When unexpected seedlings appear in the garden, it’s a sign that nature is trying to work in concert with the gardener.

Volunteer seedlings add unexpected delight. Here a clump of foxgloves thrives while a morning glory vine begins its ascent.

As gardeners, we are often reminded that we are not in charge. Despite our best efforts, nature conspires against us: bad weather, diseases, nasty bugs and furry vegetarians (a.k.a. woodchucks). What works perfectly in 2009 can fail in 2010.

But the other side of this is when nature works with us, reavealing perfect blooms or indescribable color. For example, look at the volunteer seedlings that appear in the garden: foxgloves, lupine, columbine, borage, morning glories, verbena, snapdragons, cosmos and cleome. Sure, the gardener plays a role as editor, thinning out the tiny plants. But the seedlings appear where they will; the gardener is not in charge.

When you have self-sowers in the garden, learn to recognize the seedlings and to let them grow. In most cases, these are vigorous plants that will probably bloom the same season. All you have to do is thin out the seedlings, fertilize them and let them grow.

Foxglove seedlings

Along the patio, last year’s foxglove did not come back. However, it did leave a legacy in these healthy seedlings.

Some of my favorite volunteers are foxgloves, especially the cultivar called Foxy. It’s known for blooming the first year from seed, though traditional foxgloves are biennials. You can sometimes find Foxy sold with the perennials, sometimes with the annuals. I’ve had good luck getting nice drifts by allowing some of the faded flowers to form seedpods and drop the tiny seed. In spring and early summer, it’s important to weed carefully, looking for the distinctive foxglove seedlings. In some years, the original plants return, but not always. The volunteers are your “insurance” in the event of a harsh winter.

My favorite volunteers:

  • Verbena bonairensis: Clusters of tiny purple flowers seem to float on the breeze, held on their long stems.
  • Nicotiana: There are many varieties, but I’m especially fond of Nicotiana langsdorfii, which has green flowers that dangle from long stems.
  • Morning glories: What’s not to like?
  • Scot’s thistle (Onopordum acanthium): A huge, dramatic and bizarre biennial that always stands out.
  • Lupine: If they deign to grow in your garden, consider yourself lucky. In fact, you can tell people that you’re special.
  • Clary sage (Salvia viridis): The first year that I planted this as seedlings and the results were kind of ho-hum. In subsequent years, however, the volunteers have been beautiful.
  • Datura: Give it some room and the late-summer show of white trumpets is spectacular.

David Grist , Online Content Coordinator, Gardener’s Supply