Krista Kugler-Quinn is a freelance home and garden writer and Arkansas Master Gardener. She lives and gardens in Conway, Ark.

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Making a Comeback
by Krista Kugler-Quinn    

Larkspur seeds should be planted in the fall since a period of cold, wet weather improves germination.

I will never forget the year I planted my front flowerbed near the road. To my delight, I literally had cars stopping in front of my house and strangers coming by to ask about my beautiful garden. Of course, it was not the switch grass and daylilies that everyone was so enamored with. My showstopping combination was a haphazard mix of blue larkspur and red poppies. A friend gave me the seeds and I literally threw them over the garden in mid-November, thinking they might help add a little color while the perennials were filling out.          

It has been five years now since I planted that bed, but I have enjoyed these annuals every spring without ever planting another seed or plant. Self-seeding annuals and biennials such as these are a pleasure to grow. They seem to combine the best characteristics of both annuals and perennials. Like most annuals, they often have showy flowers and are not affected by extreme winter conditions. However, like perennials, they return year after year without replanting.

Many self-seeding annuals and biennials have a natural grace that blends well with other plants. In the garden, they often come up anywhere there is a little sun reaching bare soil. In this way, they help to fill in gaps in the landscape. Every year they may appear in a different location, creating unexpected, often beautiful combinations with other plants. Because they can show up almost anywhere, they also work to tie various parts of a garden together by weaving in and out of other plants.          

Thinning the emerging seedlings of zinnias will help prevent foliar diseases, such as powdery mildew, and increases branching of the plants.

Many self-seeding flowers are what we would call heirloom or passalong plants. Because the seeds of these plants are often given to us by other gardeners or passed down through generations, they add the element of history to our gardens. Many gardeners take pride in growing a flower that was dearly loved by their grandmother or grown by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. Personally, I enjoy walking through my garden and thinking of my friends who gave me a start of each plant.          

Self-seeding plants are extremely easy to grow. Generally, other gardeners have an abundance of seeds to share with friends or neighbors. Seeds can also be purchased from seed companies or organizations, such as Seed Savers Exchange, that specialize in preserving heirloom varieties. Once the seed is obtained, gardeners should try to mimic nature by planting them as they would be sown naturally. Since most plants naturally drop their seeds in the fall, this is the ideal time to plant many self-seeding species. Some self-seeding flowers, such as larkspur, poppies, love-in-a-mist and Johnny-jump-ups, will not grow if sown too late in the spring because they actually need a cold, wet period for germination.          

Verbena-on-a-stick self-seeds in such proportions that it is considered invasive by some gardeners. However, the seedlings are easy to pull out in the spring.

Very little soil preparation is required when planting most self-seeders. Sometimes lightly raking the soil improves the seed to soil contact, but the seeds of most of these plants need sunlight in order to germinate, so they should not be covered. Seeds can be placed on the soil surface in an orderly manner or casually sprinkled around the garden. A very light mulch, such as straw, ground leaves or shredded wood, will help to prevent the seeds from washing or blowing away during the winter, but remember that sunlight should still be able to reach the soil surface. Pre-emergent or weed-preventing herbicides should not be used in areas where self-seeding plants are wanted since their use will prevent desirable seeds from germinating as well.          

The real trick to growing self-seeders is learning to identify the emerging seedlings. Many of them look a lot like weeds when first coming up and gardeners have a tendency to pull them out. A friend of mine has been trying to grow poppies for years now but keeps pulling them out in the spring, thinking they are dandelions.          

On the other hand, if you use the throwing method to plant your seeds or let them self-sow, thinning will most likely be necessary. Most plants should be thinned to at least a hand’s length apart if not more.          

No cottage garden should be without cleome. It has been passed down through generations for nearly two centuries.

Globe amaranth germinates later than many other self-seeding annuals and requires almost no care.

Several of my favorite self-seeders, such as perilla, tall verbena and celosia, are considered hideous weeds by other gardeners because they tend to sprout everywhere. Some people use the term invasive to describe these plants, but I like the word rambunctious. On my poor soil, rambunctious growth is a plus, but even on better ground the unwanted seedlings are relatively easy to pull out. Larkspur is one of the main weeds in my lawn in the spring, but I simply mow it down, and it looks almost identical to turfgrass from a distance.          

The plants of many self-seeding annuals and biennials die quickly after flowering and should be removed from the garden so they will not detract from other plants. However, the seeds of at least a few of the plants should be allowed to fully develop in order to ensure that there will be some plants the following year. The seeds can be allowed to drop from the plants on their own, or gardeners can assist the effort. I shake the plants as I am pulling them out of the garden to spread as many seeds as possible.

Gardeners often like to collect some seeds and either give them away or store them for later use. For some of these plants, there is a short window between the time the seeds become mature and the plant naturally sheds them, so the plants should be monitored carefully if one wants to collect any of the seeds. Seedheads generally appear dry and the seed easily comes off the plant when mature. I usually choose a dry day to collect seeds and simply clip off whole seedheads or shake the seeds into my hand. I like to spread them out on paper towels in the house for a couple days to let them dry further before putting them into plastic sandwich bags that are stored in the refrigerator or freezer.          

Besides being carefree and beautiful, self-seeding annuals and biennials are fun to grow. Each year, I am surprised by where they show up and how well they blend with other plants. Also, when someone admires one of my plants, it is nice to be able to easily share some seeds and introduce another person to the joys of growing self-seeding annuals and biennials.


Self-seeding Annuals and Biennials
(some may be considered tender perennials)


Celosia plumose

plume celosia

Celosia cristata


Centaurea cyanus

bachelor’s button, cornflower

Cleome hasslerana

spider flower

Cosmos bipinnatus


Cosmos sulphureus

orange cosmos

Delphinium consolida


Eschscholzia californica

California poppy

Gomphrena globosa

globe amaranth

Lunaria annua

money plant

Malva sylvestris

French hollyhock

Mirabilis jalapa

four o’clock

Nigella damascena


Papaver rhoeas

corn poppy

Papaver somniferum

opium poppy

Perilla frutescens

Chinese basil

Petunia multiflora

old-fashioned vining petunia

Portulaca grandiflora

moss rose

Rudbeckia hirta

black-eyed Susan

Salvia farinacea

mealy-cup sage

Salvia sclarea

clary sage

Salvia splendens

red salvia, aka scarlet sage

Tagetes sp.


Talinum paniculatum


Tithonia rotundifolia

Mexican sunflower

Torenia fournieri

wishbone flower

Verbena bonariensis


Viola x tricolor


Zinnia elegans

common zinnia


(From Arkansas Gardener Volume IV Issue VIII. Photos by Krista Kugler-Quinn.)


Posted: 06/15/11   RSS | Print


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GClark - 06/26/2011

Great article!  I have many places to put this to work.

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Karen Atkins (Michigan - Zone 6A) - 09/07/2011

I loved this article. Thank you -and don’t you love how self-seeders always take the place of at least one weed?

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