VIVA LA VOLUNTEERS

SELF-SOWING FLOWERS PLANT THEMSELVES WHERE THEY WILL GROW BEST--SEASON AFTER SEASON--WITH NO ATTENTION FROM YOU. LET THEM LIVELONG AND LIVE LONG AND PROSPER.

"Where can I find flowers like that? friends ask. "Come back in a month and collect some seed," I reply. "Then just scatter them in your garden." Haphazard as this advice sounds, it's the best way to grow larkspur and other similarly free-spirited flowers. These self-sowing annuals drop their seeds after they bloom and come up again the next season right where the conditions are best for them. All you need do is sit back and enjoy the show--no feeding or watering necessary--and appreciate the pollinators these flowers attract.

Self-sowing flowers pose only one challenge to gardeners: You might select the perfect spot for them in your garden; they are likely to come up the second season (and for many after that) in a spot of their own choosing. You have to just give in.
Hunt and Gather

Late summer is the time to visit a cottage-gardening friend armed with a handful of seed-collecting envelopes. Collecting and scattering is not the only way to acquire these generous bloomers, but it is the best way. Seed freshness is important. Pick the dried pods and scatter them in your garden within a month of collecting. They germinate readily--when they're good and ready--and bloom the following season. The following are a few favorites.

Larkspur. Regal purple, 4 feet tall, and irresistible, Consolidas ajacis is a cottage-garden classic (check it out in the photo on the opposite page). For a vibrant combination, interplant it with scarlet Maltese cross (Lychnis chalcedonica). Be aware, however, of what our Missouri test gardener Caleb Melchior refers to as its "totalitarian tendencies." To keep it under control, thin larkspur to no more than six plants per square foot. Yes, even if it means dumping 60 seedlings in the compost bin. It's for the best. Really.

Xeranthemum. So little known it doesn't even have a common name, Xeranthemum anuum thrives in very well drained soil--gravel, even. Unless you're lucky enough to know someone who grows this plant, you'll need to look for seed to purchase for first-year plants. Start seedlings indoors in spring to ensure survival, but don't expect much in the way of performance. The effort will be paid back in year two, when masses of silver-pink blooms flaunt their colors through most of the summer. Scatter spent blooms in gravelly places so barren even weeds grow poorly. Xeranthemum is a beautiful weed substitute.

California poppy. Just when you think you're beginning to understand the habits of Eschscholzia californica, your population may vanish, or bloom in late summer rather than late spring. Though it's a reliable performer in California, outside of the western states we need to just humor the capricious and charming beauty. Good drainage is essential. Try a hillside planting on a south-facing slope. It flourishes in drought and disturbed ground.

• Other self-sowers to keep an eagle eye out for during the summer:

Cleome. Tall and airy. "Top of my list," says Don Boekelheide, our Charlotte, North Carolina, test gardener.

Catchfly (Silene armeria): Startling magenta blooms on tidy plants.

Amaranth. Impressively tall, which makes it easy to spot. Amaranth always has seed to spare.
Spring for Seedlings

Don't despair if you are unable to find on-the-plant seeds. Some self-sowers are not persnickety about being started from seed on a windowsill, and are available in many nurseries, as well. Do collect and scatter seeds in late summer and fall if you can, but failing that, purchase these plants or seeds next spring for years of color.

Woodland tobacco. Elegant and fragrant, 6-foot-tall Nicotiana sylvestris blooms from summer into fall. Place your plants strategically (lonely is best--use them as punctuation points) in the garden after danger of frost has passed. When the seeds mature in late summer, you can gently cut seed-filled pods from the plant and lay them where you envision the stately beauties next year. Or you can leave the decision up to them.

Jewels of Opar. Clean green leaves and airy sprays of tiny flowers, followed by jewel-like pods, make Talinum paniculatum an uncommon attraction, wherever it chooses to appear. Place seedlings near the front or middle of the border. Jewels of Opar are extremely reliable self-sowers but notoriously late to make their appearance, so don't give up on them. They often sow themselves in walkway and patio cracks.

Sweet alyssum. A self-sown Lobularia maritima seedling is a gift in my Pennsylvania garden, yet Nan Sterman, OG's test gardener near San Diego, labels it a "thug." Our test gardener in Las Vegas, Leslie Doyle, praises its manners. "It comes back every year to act as a low-growing living mulch that protects our soil from the hot desert sun. And it is very fragrant and attracts pollinators." From this I conclude that dry air and consistent irrigation are the keys to having a healthy self-sown population of sweet alyssum. Personally, I would not mind a bit if the little beauty ran amok.

• Other self-sowing flowers that can be easily purchased:

Moonflower (Datura): Shrublike and night-fragrant.

Verbena bonariensis. See-through stalks with purple blooms that make any border better.

Annual poppies, particularly 'Lauren's Grape': "The simple, elegant blooms last for about a second, but the seedheads offer season-long interest," says Stephanie Van Parys, our test gardener in Decatur, Georgia.
Sow Easy

Purchased seed of the following flowers can be sown directly in the garden in spring, with good success. Certainly collect and scatter seed in late summer if you have a source, but if not, packaged seed yields fine results, too.

Love-in-a-mist. The pods are the thing. Not that the delicate blue or white flowers of Nigella species are not attractive--they are. But the pretty papery pods persist through the entire summer and even have a second life in dried arrangements. Pluck some pods when they turn beige or tan, and place them on the ground where you'd like to see them grow next year.

Calendula. From Pennsylvania south, Calendula officinalis often provides you with two rounds of blooming--early summer, and again in late summer. "It's quite the achiever," says Debbie Leung, OG's Washington State tester. "The petals are pretty in salad mix," adds central California farmer Bill Nunes. "And they're easy to get rid of where I don't want them." Breeders have been adding selections in recent years. Besides the traditional yellows, you can choose from more vibrant pinks and oranges, and "flashback" varieties, which have eye-catching cream-colored backsides. Grow calendula with tomatoes; they're reported to repel hornworms.

Bells of Ireland. Green flowers are all the rage, and bells of Ireland (Moluccella laevis) is the original green bloomer. Bell-like blossoms line the stems, which contort into endearing poses. Before the flowers' color starts to fade, cut some stems, pull off all the leaves, hang them in a cool dark place to dry, and then bring them in for winter arrangements. Be sure to leave plenty in the garden, because germination is much better when the seeds sow themselves than when you purchase seeds to sow.

• Other self-sowers to direct-seed:

Celosias. I'm partial to the pink and purple wheat celosias (C. spicata). Charlotte, North Carolina, test gardener Don Boekelheide's scarlet cockscomb (C. argentea) is "pretty and reliable, and transplants easily." Both self-sow almost too freely.

Cosmos. "They take our Texas summer heat," says Leslie Halleck of North Haven Gardens in Dallas.

Bachelor's buttons (Centaurea cyanus): True blue, and a polite reseeder in Pennsylvania. Ann Caffey, our high-altitude Colorado tester, reports that they have a tendency to take over in her Zone 4 garden--not necessarily a bad thing.

To learn about the self-sowing flowers that attract benefical insects to your beds, visit OrganicGardening.com.
CROWD CONTROL

Master the timing and techniques of managing volunteer seedlings, and you gain a whole army of colorful garden partners. They attract pollinators, delight you with their unpredictability, and crowd out weeds. These steps will have the volunteers marching for you.

* Early spring: Wait to mulch, lest you smother seedlings. If you're even thinking of mulching in March, consider that old-time favorites like larkspur and bells of Ireland are rare in modern gardens because people mulch when they have the time, not when the time is right. Let the appearance of favorite volunteers be your cue that the soil is warm enough for mulching.

* Midspring: Volunteer management. When love-in-a-mist, calendula, and other abundant seedlings appear, thin and neaten them up about the edges for a self-sown display, or lift clumps and pop them into other spots in the garden, even the vegetable garden.

* Late spring: Share plants. Make friends. Volunteer seedlings enable you to be a generous gardener. Take a trowel and lift up a whole clump. Put it gently in a pot without disturbing the roots at all.

* Summer: Observe. Knowing which plants self-sow allows you to be vigilant for seed-collecting opportunities. Note locations and talk to gardeners about coming back for seed.
NEWBIE FLINT

A general rule for seed collecting is that they are ready to harvest when the pods become brittle and pop open easily.
MASTER'S TIP

Select for characteristics you like by allowing only desired flowers to go to seed, deadheading all others. Caleb Melchior, OG's Missouri test gardener, is working toward a silver-leaved, black-flowering bachelor's button, by continually roguing out less silvery plants.
BULLIES IN YOUR BEDS

Self-sowing flowers can crowd your garden and in some cases even overwhelm native species in natural niches. To keep overachievers in check, remove flowers before they set seed. In certain regions, the beauties below may be trouble.

Perilla. Deadhead this foliage plant before it sets seed, Southern states label it weedy or invasive,

Summer cypress (Bassia, a.k.a. Kochia scoparia). Avoid this bushlike plant, which turns red in fall, if you live where it might tumble over bare ground, potentially invading disturbed sites.

Morning glory. This popular vine can be a weed, particularly in the south.

Verbena bonariensis. In northern gardens, the many seedlings can be easily cultivated away, but where it is perennial (Zone 7 and south) this verbena is being monitored as a potentially invasive plant.

PHOTO (COLOR): Easy does it: The four self-sowers on the opposite page are just about the most carefree flowers imaginable. They include (clockwise from top left) brilliant magenta catchfly; the delicate airy sprays of jewels of Opar; xeranthemum, which comes up strong in poor, gravelly soil; and chartreuse bells of Ireland, which are all the rage with florists and striking in dried arrangements, too. The blue flowers of love-in-a-mist are lovely, but short-lived. But its distinctive-looking seed pods (left) persist for weeks in the garden.

PHOTO (COLOR): Tough love: The secret to success with self-sowing flowers such as (left to right) 'Lauren's Grape' poppy, larkspur, California poppy, and love-in-a-mist is learning how to recognize and manage their seedlings. As much as possible, leave the seedlings where they have planted themselves, and give them space to grow by pulling out their closest neighbors.

PHOTO (COLOR): High and mighty: Tall woodland tobacco (far left) fills your garden with fragrance. Towering see-through stalks of verbena (near left) stand out in a flower border.

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By Pam Ruch

Photographs by Christa Neu

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