Today I wanted to share just a little bit about what’s called “self-sowers” or “self-seeders” in the garden. Self-sowing annuals are plants that will drop seed in your garden before they die and will germinate on their own the following year. So, they return year after year like perennials, but from seeds, not from their roots. Like magic!
Self sowing annuals are a magical solution to the biggest problem that beginner gardeners face: having enough money to purchase the tons and tons of plants needed to create your dream garden. Instead of having to buy full-sized perennials, you can spend a few bucks on some seed packets and have a lovely, magical flower show year after year!
The Best Self Sowers for Newbies
These annual self-sowers are great options to try if you’re new to this concept or new to gardening:
- Flowering tobacco (nicotiana langsdorffii)
- Borage (borago officinalis)
- Dill (anethum graveolens)
- Califonia poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
- Bachelor’s Button, Cornflower (centaurea cyanus)
- Sweet alyssum (lobularia maritima)
- Feverfew (chrysanthemum parthenium)
These are great self-sowers for newbies because:
- they are really pretty and low-maintenance
- they will add an element of surprise to your layered landscape beds
- they can easily be controlled by hand pulling… i.e. they won’t be an aggressive nuisance to you.
Flowering tobacco (nicotiana langsdorffii)
Hummingbirds love the floral wind chimes of tobacco as their beaks a perfect match to the dangling, chartreuse blooms with striking blue anthers. Introduced from Brazil in 1819, flowering tobacco grows from a tiny seed very quickly once it gets going, its sticky, 10-12″ deep-green leaves and sturdy upright stems support the cascades of bloom from summer through fall. Tobacco looks lovely with perennial grasses or against a dark leafed perennial or shrub. A weak perennial in mild climates (zones 10-11), tobacco is generally grown as an annual. Beware because all parts of the plant are poisonous if ingested in large quantities. Goes from seed to bloom in 10-12 weeks.
Perennial in Zones 10-11, Half Hardy Annual | 2-3 ‘H x 1-1.5’ W | Full Sun-Part Sun | from seed to bloom in 10-12 weeks | Purchase seeds
Borage (borago officinalis)
Borage was introduced into North America from Europe as an herbal and ornamental plant; it is native to the Mediterranean area. It blooms from June to August with showy, star-shaped, bright blue flowers. The stems and leaves are covered with bristly hairs and the gray-green leaves can reach 6”. They also taste and smell like cucumbers.
Half Hardy Annual | 1.5-2.5 ‘H x 1.5’ W | Full Sun-Part Sun | from seed to bloom in 10-12 weeks | Purchase seeds
Dill (anethum graveolens)
Dill is a self-sowing annual from the celery family that is a great plant for both the herb and ornamental garden not only for its aromatic leaves and seeds but also for its attractive foliage and flowers. The small yellow flowers of dill are borne in small open umbels, followed by light brown seeds. The soft, alternate, blue-green leaves are finely divided, giving a fern-like appearance. Half-Hardy Annuals will survive a very light frost but are planted in the open at the last spring frost date or a little later. They can also be started 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost.
Half Hardy Annual | 2-4′ H x 2-3′ W | Full Sun | from seed to bloom in 10-12 weeks | Purchase seeds
Califonia poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
You’ll find the seed of the self-sowing California poppy in a lot of wildflower mixes, but you may have better luck growing it on its own. The ‘Mikado’ variety has deep, satiny orange petals with scarlet backs that sit on airy, fern-like sea-green foliage that bloom from spring through fall. Native Americans used this plant for toothache, and today it is recommended for its analgesic and mild narcotic properties. Cut back if bloom slows for another flush of flowers that continue until a hard freeze.
Hardy Annual | 8-12″ H x 6″ W | Full Sun | from seed to bloom in 8-10 weeks | Purchase seeds
Bachelor’s Button, Cornflower (centaurea cyanus)
It’s hard to beat the blue flower color of the bachelor’s button. This self-sowing annual got the name “cornflower” because it grew as a weed in cornfields, but you may welcome it in your garden. ‘Emperor William’ variety has cobalt blue single flowers that bloom abundantly on top of the strong many-branched stems, the silvery green narrow foliage a perfect foil for the brilliance of the flowers.
Quick to bloom, they can be sown again in June for fresh blooming plants in early fall. A unique heirloom that once was offered in many an early seed list, it’s the essence of innocence and simplicity. Bachelor’s Button does spread, but it is easy to pull out any extras. Its seeds are also loved by goldfinches and other small seed-eating birds.
Hardy Annual | 2-3′ H x 1′ W | Full Sun | from seed to bloom in 10 weeks | Purchase seeds
Sweet alyssum (lobularia maritima)
‘Benthamii’ sweet alyssum has tall clusters of honey-scented, bee-attracting blooms that are perfect to soften garden edges and spill from pots and window boxes. This self-sower attracts beneficial insect hoverflies, honey bees and butterflies. Alyssum loves cooler weather and can be sheared down and fertilized in mid summer for quick rebloom. You can resow it anytime in the season; it comes to bloom in 8-12 weeks.
Hardy Annual | 10″ H x 6″ W | Full-Part Sun | from seed to bloom in 8-12 weeks | Purchase seeds
Feverfew (chrysanthemum parthenium)
Feverfew is a bushy self-sowing hardy annual with pretty, white daisy-like flowers with yellow button centers that bloom in clusters above its earthy-scented bright green parsley-like leaves. Its pungent foliage effectively repels pests and has a long history of medicinal use, and now we also appreciate its ability to attract beneficial insects– however it repels bees so don’t place it near plants that rely on bees for pollination.
Feverfew is low-growing and forms a nice carpet for the front of borders. Plant in full sun for the best flowers. This member of the aster family behaves like an annual in cooler zones, a perennial in some areas, and can be evergreen in the South.
Perennial in Zones 5-10, Hardy Annual in colder climates | 2′ H x 1′ W | Full Sun | from seed to bloom in 8-12 weeks | Purchase seeds
Where to buy self-seeding annuals
If you’re looking to buy some of these options, you can usually get the seeds and plant sets locally at the garden center. Or ask some of your gardening friends to save some for you.
Online, I like to shop for seeds at selectseeds.com because they have a great ‘selection’ (lol). Seed packs vary in the number of seeds but most of them will cost about $3.00.
When to sow your seeds
With some self-sowers you can just spread the seeds right into your garden beds in the fall and have lots of flowers the following summer. But, this isn’t always the case as some of these seeds are more finicky than others. Always follow the instructions on your packet of seeds to have the most success with self-seeders.
Since we are discussing annuals, here’s some information to keep in mind about sowing times:
- Hardy annuals can stand some frost, so sow in the open ground well before the last spring frost date, or, in warm winter areas, sow in the fall.
- Half-Hardy Annuals will survive a very light frost but are planted in the open at the last spring frost date or a little later. They can also be started 6-8 weeks before the last spring frost.
- Tender Annuals are warm weather plants that cannot withstand any frost and prefer warm nights. Tender annuals with long weeks to bloom (16-18+) should be started indoors 8-10 weeks before the last spring frost.
- Always follow the directions on the packet so you don’t sow the seeds at the wrong time.
Why try self-sowing annuals?
If you aren’t convinced that self-sowing is for you, here are some great reasons to give them a try.
- They’re cheap… you just need to buy a packet of seeds for a dollar or two to get tons of beautiful, flowering plants. (see more tips for gardening on a budget).
- They will fill in the gaps between perennials and other plants and make your layered garden look lush.
- If you don’t like them, you can pull them up before they go to seed. Or if you missed the chance to do that you can pull them up in the spring as they start to grow.
- They cut down the amount of time you’ll spend planting and maintaining your gardens.
- They make your garden more sustainable by allowing natural selection to “favor” the plants most suitable to the microclimate of your garden.
- They bring a sense of surprise and whimsy to your garden… and who doesn’t love that?
The key to successful self-sowing
Some gardeners do not have success with self-sowing. One problem can be that the seeds have been “stolen” by the birds or that they simply have blown away into other areas. Sometimes, the seeds simply do not take. To give yourself the best chance at success, follow these tips:
- Stop deadheading in late summer so that the plant can form seeds that can drop.
- Use gravel in the area surrounding to encourage your self-sowers.
- Make sure your soil around your self-sowers is loose and rich in nutrients (like compost).
- Do not mulch the area with wood chips or shredded bark, which can prevent casually dropped seeds from germinating.
- In spring, weed carefully. It’s amazing how many times I’ve personally “weeded” my own plants! So, keep an eye out for seedlings that look like the annuals you grew last year. Rather than weed right away, you may need to let things grow a bit to make sure. Refer to the photos you took the previous spring of your young plants to help you remember what they looked like.
- Before choosing your self-sowers, do your research; some hybrid varieties will not come up true to seed so you may end up with a completely different flower next year. Even the color can change!
How to remove self-sowing annuals from your landscape
Sometimes, self-sown plants pop up in unwanted places, but it’s easy to transplant them to a better spot. Dig up the seedling with a trowel, taking care not to disturb the roots. Replant to the same depth in prepared soil and water well. If you find that you don’t like the plant so much, the trick is to deadhead all of the spent flowers to prevent it from self-seeding.
With the suggestions above, you can easily hand pull the flowers that show up in unwanted places. They aren’t aggressive and can be removed easily in the spring as you see them pop up.
Self-sowing or self-seeding annuals are a great plant type to try if you are new to gardening because they have the characteristics of both annual and perennial plants. First, as annuals, they typically bloom for longer periods of time. And second, like perennials, they will come back year after year in your garden.
The one thing to remember is that they don’t really “come back.” They drop seed to the ground after blooming and new plants “pop up” in the garden. So it’s not really the same as a perennial plant. The problematic thing about this is that they can pop up in places that you did not expect… and where you may not want them.
Luckily, all of the self-sowers presented in this article are easy to pull out in the spring if they show up in unwanted spaces. So, they are worth a try for beginner gardeners.
While self-sowing isn’t fail-safe, it’s always a wonderful surprise to find last years’ plants reappearing in spring; even if it’s not in the places where we expected them to be. So, if you like a bit of serendipity in your garden, the random appearance of self-sown plants may be the ticket!
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