self-seeding plants

Campion Cull

I have often mentioned the rose campion, Lychnis coronaria. It’s one of the easiest of garden perennials, practically a weed, in fact. It resists drought, tolerates shade, comes in white or what I call “magenta” (a dark purplish red, anyway), and seeds mightily.

That, of course, is why my place has more than enough of this plant. In the first flush of summer bloom, the white form is visually dominant in the back garden.

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Multiple clumps of white-flowered campion

The thing is, I find it impossible to yank out or dig up a plant that looks healthy, especially if it’s in full bloom. L. coronaria manages to look too good to kill most of the time, especially if deadheaded. This extends the bloom season and delays the onset of seediness. By July or August, deadheading 3 dozen or more plants gets to be a pain, especially those that are hard to get at. I resort to cutting the flowering stalks down or removing them altogether. That minimizes seed production, but does not eliminate it. Which is why I have so many plants.

This winter has been relatively tough, and one effect of that is that the campion plants look distinctly shabby.

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Noticing this, I seized the opportunity and a digging tool, and did a bit of a cull. Of course, there was no way to tell which plants were white-flowering and which were magenta, but I concentrated on spots I recalled as having way too many of the white form.

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Results of the massacre — a pile of pulled up campion plants.

At its best, the white-flowered form is as cool and elegant as many difficult perennials.

July 2, 2012

White Lychnis coronaria and unknown Euphorbia.

 

After the massacre, I started feeling some regret at the number of plants I had removed. Looking around, though, there is no shortage of Lychnis coronaria in this garden. And if I feel there is, all I have to do is let a single plant produce seed and scatter it around. Repopulation is guaranteed.

Hitchhikers and Freeloaders

I grow a lot of plants in pots, because the dry, rooty soil of my garden (about which I complain frequently) is not hospitable to the delicate and needy. So delphiniums, lilies and even tomatoes live in big pots parked along paths and driveway.

As I water and fuss over these potted prima donnas, I often find seedlings coming up in the pot soil, everything from lamb’s ears to chervil to infant peach trees. Tiny and delicate, they are easy to ignore, and as they grow many of them look really good (the beauty of youth). They display the very qualities of leaf shape and colour that made them welcome in the garden to begin with. Sometimes these self-sown interlopers pair so well with the legitimate occupant of the pot that I don’t even think of yanking them out. (I actually have a problem yanking out any plant that’s healthy and attractive — which explains a lot about this garden).

Sometimes the pot seedlings are useful plants. All my Verbena bonariensis died last winter, so I’m happy to see a few popping up in the tomato pots and will transplant them into their own pots and eventually to spots in the garden beds. A kale plant that came up in one of last year’s tomato pots continues to thrive in the pot and furnishes a few kale leaves for salads and stuff.

But there is a Dark Side. Unchecked, the little seedling grows and grows, eventually overwhelming the legitimate occupant of the pot. I stupidly left a rose campion in one of the 2-gallon pots occupied by a “Stargazer” lily, and a plant of lamb’s ears in the other. By the time I got around to wondering why the lilies didn’t look like blooming as they had done for several summers, it was too late. An emergency repotting job only gave the lilies better quarters in which to die.

Then there was the young mullein that almost did in a bright orange lily that had lived in its pot for years. It survived, possibly because the lilies had gone dormant (but dormant looks a lot like dead, so I wasn’t sure until the lily sprouted out this spring).

September 16, 2013

Think about it — a pot contains a finite clump of soil. It’s usually improved, enriched soil, but there is only so much of it. A plant like a lily may thrive in that situation because it’s the exclusive tenant of the pot, with all of the nutrients and water available for it alone. But when a vigorous plant like a rose campion takes over, it hogs all the goodies — with predictable results.

It’s amazing how a gardener with decades of experience can ignore something this obvious. Even now — today — a self-seeded forget-me-not prospers and blooms in a pot prepared for a purchased clematis (“Pink Fantasy”). But see how pretty the tiny blue flowers are, like little stars…

June 28, 2014 I will have to harden my heart and extract the forget-me-not. They grow all over the place, but there is only one pink clematis. It did quite well this spring and I would like to see it bigger and better next year.

Finally, here are some hitchhikers that can’t possibly harm their host.

Tiny mushrooms in pot with Plectranthus cuttings

Tiny mushrooms in pot with Plectranthus cuttings

Deadhead!

This spring I decided to be a better deadheader. Now it’s summer and all the tough, self-sufficient plants that do so well on my dry soil are in bloom.  The garden is full of colour and buzzing bees busy pollinating. Before you can say “Go forth and multiply,” there will be seeds.

Bee on Mullein

Many of those tough, self-sufficient plants are prolific seeders.  They share this quality with weeds; in fact, some wouldn’t hesitate to call plants such as toadflax (Linaria), lamb’s ears (Stachys) and campion (Lychnis) weeds and treat them accordingly.

For me it’s too late.  I welcomed these and others of their type into my dry garden with open arms and discovered their seedy tendencies by experience. Since about mid-June I have made weekly rounds of my garden, secateurs in hand, snipping and clipping any blooms that are past their best, before the seeds can ripen and scatter.

Toadflax

Campion

Many years I wasn’t persistent enough.  Seeds develop with astonishing speed, and in late August or September I would find myself creeping up to certain plants and shaking the stalks gently to hear if they rattled (which they inevitably did), then trying to cut and trap them in a bucket before they showered seeds all over.  Almost always the snip of the blades was followed by the peppering sound of seeds bouncing off neighbouring foliage as they fell earthward.  At this point I would tell myself that a certain amount of seeding is necessary for continuity, and that the seedlings won’t be that hard to remove next spring. Not strictly true, which is why this year I resolve to keep up with deadheading.

Deadheading need not be viewed as a tedious chore.  There is another aspect to it.  Think of it as perennial pruning.  There is a whole book about this — The Well-Tended Perennial Garden, by Tracy DiSabato-Aust.  The author discusses different techniques for removing spent blooms from plants, or cutting plants back to delay bloom and reduce size for better appearance.  The book includes many before and after photos illustrating the techniques, as well as a plant-by-plant section.

It’s all a matter of attitude — think of shaping and managing your plants throughout their season, rather than frantically trying to keep up with their fiendish seed-producing tendencies.  Think of deadheading as sculpture rather than housecleaning. Consider that removing the first flush of blooms often leads to another round of bloom rather than seediness.

Be brutal. Don’t fuss with snipping off individual dead flowers, even though that may be optimal for some plants, Lychnis coronaria and Campanula persicifolia, to name two. But if you have a lot of plants, trying to do it right soon means you won’t do it at all. Once most of the blooms on a stalk are past their best, cut off the whole thing. The tough plants will cheerfully send up new bloom stalks, and if they don’t at least you will avoid excessive seeding. You can experiment, in the spirit of Ms. DiSabato-Aust. Do the flower-by-flower thing on one plant and the crude but effective cut-the-whole-stalk treatment on others, leaving a few alone as a control. That’s the beauty of these slightly weedy plants — having so many, you can treat them harshly without fear of losing them.