, celery, chicory, endive and, purslane with, although these are actually classified as fruits, tomatoes, capsicums, chillies, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and other members of the extensive squash family, having the capability to self-seed but which are usually far better if given a helping hand.
Allowing, even encouraging, plants to colonise your garden via self-seeding, does not mean that — aside from necessary seasonal watering — you can completely leave the garden to its own devices: unfortunately, this is not the case.
It is essential that you are able to identify emerging seedlings, by species, as they should be kept as weed free as possible so that they have room to grow into healthy plants.
Self-seeded seedlings tend to be overcrowded and so must be thinned out — the thinnings transplanted elsewhere, or given away to other gardening enthusiasts.
It is also important not to permit a particularly prolific species to take over the garden at the expense of everything else trying to grow there.
Letting a garden grow itself — to whatever degree personally deemed possible or feasible — is a fascinating thing to do. Give it a try and reap the incredibly pleasurable benefit.
Please continue sending your gardening queries to [email protected]. Remember to include your location. The writer does not respond directly by email. Emails with attachments will not be opened.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, January 31st, 2016