It happened this week, just yesterday actually, I was piddling through some old sheet mulch garden beds I’d made, beds still providing plenty, and discovered the next generation of plants coming up. There were three or four leafy outcrops of arugula sprung through the mulch. There was collection of pigeon pea saplings, about 15-20 centimeters high that were hiding amongst the weeds I was pulling. A cranberry hibiscus had dropped seeds and at least one new seedling had stretched out some leaves. It’s an exciting moment, finding that a garden has begun to sow itself.
In this case, most of the self-propagators are perennials—pigeon peas, cranberry hibiscus, and nopal cactus—in need of some thinning, but it’s encouraging. And, an explosion of arugula as an edible ground cover certainly wouldn’t be upsetting. It would be delicious, easy, wholly invited in this particular bed, which has a currently has a mix of parsley and sweet potato vines (used for greens) as low lying herbaceous elements. Why not add one more?
Then, recently, I was writing an article about plants that grow quickly, from seeds to salads and sauce pans within a couple of months, and I noticed how many in the list (arugula included) were vigorous self-seeders. For some reason, despite being a very opportunistic cultivator, prone to sticking cuttings in the ground as a go or harvesting dry bean pods only to immediately toss them back out or simply scraping a cutting board into a garden bed, I’d not spent due time investing self-propagators. Seeing as I am currently trying to extend some systems that get very a little attention, it only seemed sensible to learn some more.
The Trouble with Self-Sowing Plants
As amazing as a garden that plants itself sounds, there are some commonly cited issues with an over-abundance of self-seeding plants, namely that it will often result in a true over-abundance of self-propagators. In essence, many of them have the potential to become more weed than garden ally, and this could possibly interfere with growing other plants. Obviously, as is often the case with weeds, this could just be a matter of perspective.
The other issue that often occurs with self-seeding (annuals especially) is disease. For example, tomatoes, which readily sow themselves, namely remerging from composts, carry a late-setting blight here, comparable to the one that caused the Irish potato famine. The problem is that it stays, in the soil and in the plant, such that growing tomatoes on this mountain now comes with a heap of hurdles, almost to the extent of not bothering. The potato famine was so devastating because potatoes were continuously sowed in affected soil, leading to inevitable failure.
The Perennial Edge Is Established
Essentially, I’m building a meandering assortment of garden beds on existing terraces betwixt well-establish avocado trees. The trees have never produced fruit at the same rate as trees elsewhere on the farm, so the owners have given me space to experiment within this part of the orchard to both produce something else and try to get better results from what’s there. So far, things are going really well. The avocado trees do seem to being holding more, the couple of citrus trees are looking a little healthier, and now we’ve pulled handfuls of other crops out of the area.
After an initial experiment with what might work, I’ve been using a collection of very productive and easily expanded perennials—pigeon pea, lemongrass, sweet potatoes, basil, Chaya, cranberry hibiscus, mint, peppermint, Texas tarragon (or Mexican mint marigold), chayote, strawberries and more—to build these gardens, mostly mixed atop sheet mulch beds in the open spaces between avocado trees. There are other perennials—mulberry, strawberry guava (supposedly an invasive plant but an abundant producer), nasturtiums, blueberries, and raspberries—in development, but I’ve been quickly replicating the varieties that have shown results in year one.
Can Self-Seeding Work?
In my case, I’m trying to cultivate things that more or less tend to themselves. I live in Guatemala, so temperature fluctuations are not so much a concern as surviving the parch of dry season without regular watering and enduring the torrential rains of wet season without getting punch drunk. What I’ve reproduced has now survived both seasons well and was not deterred by encroaching weeds. Obviously, adding more diversity to this mix would be plus.
To the point, self-seeding plants are just the ticket, and if they start edging into the spaces overrun by weeds, which are plentiful in this garden, all the better. By a stroke of luck, it has already begun. Volunteer vegetables, tomatillos, tomatoes and squashes, have popped up in various part of the garden, and as I said before, pigeon peas and arugula are proving effective self-seeders. There is also small samples of fennel and dill have cultivated their next generation. Now, I’m going to start experimenting with more.
A Winding List of Self-Sowers
Obviously, the big trick to not cultivating self-sowing plants is to allow them to go to flower, produce seeds, and do the whole thing themselves. It’s also possible to interfere, emptying a handful of seed pods where one might want to establish the vegetables, especially if that place has been prepared for planting. For me, I’ve got raised beds built somewhat crudely atop the ground with no fixed borders and made using a rough sheet mulching technique. Things want to grow in them. So, what else can I try?
• The Mustard Family, i.e. Cruciferae or Brassicaceae. I’ll be tossing out some mustard seeds, which make for great greens that can be used in salads or cooked down. Other options include mizuna (a Japanese mustard), radishes, Chinese cabbage and horseradish.
• Flowering Herbs, like cilantro, dill, and cumin—all in the Apiaceae or Umbelliferae, which also includes parsley (already on the well on the go for me). I’m going to toss out some more dill, as well as a bit of coriander and cumin (from the spice pantry).
• Squashes, the Cucurbitaceae family, is already making appearances in the garden via mule manure and compost. I’ve got squash for sure, and likely cantaloupe and watermelon. I’ve also got some luffa seed that I’d like to try, but I’ll more or less let these existing seedlings attempt to establish themselves.
• Nightshades, which have a wide-reaching and sometimes deadly family tree, are also some of the most common vegetables: potatoes, tomatoes, peppers. I’ve got habaneros going, tomatoes and tomatillos (already fruiting) have volunteered. In this case, I hope to focus more on perennial peppers, which are in great variety here.
Other options that could work are amaranth, calendula, sunflowers, beets, kale, collards, and various lettuces. I will be tossing seeds out from the kitchen to see what might start and encourage from there. It’s a nice way to garden, as there is no expectation as to what needs to be produced. With the exception of occasional experimentation, the garden gets to somewhat cultivate itself, and as for my interference, undoubtedly, I’ll have to learn to recognize a whole host of new seedlings.
Feature Image: Raised Bed (Image Courtesy – Emma Gallagher)