December 20th, 2012 in blogs
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Photo: Bill Johnson
Given the right spot, these plants will fill your garden with serendipitous flair
By Amanda Thomsen
There are two kinds of gardeners when it comes to self-sowing perennials: Lady Plant Hoarder, who says "Bring it on!," and Mr. Garden Curmudgeon, who simply doesn't understand why anyone would set themselves up for the work of managing all those lusty, willing plant volunteers. As a maximalist, I believe more is more and, therefore, encourage my plants to go for it. Free plants are free plants, after all.
I first became interested in these happy runaways when I had a very large space to fill and very little money to fill it with. The designer in me liked the idea of not only filling a large space inexpensively but also having large swaths of color. But in my big garden experiment, I started off with some thuggy self-sowers and ended up pulling out plants like common valerian (Valeriana officinalis, USDA Hardiness Zones 4–9) over and over again for many years. It was garden purgatory.
I've since fine-tuned my list of favorite self-sowers to those that not only look gorgeous but also play nicely with others. As these plants have seeded themselves around my garden, they've created combos that I would never have thought of myself. I think that this group of ten has enough style and charm to justify having more than one-or even more than six-of each!
Blackberry lily keeps the show going into fall
Name: Belamcanda chinensis
Zones: 5 to 9
Size: Up to 3 feet tall and 1 foot wide
Conditions: Full sun; average, well-drained soil
I cannot see this plant in bloom without singing its common name to the tune of Santana's "Black Magic Woman." Blackberry lily has strappy, irislike foliage and exotic leopard-spotted orange flowers that bloom in late summer. As a bonus, its clusters of shiny black seeds give you something nice to look at in winter. Blackberry lily's seedlings look just like their parents but a whole lot smaller. If you pair it with 'Isla Gold' tansy (Tanacetum vulgare 'Isla Gold', Zones 4–8), the temperature in your garden will raise by several degrees.
'Lodden Royalist' blue bugloss replaces itself
Name: Anchusa azurea 'Lodden Royalist'
Zones: 3 to 8
Size: Up to 3 feet tall and 2 feet wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; moist, well-drained soil
A good blue is hard to find. There are, luckily, a few that are dependable self-sowers. 'Lodden Royalist' blue bugloss is known for being short-lived, but if you find the right place for it-where it's happy enough to seed itself reliably-you'll hardly notice because new plants will take the place of those that disappear. This butterfly-bait plant benefits from a disciplinary haircut from time to time. Whenever it's looking a little rough around the edges, just mow it down to 1 to 2 inches tall. But make sure you stop cutting it back by the Fourth of July so that you don't miss out on its late-season flowers and the resulting seeds. This is one of those plants where I almost always pull out the seedlings by mistake because they don't look like anything special. It's tricky, so stay focused when thinning.
Common rue is a treat for the eyes and the nose
Name: Ruta graveolens
Zones: 5 to 9
Size: Up to 3 feet tall and wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; well-drained soil
This herb is so good that it gave its name to the actress Rue McClanahan and a magical mixture of butter and flour used to make gumbo. I love its witchy smell and glaucous, ferny leaves. Its clusters of pale yellow flowers that bloom in midsummer are just a bonus. If you put itnext to a variegated iris (Iris pallida 'Variegata', Zones 4–9), you'll swoon from the cuteness. Common rue is a favorite of swallowtail-butterfly larvae, which is a giant plus. A giant minus is that the plant's sap, when combined with the sun's rays, can cause rashes and even blisters. Common rue's offspring are easy to identify by sight and smell, even from an early age-just like baby skunks.
Nodding onion has no four-legged friends
Name: Allium cernuum
Zones: 4 to 8
Size: 12 to 18 inches tall and wide
Conditions: Full sun to partial shade; fertile, well-drained soil
In my book, if any self-seeder was going to be mandatory, it would be this native onion-and not just because Chicago is named after it (Chegagou is Algonquin for "The Land of Smelly Onions"). The shiny, strappy leaves of nodding onion add a nice texture while you wait for it to bloom in late summer, when its pale pinkish flower clusters nod to you in approval, as if to say, "You did a good job planting me." As a member of the Allium family, the plant is tastily edible to people but repulsive to deer and rabbits. Its seedlings are easy enough to identify: If you pull something out that smells like onion, you've found it. I like planting it with 'Chocolate' eupatorium (Eupatorium rugosum 'Chocolate', Zones 4–8), which is also a self-sower, or with 'Alexander' whorled loosestrife (Lysimachia punctata 'Alexander', Zones 4–8).