Self-seeding Weeds

Self-seeded vs weeds – how to be more relaxed about your garden. Find the balance that is right for you and try a new gardening style. Gardening with self-seeding plants can be fun and rewarding. Here are its benefits and tips on getting started. Knowing whether a weed is an annual or a perennial will help you control the weeds in your garden.

Self-seeded vs weeds – can you achieve the magic balance?

I’ve been thinking about the balance of self-seeded vs weeds in my garden this year.

This is my main border. In May and June it is full of self seeded alliums. lychnis coronaria, euphorbia and a self-seeded Rosa glauca in the front by the bench.

We are open every year for the Faversham Open Gardens & Garden Market Day It’s always on the last Sunday in June. And June is the best time of year for self-seeders in my garden.

So I am doing some last minutes prinking. And I’m wondering, as always, whether I have got the balance right between self-seeded plants and weeds.

As garden writer, Helen Yemm, once told me – you need to be quite an expert gardener to tell the difference between self-seeded vs weeds when they are both small.

And when I first came to this garden sixteen years ago, I knew nothing about gardening. And I was very busy, so often didn’t have time to weed thoroughly, although we did have a few hours of paid gardening help every week.

The result of my neglect is that our June garden is a blaze of self-seeded plants. But the weeds in my garden are also horrendous.

Either I have not got the balance between self-seeded vs weeds right. Or there is no balance to be achieved. Maybe you can’t have one without the other.

Both sets of alliums and the euphorbia are self-seeded. However, I did originally grow the euphorbia from seed fifteen years ago, and it has romped around the garden since. Around 10 years ago,I bought a few alliums (Allium Christophii and Allium Purple Sensation). Since then, they have just sorted themselves out.

Are weeds becoming ‘fashionable’?

However, after going to this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, I feel more positive about my weeds. The David Harber Savills garden had buttercups growing up through crevices, and the Welcome to Yorkshire garden actually had nettles. On the Canals and Rivers Trust garden at BBC Gardeners World Live, there was encouragement to keep your grassy edges shaggy.

So is my garden part of a new wave? Or are we all going to regret our new found relaxed attitude to weeds in a few years time when we find ourselves strangled by them?

This yellow weed is very pretty in the shady bed, with a backdrop of oak leafed hydrangea and self-seeded Angelica. I have tried to identify it but the closest I have come is ‘nipplewort’ or Lapsana communis. Please do correct me if I’ve got that wrong.

Is the self-seeded vs weeds balance psychological?

A couple of friends who are involved with the NGS have asked me if I’ve ever considered putting my garden forward for possible opening. I’ve explained about the weeds, usually feeling rather embarrassed.

But now I’ve seen ‘weeds’ at Chelsea, I could explain that I’m aiming for a balance in self-seeded vs weeds. It’s actually my gardening style. I no longer need to feel embarrassed about it.

This bed definitely doesn’t have the balance between self-seeders and weeds right. There is terrible bindweed, plus brambles, plus nettles..but I do weed it, I promise. I’m thinking of making it a wildflower bed, and allowing the nettles to flourish for butterflies to enjoy. But the bindweed has even beaten back self-seeded fennel, so this happy idea may not be possible.

But it is important to be honest. Self-seeders are wonderful, free and gloriously relaxed, but my garden is full of weeds because I am a bit lazy about weeding. And there’s no virtue in that.

And weeding is definitely linked to self-seeding, even if you are an expert gardener. When I last wrote about the best self-seeding plants, some expert gardeners told me that plants ‘never self-seed’ in their gardens. However, this complaint only ever comes from people who are diligent weeders and have gardens full of beautiful blooms that they have actually planted.

Structure helps you get away with weeds

One reason why people don’t initially realise that my garden is full of weeds is that the weediest parts have a strong structure. The left hand back border is infested with bindweed, nipplewort (if that’s what it’s called), docks and more.

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But, from a distance, the graceful Robinia frisia and the tailored outlines of topiarised holly and holm oaks disguise the muddle underneath.

Spot the weeds! You have to go close up, but next Sunday’s Faversham Open Gardens visitors will. Perhaps I’ll find out whether it’s definitely called nipplewort or not.

Interestingly, the other border on the back wall needs less weeding than anywhere else in the garden. It’s full of Japanese anemones. Could this be linked? Do Japanese anemones even beat off bindweed?

One year’s weeding saves seven years seeding

There’s no doubt that this saying is true. I probably now spend as much time weeding as those with immaculate gardens who have never allowed weeds to take over. One of the main arguments in the self-seeded vs weeds debate is that it seems almost impossible not to have both.

This week, I have filled a one ton sack full of weeds. And I have a wonderful friend who says that weeding is a good stress-reliever. She has relieved her stress to the tune of around five one-ton sacks this year.

So, although I love the more relaxed approach seen in this year’s Chelsea Flower Show and Gardener’s World Live, I think we should be honest about the consequences.

Even the vegetable beds have self-seeders – parsley, coriander, rocket, spinach and nasturtiums. They’re in the far bed, top right of this picture. In the foreground are a selection of common weeds.

Put the mower away…

One of the best things you can do for wildlife in your garden and for the environment is to put your mower away. Or use it less.

With the right treatment, the result should be a beautiful meadow lawn. Find out more in How to Create A Mini Meadow Lawn.

However, you will have to decide which plants in your lawn are wildflowers and which are weeds.

And you’ll need to weed out pernicious perennial weeds while leaving the wildflowers in. For more advice, see Meadow Lawn Mistakes and How to Avoid Them.

So what’s the conclusion about self-seeded vs weeds?

Last year, I wrote a post on how to create a mini-meadow in your garden. It may look as simple as simply ‘not mowing the lawn’. But after talking to many people who have mini meadows in their middle-sized gardens, I realised that there is work involved. But it’s a different sort of work and it takes place at a different time.

If you decide to go for a more relaxed self-seeded and weed-friendly garden, the same applies. It won’t necessarily be less work overall. But it may suit you better. It’s right for my gardening style and it may be right for yours.

But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s low-maintenance gardening. Those who weed regularly, wrenching a weed out the minute it pops its head up, probably ultimately spend less time weeding than the rest of us. True low-maintenance gardening is about easy care shrubs and well planned hard landscaping.

Where to buy tickets for Faversham Open Gardens

Tickets are £6 or £10 for two, available from the Faversham Society, 13 Preston St or the Faversham Open Gardens stall in the Market Place from mid-May. You can also get them posted to you if you ring 01795 534452. There are no tickets for sale at individual gardens.

And for listings of beautiful (weed-free) gardens to visit throughout the year, see the NGS Yellow Book. (Links to Amazon are affiliate, see disclosure.)

Tips for Using Self-seeding Plants in the Garden

Sometimes gardeners shy from using plants with a propensity to seed themselves around the garden, for fear that these self-seeders will outcompete neighboring plants or upset the overall planting design. These are valid concerns, yet gardening with self-seeding plants has its upsides:

False indigo (Baptisia australis) is a perennial that gently self-seeds in my garden. Its seedlings are easy to identify because of the plant’s unique foliage. Because this is a tall plant, I move chance seedlings when they pop up at the front of the garden, where they will block the view of other plants.

It can be of great benefit to bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects. Self-seeding plants typically flower abundantly, providing plenty of food for these insects while also creating a lively, colorful display.

It requires less in the way of resources. If plants are happy to “volunteer” in your garden, they are happy with its conditions—no need for supplemental water, soil amendments or fertilizer.

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It offers surprises that can be gorgeous, and it’s the chance to turn “garden design” into a partnership with nature, rather than a struggle for control.

Creativity is not lost. Although plants will pop up where you didn’t plan for them, you don’t have to leave them there. You can, but there’s always the option to pull or move them.

Getting started with self-seeders:

Experiment with those that may already be in your garden. Allow some seedlings to develop wherever they pop up. If you decide you don’t like how they look later, you can still pull them or move them. Ask local gardening friends for chance seedlings that appear in their garden, and for their observations of plants that self-sow and to what degree.

To encourage volunteer seedlings, don’t mulch. The mulch that suppresses weed seeds will do the same to desirable seeds. You will need to weed, but the amount of weeding could taper off after a few seasons, especially as you encourage a thick tapestry of plants that are ideal for the site. If you can’t skip mulch altogether, opt for a shallow layer of a fine material such as shredded leaves or pine needles, and/or wait until summer to apply mulch, so that volunteers have a chance to come up in the spring.

It goes without saying, but avoid including invasive plants in your garden. The goal is to encourage some self-seeding, not overtake a neighboring ecosystem. Research the plants you’re adding to your garden and consult with local extension agencies, botanic gardens and wildflower societies for planting ideas and locally native species.

Use straight species or naturally occuring varieties rather than hybrids or cultivars, which often have been rendered sterile to prolong their bloom time and therefore will not produce seed, or if they are fertile, their offspring may be weak or show less desirable traits. If you use non-sterile cultivars, be aware that the seedlings may not precisely resemble the parent, particularly if you are growing more than one cultivar, as they may cross-pollinate. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.) For more on this topic, see this post from South Dakota State University Extension.

Thin your volunteer seedlings so that they can develop. Sometimes a bunch will pop up in one place; when they begin to crowd against each other, pull some and compost or transplant them.

Familiarize yourself with how your plants look as seedlings vs. how common weeds in your area look, so you won’t mistakenly pull a garden plant and leave a weed. This knowledge will accumulate over time; when you’re starting out, don’t be afraid to let a potential weed develop a bit or even flower if you’re unsure. (Just don’t let it go to seed if you realize it is a weed!)

Related recommended reading

If you want to start gardening more intentionally with self-seeding plants (and take a less controlled approach to gardening altogether), check out these books:

This book is all about gardening with self-seeding plants. It describes how to choose plants, prepare the soil and edit seedlings so that the garden retains structure. It includes visits to several beautiful gardens of self-sown plants for inspiration and guidance, plus descriptive lists of plants for specific situations.

This book describes how to create a low-budget yet beautiful garden by propagating your own plants and using spreading plants. There is a great section on making the most of self-seeders. (There’s also lots of practical info on wintering tender plants, collecting and storing seed, dividing plants and more, plus recommended plants that self-sow, spread by their roots or overwinter easily.)

This book presents an ecological approach to gardening, explaining how to assess your site and create a plan based on ideally suited plants that will evolve to contribute to the surrounding ecosystem while requiring less input from you. Among many other lessons, the book shows how to choose and site appropriate spreading and self-seeding plants, which build on your initial design and eliminate the need for purchasing and installing replacement plants should something fail.

This book provides an excellent entry for home gardeners into the world of ecological gardening. Norris provides much background on plant behavior and needs and he explains how they grow best in communities with one another. He shows gardeners how to design their own plant communities that will mature in fairly predictable ways while still allowing for happy surprises. The book also includes guidance tailored to specific sites around our homes, such as shady spaces, foundation beds, curbside strips and more.

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Controlling Annual vs. Perennial Weeds

Marie Iannotti is a life-long gardener and a veteran Master Gardener with nearly three decades of experience. She’s also an author of three gardening books, a plant photographer, public speaker, and a former Cornell Cooperative Extension Horticulture Educator. Marie’s garden writing has been featured in newspapers and magazines nationwide and she has been interviewed for Martha Stewart Radio, National Public Radio, and numerous articles.

Debra LaGattuta is a gardening expert with three decades of experience in perennial and flowering plants, container gardening, and raised bed vegetable gardening. She is a Master Gardener and lead gardener in a Plant-A-Row, which is a program that offers thousands of pounds of organically-grown vegetables to local food banks. Debra is a member of The Spruce Gardening and Plant Care Review Board.

Emma Farrer / Getty Images

If there’s a bare spot in your garden, a weed seed will find it. Weeds aren’t bad plants; they’re just plants that are growing where you don’t want them to. Some weeds are easily removed by hand. Others are persistent about growing back and become more and more difficult to eradicate the longer they are left to establish themselves and spread.

Annuals vs. Perennials

Just like plants you intentionally grow in your garden, weeds can be annuals or perennials.

    are plants that sprout from seed, grow for a single year, and then die. Typically, annual plants produce many seeds that can germinate to produce more plants the following year. , by contrast, are plants that live two years or longer; perennials can be short-lived or long-lived. They establish robust root systems and re-grow from the same root system year after year.

In general, it’s much easier to eradicate annual weeds than it is perennial weeds.

Annual Weeds

Annual weeds spread by seed. They can self-seed or the seeds can be brought into the garden by birds, four-legged animals, or by sticking to your clothing. Examples of annual weeds include chickweed, crabgrass, knotweed, lambs-quarters, common mallow, pigweed, purple deadnettle, groundsel, nettle (common), purslane, speedwell, spurge, and yellow wood sorrel (oxalis).

Just as with other plants, weeds can be cool-season or warm-season annuals.

  • Cool-season annual weeds sprout any time from fall through spring and some grow even through the winter months. They’ll go to flower in late spring / early summer. The weed might disappear when the weather warms, but you’ll see even more of them germinating the following fall.
  • Warm-season annual weeds tend to start growing in the spring and hang around all through the growing season. Either way, the only way to control them is to remove them before they go to seed again. Annual weeds very often have shallow roots and can be easily hand-pulled or cut off with a hoe.

Hopefully, you will see fewer and fewer annual weeds as the season progresses. The reality, however, is that new seeds will always find their way in and some seeds remain dormant in the soil until ideal conditions present themselves and they germinate. Weeding is an ongoing process; if you can get in the habit of removing weeds each time you work in your garden, it won’t become an overwhelming task.

Perennial Weeds

Perennial weeds are the most difficult to control. They spread by seed and creeping roots and if you don’t pull the entire root, the plant can actually reproduce from every piece of root left behind. You’ll have similar problems with perennial weeds that grow deep, hard-to-remove taproots.

Hoeing and tilling are not good choices for removing perennial weeds. Hand weeding will work if you are very thorough about removing the entire plant and its root system. If you can handle cold temperatures, perennial weeds pull out most easily in the early spring, when the ground has recently thawed. Sometimes an herbicide is the only solution for eradicating tough perennial weeds like poison ivy, ground ivy, and brambles.

Examples of perennial weeds include bindweed, burdock, dandelion, dock, ground ivy, horsetail, Japanese knotweed, plantain, poison ivy, quackgrass, thistle, and ragweed.

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