Garden Vagabonds

With these self-sowers, what you lose in control you gain in adventure

The dainty yellow flowers of this corydalis rise above a wispy mound of foliage that has taken up residence in the shade at the author’s doorstep.

Some plants in my garden just won’t stay put. Nomatter where I set them, they turn up the next season yards away, growing happily in a location they’ve picked all by themselves. These stubborn garden nomads are too valuable and well mannered to be weeds. I think of them as vagabond plants. I’m not talking about aggressive runners like loosestrife or bishop’s weed. Most of my vagabond plants are politely self-sowing perennials and annuals that pose no threat to their more sedentary neighbors. While I’m usually deliberate in my planting designs, I’ve found that gardening with vagabond plants adds a welcome element of surprise to my plantings.

These nomads fit into every garden spot

Eryngium variifolium: This sea holly, which will produce gray-blue blossoms above the silver flower bracts, sets up tightly packed colonies as it self-sows.

The vagabond plants that roam around my garden range from tiny to head-high in stature, from drought-tolerant sun-lovers to woodlanders that thrive in shade. By observing where each vagabond appears and thrives I’ve discovered which garden role best suits it.

The smallest vagabonds make ideal choices for edging paths and walkways or for standing in front of taller plants in the mixed border. Consider Eryngium variifolium (USDA Hardiness Zones 5 to 9). This tough evergreen sea holly self-sows to form closely packed colonies of glossy dark-green foliage boldly embroidered with silver veins. At the height of summer each 8-inch-wide rosette bears a prickly, sculpted inflorescence clothed in silver bracts and topped with a thistlelike button of gray-blue blossoms. Since it tolerates heat and drought better than most perennials I know, I am always happy to let Eryngium variifolium volunteer its services in the parched soil along my concrete entry walk.

Geranium nodosum: This cranesbill geranium adapts well to dry shade, and its modest lilac blooms have a beauty all their own.
Nigella damascena: Love-in-a-mist offers frothy foliage and delicate blue flowers. The author encourages this annual to take up residence in his numerous container plantings.

Corydalis lutea (Zones 5 to 8) takes over as the walk makes its way into the shade of overhanging plum and maple trees. It has made an ever-expanding colony in the dry, shaded nook beside my front stoop. Its 1-foot-tall mounds of airy gray-green foliage are sprinkled with cheerful yellow flowers that light up their gloomy corner from March  through August.

Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis, Zones 4 to 7) crops up under rhododendrons, maples, and magnolias where it makes spreading mounds of soft, scalloped foliage and clouds of chartreuse-yellow flowers that seem to blend with anything. I have yet to find a self-sown seedling in a where place I didn’t like it. Equally useful and prolific is Geranium nodosum (Zones 4 to 8). This modest plant is less conspicuous in flower than some other cranesbills, but its soft lilac blossoms have a beauty all their own. The combination of the blossoms, the handsome glossy foliage that turns bright scarlet and orange in the fall, and the plant’s tolerance for dry shade make this a formidable ground cover indeed.

My use of vagabonds to liven up container plantings began when I discovered seedlings of the prolific annual love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena) sprouting beneath roses in a decorative pot. ‘Miss Jekyll’ is an especially lovely blue-flowered Nigella selection that seeds true and provides frothy foliage, delicate flowers, and decorative seed pods as it skips effortlessly from container to container.


Vagabonds create serendipity

Cerinthe major ‘Purpurea’:  The uncommon cerinthe, with its grayish-green foliage and deep-purple bracts, makes a statement wherever it inserts itself.

Most of the vagabonds in my garden appear in my mixed borders, where they bring new combinations of color, form, and texture. My favorites are those whose flowers, foliage, and habit blend with a wide range of companion plants. Shades of pink, white, and yellow dominate my borders, so clear blue flowers make an ideal complement. Borage (Borago officinalis) is an annual that provides pure blue in abundance. Almost anywhere it pops up it manages to look appropriate.

Knautia macedonica (Zones 5 to 8) offers a more unusual garden color—pure, deep crimson-red. I am always delighted when it sows itself among white-striped sedges or silver-spotted Pulmonaria cultivars. A patch of Knautia recently appeared next to a clump of Scrophularia auriculata ‘Variegata’, making a dramatic contrast against its cream-splashed leaves.

Aquilegia, or columbine, is probably the most versatile vagabond species I grow. One blue-flowered hybrid planted years ago is now parent to a clan of offspring in varied shades of yellow, cream, and blue. Elsewhere in the garden, the northwestern native species Aquilegia formosa (Zones 4 to 8) dangles sprightly red-and-yellow long-spurred blossoms among deep-red peonies and scarlet Geum species and cultivars.

Borago officinalis: No matter where it pops up, borage always seems to look appropriate. No other vagabond provides such pure blue flowers in such abundance.
Verbena bonariensis: This verbena’s lavender flowers rise high on long stalks and last for months.
Knautia macedonica: As far as volunteers go, none provides more dramatic contrast than knautia. Its deep-crimson flowers grow high above its foliage.

Some vagabonds have a flair for drama and make startling accents when they show themselves in the mixed border. Verbena bonariensis (Zones 7 to 11) is the largest vagabond I grow. Its 6-foot-tall stalks are topped with clouds of lilac flowers that persist for months. It spreads easily from seed and always looks especially exciting among yellow shrub roses or near a white-variegated Buddleia davidii ‘Harlequin’.

Though subtly colored, Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’ draws comment wherever it inserts itself. The steely purple bracts and leathery gray foliage of this annual seem extraterrestrial poking up among more conventional herbaceous plants. I like to let it plant itself among bright-yellow daylilies and  ‘Moonbeam’ thread-leaf coreopsis.

Direct the wandering of vagabond plants

My first garden vagabonds appeared fortuitously: a stray forget-me-not atop the rockery or a few Knautia seedlings blooming along a gravel path. Not being inclined to wait for volunteers, I soon took to planting my own vagabonds, knowing they would eventually go where they pleased. The vagabonds I’ve introduced have started out as bulbs, seeds, or individual plants. The choice is usually a matter of convenience and availability. Borage, Cerinthe major ‘Purpurascens’, and love-in-a-mist were all easy to start from seed. Knautia macedonica, Verbena bonariensis, and the Aquilegia cultivars started out as plants.

As my vagabonds matured and colonized, I learned to direct and guide their wanderings and encourage their growth in the most appropriate settings. Though travelers by nature, some vagabonds, especially those with heavy seeds, benefit from assistance in their travels. I casually scatter Aquilegia and Eryngium seeds in favorable spots when they ripen in midsummer. Geranium species, which hurl their seeds about with ingenious little catapults, need no such help.

From time to time, I’ve found myself with too much of a good thing. To control the spread of the more aggressive vagabonds, I dead-head mature plants assiduously after bloom. Consistent use of mulches can also help prevent unwanted seedlings. I don’t mind removing new plants that sprout in inconvenient places, either. While Verbena bonariensis seeds prolifically, it is weak-rooted and easy to remove. The same can be said of Nigella damascena. The Geranium species, however, are more tenacious.

I do have to curb my controlling tendencies when gardening with vagabond plants. The more I use them, the more these wandering beauties teach me the value of chance in the garden. Season after season, they invent their own planting compositions, bringing delight and surprise to my garden. So if gardening with vagabonds means ceding some command over my plantings to the plants themselves, so be it. What I’ve lost in control I’ve more than gained in enjoyment.


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