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Garden wisdom from deer country!

Gardening in the Sierra Foothills with Carolyn Singer

The seasoned gardener

published in The Union in Grass Valley CA

by Carolyn Singer
December 13, 2008

This past week I have had two delightful experiences with the magical results of plants that self-sow in the garden. Even as we head into winter dormancy, the soil is responding to the variables of the weather, and seeds scattered on the soil surface may respond favorably with germination when conditions are perfect.

The first experience was when my friend Renee came to share a cup of tea by the wood stove, and brought with her a few scoops of foxglove. One of her favorite flowers, the six-packs of foxglove (Digitalis purpurea) she bought a couple of years ago to add to flower beds are now providing her with many more plants that she could ever use. And for each little seedling to do well as a mature plant, the extras must be removed.

The second delight was when I entered my vegetable garden a few days ago, and discovered early rains followed by warmth had precipitated germination of hundreds of broccoli raab. I eagerly "thinned" greens by the handsful for my lunch salad. Then I grabbed a row cover to protect the stand from very cold temperatures, so that I may harvest fresh greens through Christmas. This nutritious green will survive frost and even snow, but does better under a row cover such as Agribon.

Rudbeckia trilobaOne perennial that self-sows throughout my garden is wild black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba). This prolific daisy blooms for weeks in midsummer, and each fall I have new volunteers to transplant and share. Tanacetum partheniumLychnis coronaria (rabbit's ears) and feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium) also spread throughout my garden with no effort on my part, unless I decide to scatter seed in a new location in fall to germinate with winter rains. These two need no water in our hot, dry summer.

I noticed this fall that Nasturtiums had also germinated with the recent warm weather. More greens for salads. However, this is a very tender annual, and as soon as night temperatures dropped into freezing, the plants were killed. Even those under a row cover suffered damage. My garden is located in one of the coldest areas of my property.

Once the plants have been introduced to a garden, there are many annuals, biennials, and perennials that will scatter seed, increasing in number year after year. These plants are known as the self-sowers. Annuals germinate, flower, and produce seed within one year, and are usually killed by winter frost. Biennials (such as foxglove) , germinate one year then flower and produce seed the following year before they die. Perennials germinate from seed one year and continue to flower and produce seed for many years.

Remember that self-sowers scatter seed on the soil surface. While the seed does not need to be covered with more soil (and, in fact, for many species light is required for germination), it should fall on loose, friable soil. California poppy often does very well seeded into gravel. Sometimes seed may be blown by the wind or dropped by the gardener in unexpected places. That's part of the magic.

In my vegetable garden, I allow several plants to produce seed during the growing season. Some of that seed is saved for next year's garden, some is allowed to fall near the parent plant, and some is purposefully scattered on newly prepared soil. Needless to say, the seed that often lands on the compost pile may also germinate as it falls to the enriched soil surrounding the pile.

Broccoli raab, arugula, kale, mustard, lettuce, and other greens are good self-sowers for the fall into winter and early spring garden. The seed will germinate when conditions are favorable, lightening the gardener's workload and providing more healthy food that you had planned from your garden. I have also allowed leeks to scatter seed.

If your garden is fenced from the deer, bare areas of the flower garden may also be used for edible crops. You may be surprised to discover salad mix in your own backyard with little effort.

©2009 by Carolyn Singer. All rights reserved.

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