The (Almost) Free Garden

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I always seem to have more garden than I have time or money. And that’s not because it’s huge. It’s what I call ‘middle-sized’ – ie a quarter of an acre. But it can be astonishingly expensive to buy plants for it, as every bed can cost £££s to stock. Which is where growing from seed comes in. But I also have middle-sized facilities – just one potting shed and some windowsills inside the house for seed trays.

As I like to grow veg, there’s great pressure on space between about March and May. I can’t grow all the flowers I’d like. So my garden relies on self-seeded plants for much of its summer effect. This is not only a good money-saver, but it’s particularly good for the time-pressed gardener – if you miss some weeding, you do get weeds, but you also get bonus plants. A friend of mine thinks you don’t get self-seeded plants on clay soil, but mine is clay and my beds would be naked without ‘volunteers’, so I think she is just too tidy.

Alexandra's Herb Garden 2013

When I moved in ten years ago, I went on a Sarah Raven course and bought a collection of seeds. These included Euphorbia oblongata and Pot Marigold. Both are now all over the garden, returning every year without any effort on my part, from those original seeds. The euphorbia’s bright green cheeriness bounces up all over the place, and the marigolds work well with my reds, purples and oranges. Parsley is also a rampant self-seeder, and, although I had visions of running a formal herb bed, the parsley had other ideas (see picture). The foxgloves are considerate about self-seeding themselves in a colour co-ordinated way, with pink ones popping up by my rosa glauca. The great-grandchildren of a packet of nasturtium seeds bought in 2008 are still doing a great job protecting the beans from aphids. And poppies, of course, self-seed magnificently – just pull out the colours you don’t want. Some plants self-seed for a few years, but then seem to lose heart – I had about three years out of a packet of Cosmos 'Dazzler'.

A few others seem to self-seed better than they grow in trays – I found both Cerinthe and Bupleurum difficult to germinate in the potting shed, but the few plants I succeeded in growing have fathered regular annual clumps in the borders. And there are those who aren’t as prolific as I’d like. I have to top up Verbena bonariensis with new plants every year, but at least I don’t have to buy or grow so many. Best of all are the surprises. There’s a fascinating little patch of spindly self-seeded green shoots in my main ‘brilliant colours’ border, and I’m longing to know what they’ll turn out to be. What did I have there in the summer? Will they survive any sudden change in the weather? Are they just weeds? I’ll let you know… Thanks for reading,