Garden plants for free

It's easy to get more plants in your garden for free. Jean Vernon picks out five of her favourite self-seeding plants; ones that will perform well every year, but also make more plants year after year.

Cerinthe
Cerinthe major. Image: Suttons Seeds
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Take a look around the garden now and the chances are that any piece of bare soil or even the gravel is sprouting seedlings like mustard and cress. Some would describe these plants as weeds and many of them may be. Once the soil is warm enough for the seeds to germinate they will start to grow en masse.

Nature is showing us something very important here. If you think you can’t grow from seed, think again. All these tiny seeds outside have germinated into strong, healthy plants without any help from us. Some of these little plants are great garden stalwarts. But of course if you are not a gardener, it’s very hard to tell them apart.

You sow the seed, nature grows the seed

Imagine that you bought a fantastic garden plant from the garden centre or nursery this spring. You carefully nurture it, water it when it is drying out and grow it in a big pot or even in the garden. Most plants have one thing to achieve in a year – to set seed. The flower is a flag, a signal to pollinating insects that there is a tasty meal of nectar and pollen within. The visiting insects inadvertently pollinate the flowers as they move from one flower to the next. This fertilises the seeds inside the plant’s ovaries and the seeds ripen and fall to the ground. Magic.

Well actually that’s where the magic starts. If you are lucky this is the start of your free plants. The seeds either germinate (sprout) in late-summer/early-autumn and overwinter as young plants, or they stay dormant until the warmer, wet conditions of spring when they grow into strong plants and flower and set seed.

To harness this free supply of plants you need to start off with garden plants that are self-seeders. Once grown or sown they come back year after year. There are literally dozens of great examples. Here are five of my favourites.

Verbena bonariensis
Verbena bonariensis. Image: Suttons Seeds

Verbena bonariensis

It’s a pretty complicated name, but it’s a great, great plant, actually originating from Argentina where it literally grows as a weed. Here in the UK it exchanges hands for several pounds a plant and yet where its seed falls, it grows like mustard and cress (thickly and easily). Buy a plant or a packet of seed from the garden centre. Scatter the seed on bare earth, or dig a hole and plant your plant in the garden soil. Keep it watered in dry weather and enjoy. It will grow and develop tall shoots bearing purple clusters of tiny flowers, popular with butterflies and bees. The seeds will form, ripen and fall nearby and grow again next year. The original plants die right back for winter and reappear in April to re-grow and flower in your garden.

Alchemilla mollis
Alchemilla mollis. Image: Suttons Seeds.

Alchemilla mollis (Lady’s mantle)

I simply love this plant. It has soft, pale green slightly fluffy leaves that collect the morning dew and shine like garden diamonds in the sunlight. The flowers are lime green and fresh. Perfect for filling out flower arrangements. They don’t really smell, or attract many insects, but boy to they self-seed everywhere. You may get fed up with weeding out the ones growing in the wrong place, but they are a fantastic front of border plants and flower for months on end.

Borage
Borage. Image: Suttons Seeds

Borage

Herbs are some of the most valuable garden plants. Borage is a great example. You can pick the flowers for pretty posies, add them to drinks and salads, or eat the young leaves too. Borage is really easy to grow from seed, which makes it an excellent self-seeder too. If you aren’t a seed sower, then buy a plant or two this summer and plant in pots or in the garden soil. The flowers top up their nectaries regularly and are a magnet for pollinators. This means the plants make lots of seeds, which fall into the soil below to grow again next year. Once you’ve grown borage, you should get plenty of seedlings each spring. If they are in the wrong place, gently transplant them elsewhere.

Nasturtium Ladybird Mix
Nasturtium ‘Ladybird Mix’. Image: Suttons Seeds

Nasturtium

What I love about nasturtiums … is everything! The leaves are great in salads, the flowers are edible too and the plants make fat juicy seeds, which you can add to stir-fries or even pickle like capers. But you can also cut the flowers for little posies and use the plants as useful ground cover. Once you’ve had them in the garden they will seed and seed each year and reappear reliably around the garden. The flowers are bright and cheery and come in a range of yellow, orange and deep, deep red. Grow from seed or buy some plants and let nature do the seed sowing for you. You won’t be disappointed.

Cerinthe
Cerinthe major. Image: Suttons Seeds

Honey wort (Cerinthe major)

This is another great bee plant. It’s really easy to grow from seed and like borage, because the bees love it too, it makes lots of seed. Like borage the seeds are big, black and plentiful. They drop to the ground, and either grow late summer and overwinter, or sprout in April and May. You can buy plants or why not scatter a packet of seed on bare soil or grow the seed in pots this spring?

Jean Vernon

About Jean Vernon

Jean Vernon is a slightly quirky, bee friendly, alternative gardener. She doesn’t follow the rules and likes to push the boundaries a bit just to see what happens. She has a fascination for odd plants, especially edibles and a keen interest in growing for pollinators especially bees. She’s rather obsessed with the little buzzers. Telegraph Gardening Correspondent, mostly testing and trialing products and Editor-In-Chief for Richard Jackson’s Garden.
@TheGreenJeanie
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