When it comes to increasing stock and propagating plants, mostly we think about collecting seed. Most perennials can also be dug up and divided. More adventurous gardeners take root- and tip-, hard-wood, soft-wood and leaf cuttings. They graft one plant onto the stock of another and carry out a whole host of crafty operations to increase plant stock.
There is however, one way of building stock that requires no talent whatsoever on the part of the gardener. That is self-seeding.
Self-seeding is nature’s own simple method of preserving and increasing a species. It is nature being self-serving and self-sufficient. You bring one plant of oreganum home from the garden centre and years later, there are little oreganum plants all over your garden. The same with marigolds, nigella, aquilegia, tree peonies, and any number of plants that you can think of. We are grateful for it – even if in some cases we need to rein it in a little, or a lot, in the case of over enthusiastic self-seeders like hairy bitter cress, field maple and dandelions.
Think of those opportunist poppies that appear here and there in spring, stretching up from an initial tiny pair of grey-green leaves, over a period of about twelve weeks, into statuesque plants topped off with great big frilly, pom pom flowers – and all with no help whatsoever.
When it comes to garden plants, there are plenty of self-seeding candidates that should be welcomed.
My favourites are fox gloves or digitalis, both the wild and cultivated types. Foxgloves appear in the daftest places, in gravel, at the base of walls, on the side of the road. They could possibly take root in your ear if you were to give them a chance.
They appear as little furry rosettes of leaves in the summer. They then begin to grow, stopping over winter. The following spring they begin again, shooting up rapidly, and producing flower spikes between a metre and a metre and half tall, with either a pink or sometime white flowers in May and June. The bees work these long multi-flowered spikes throughout the summer. When the flowers die back they are replaced by seed heads which eventually give rise to thousands of seeds, some of which land in your garden and begin the two year cycle all over again.
If they put themselves in the wrong place, you can always transplant them to a place more suitable to your needs. That said, a few will always insinuate themselves into a seemingly inhospitable corner from where they will charm the passing world. For me these are the seedlings that appear in the cracks between crazy paving outside the sitting room window, or beside the pond. I could attempt to squeeze a little seedling into these tight spots all I liked. It would never work, but when they do it themselves, it invariably looks like a corner from the Chelsea Flower Show.
I have just transplanted about a dozen babies that put themselves in a bed that I needed to clear in order to plant bulbs.
Moving fox gloves is a finicky business. First, you need to wet the ground so that they can be dug up easily. You need to have pots close at hand to take these little transplants . As you dig, you will find that for a sizeable rosette of leaves, there will be one rather miserable, stringy root. Have a small amount of compost in the bottom of the waiting pot. Holding the plant by the leaves, gently sprinkle soil around the hanging root system until it reaches the top of the pot. Then, continuing to hold the leaves, tamp down and firm the soil gently before topping it up with a bit more compost. Water the plant well using a fine rose, and let it establish itself until you find the place that you want to plant it to flower next year.
I love the soft lemon colour of Digitalis lutea. These self-sow as readily as the wild fox gloves. They are easy plants to accommodate, no more than 50 cms tall, with shiny foliage. You can put them at the front of any border where they will mix with most other plants. They look great with blue campanulas or camassias.
I bought a packet of posh Digitalis ‘Limoncello’ early in the summer. These too have yellow flowers in a soft primrose shade, but with furry leaves rather than the shiny lutea type. I sowed them as instructed by the lady at the counter - in late summer. They sprouted about two weeks ago. From a packet of twenty seeds I got eight definite seedlings – with three other teeny tinies that might be desirables – or could be interloping weeds. They are too small to make out just yet. The waiting game begins.