Can’t devote as much time to gardening as you’d like? Native self-seeding annuals are time savers and good for your garden | Home-garden

It was motherhood that encouraged Alicia Houk’s switch to gardening with native plants.

She had trained as a scientist, completing a master’s degree in pollinator ecology while pursuing a passion for growing her own food in the vegetable garden. When her first child was born eight years ago, though, she couldn’t devote as much time to gardening, and she found native plants, species adapted to her landscape and climate, less demanding than food crops. That was especially true once she began introducing native annual flowers to her Iowa garden.

She wrote about this experience in her blog, A Wild Garden (awildgarden.com), in a December 2020 post “Letting the Garden Garden: Native Self-Seeding Annuals.” I found this so informative, and original, that I contacted her for a conversation on the subject.

Since that post, Alicia told me, she and her family had moved from Iowa to Vermont, which made her experience even more directly relevant to my New England gardening. Still, the advantages Alicia has found in native annuals would apply, with a little translation, to virtually any region.

My experience with annuals had been largely restricted to the introduced species such as petunias, marigolds, snapdragons and others that are traditional fare in conventional gardening. I had not given much attention to the analogs in the native flora and their extra benefits.

The native annuals share many advantages with the annuals of foreign origin you will find at the garden center in spring. The natives are equally fast-growing, sprouting from seed to mature and blooming in a matter of a couple of months. The native annuals are also just as long-blooming: Annuals, whether native or exotic, are genetically programmed to complete their lives in a single growing season and literally bloom themselves to death, potentially flowering continuously for months.

If a traditional, exotic annual sprouts freely the following year from the seeds it spreads through the landscape, it is labeled “weedy” or even invasive. When a native annual does this, however, it’s an ecological and horticultural bonus. That native annual benefits the local wildlife, in particular native pollinators. It also helps to keep weeds from invading the garden.

As Alicia explained, the native annuals fill the “seed bank” of the soil in your garden.

Defined botanically as “pioneer plants” the annuals have evolved to respond to any disturbance in the landscape, anything that opens a gap in the vegetation. Their fast-germinating seeds quickly fill such gaps with seedlings, creating a sort of living patch so that weeds find less opportunity. Nor do you have to wait for a natural disturbance. Sometimes Alicia will encourage the native annuals by scratching up a patch of soil to create such an opportunity.

Including native annuals in your planting, she pointed out, also means that the wildflower garden comes into bloom sooner. Perennials typically take a couple of years to establish themselves before they flower; native annuals flower in the garden’s first season. As they seed themselves around the garden, the native annuals also add an element of spontaneity, ensuring that the exact arrangement of the flowers is never exactly the same from year to year.

Alicia has her favorites among the native, self-seeding annuals. Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) are a standby. Annual fleabane (Erigeron annuus), despite the unappealing name, provides clusters of small, white, daisy-like flowers that she finds irresistible, and it is a vigorous, self-reliant grower. She likes to plant patches of it amid her lawn, integrating it with the garden and creating what she describes as an “ethereal atmosphere.”

“Who doesn’t love columbines (Aquilegia canadensis)?” Alicia asks.

The self-seeding native annuals also attract a host of pollinators to the garden. She had read, for example, in a book about butterfly gardening that yellow-flowered partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasiculata) attracts sleepy orange and orange sulfur butterflies. She planted some in her garden this year and indeed those winged visitors did come. Likewise, spotted jewelweeds (Impatiens capensis) and cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) attract hummingbirds. To download a list of 24 self-seeding native annuals, visit Alicia’s blog.

Besides her garden blogging, Alicia also maintains a native garden design business and teaches about native plant gardening at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute of Dartmouth College. No wonder she needs every minute those native self-seeding annuals can save her.

To listen to our conversation, log onto the Growing Greener podcast of the Berkshire Botanical Garden at berkshirebotanical.org/growinggreener.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *