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Go to seed and reap rewards; Self-seeders get a bad press, but with a little care, anyone with a limited budget and a lot of space to fill should go for them and let nature take its course, writes JANETWHEATCROFT.

SELF-SEEDERS don't have many friends. But I'm one of them. Traditionally, they're not very popular with gardeners. To say that a plant seeds everywhere is more likely to condemn it to the bonfire than to win a prime space in the border.

And there's no doubt that some of them are the most ill-mannered villains in the plant world.

Thirty years ago innocent gardeners introduced the Himalayan Water Balsam into their gardens, and soon regretted it. It looked pretty enough with its pale pink helmet-shaped flowers. But the exploding seedheads catapulted its offspring everywhere. And, boy, did it love our climate.

I spent 10 years eradicating it from my last garden and it still comes back to haunt me in my nightmares.

It's now illegal to grow it and no-one who's had experience of this gangster would argue with that. But I'm not talking about triffids with ambitions to take over the world.

It's those gentler souls whose aim is just to throw down a few choice seedlings to perpetuate the line yet still suffer from the self-seeders' bad reputation. It's unfair, because they are some of the best friends that a gardener can have.

There are plenty of reasons for encouraging a clutch of carefully chosen self-seeders. Anyone with a lot of space to fill and a limited budget should go for them.

Ten years ago, when I started this garden, it seemed impossible that I could ever stock it with the sort of plants I wanted. I spent as much as I could afford on plants, but they all looked painfully small and insignificant.

There was so much bare earth just waiting to be re-colonised by rampant weeds. Luckily, some of the things I had planted proved to be obliging characters and soon provided extra plants to fill some of that worrying space.

Self-sown aquilegias gave me the impression of having a real garden long before some of my choicer plants had got into their stride. So why let weeds grab the ground when it can be filled with something much more beautiful?

Now that my garden's mature, I still value the self-seeders, but for a different reason. They can give a garden both style and continuity, which is a problem in any garden, big or small.

It's a tricky business planning a border. What seems to work on paper or in the imagination usually looks bitty and a little stiff when it becomes the real thing. But after the first couple of years what rescued my new borders was the humble self-seeders that I'd planted, and had woven their unplanned way through the whole area, pulling it together. They disguised a lot of the initial mistakes and gave a welcome feeling of brimming abundance to what was still a pretty thin garden.

So what makes for a good self-seeder? As general rule, it needs to be a plant that's pretty close to the wild - what botanists call a species.

Oriental poppies, for example, with names like 'Picotee' or 'Mrs Perry' are no good at all in the self-seed stakes. They've been bred over several generations, perpetuated by root cuttings so each plant is a clone of its parent. They do seed about a bit, but the offspring won't necessarily be anything like the parent plant.

In fact, more likely than not, it'll be a dismal specimen not worth a place in the garden.

But some plants are just too enthusiastic with their seeds. Named pulmonarias or lungworts produce plenty of seedlings but if you want to keep your named varieties, it's better to treat the offspring as weeds. They'll soon hybridise with the parents and you'll lose track of your original plants.

On the other hand, chance seedlings have been the source of many superb garden varieties. So if one of your little weeds begins to look rather special, cherish it. You should lift it, and grow it on in a nursery bed. Just keep it well away from your named garden stock.

But ideal self-seeders don't produce too many offspring. If they're in a border, the best are plants that don't take up very much room. A tall, thin plant can inveigle itself into empty spaces without swamping its neighbours. It'll give you that informal atmosphere without taking over.

The most reliable self-seeder is the good old aquilegia. I've a nice double claret form in my rose garden where it pops up through the dark red roses.

It's kept apart from the old-fashioned purple and pink Grannies Bonnets in the rest of the garden, so I get very few rogue plants. I let the self-sown aquilegias flower but if they are not the double claret, out they come before they seed. That way, I can keep my special strain going. Also running around the rose garden is my favourite self-seeder of all.

It's a wonderful tall thalictrum called Thalictrum aquilegefolium. The name means 'Thalictrum with leaves like an aquilegia', and it does have the wonderful trembling ferny foliage of its aquilegia cousins. I'm mad about its flowers, soft puffs of rosy mauve that remind me of cumulus clouds.

It floats its way through the beds, pulling the planting scheme together and setting off roses and magenta geraniums to perfection. The seedlings, with their maidenhair fern foliage, are easy to spot. I've lifted a few for my new beds so it can work its magic there too.

Its companion, the magenta geranium, is a huge billowing Geranium psilostemon. Its vivid flowers with their black centres are too striking for many folk. But for me, because they're set off by a mass of green foliage, they're just great in our soft grey light.

The geranium presents me with the odd youngster. If there's room, I add it to the colony. If not, I move it somewhere else. The babies are easy to spot in spring as they have bright scarlet leaf buds.

Some of the very best self-seeders are the lunarias, better known as Honesty. The most common form is biennial, flowering in its second year, then dying and leaving its seedlings to take over.

I have the common violet form in my cottage garden. Well away from it, near the house, there's a special form with white flowers and variegated foliage. I'm always on the lookout for seedlings because I'd hate to lose it.

My best Honesty happens to be fully perennial. It's Lunaria redivia and the tall flowers remind me of stocks. They're a delicate mauvy-white with an intoxicating carnation scent.

They flower for ages in late spring through to early summer, and then the decorative seed pods take over. Papery in texture like ordinary Honesty, but they have a more oval shape, pinched in at one end.

In fact, they remind me of the motifs on Paisley shawls and happily, my patch of it increases each year. They're easy to spot with their heart shaped leaves.

But make sure they come up in the right places: the plant is ferociously deep-rooted and hard to remove when it's mature. The little horned violas, Viola cornuta, proliferates happily in gravel or heavy ground. I grow the standard lavender blue form as well as the wonderful milky white one. They brim forward from the front of beds to fill gaps further back.

If you want to encourage plants to self-seed in your garden, start with two plants. You're more likely to encourage the desired offspring if there's a genetic cross. After the first generation, your colony should be self-perpetuating. Just keep a sharp eye open for new plants and go easy with the hoe.

I love to see plants self-seeding. To me it indicates a garden that's in good heart and a gardener who values the abundance of nature. I feel I'm being repaid for all the work I've put in.

The day you spot a tiny seedling of that difficult meconopsis or a specie tree peony, you'll feel you've really made it as a gardener.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Features
Author:Wheatcroft, Janet; Chudziak, Bill
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Jun 26, 1999
Next Article:DOWN TO EARTH: A gardener's notebook.

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