How To Weed For Volunteer Seedlings


Or maybe it should be How To Keep From Pulling the Desirable Seedlings That Look Like Weeds But Still Pull The Real Weeds. But that would be too long. Shown above: Buckeye butterfly enjoying a volunteer Verbena bonariensis.


Volunteers are welcome here, very welcome. But it is not a matter of simply standing back and letting the lovely babies of your favorite plants grow to become responsible citizens of the garden. It is a mixture of weeds and good guys that germinate and sprout when the conditions are right, sometimes in the garden beds and often in the gravel pathways. Shown above: Blackberry lily babies amongst a mixture of our worst weeds.

November 1, 2009 001 (2)
Allowing flowers to remain on the plants long after their attractive period is over is key. Most seeds need to ripen fully before they have the capacity to make more of themselves. Some seeds need the cold season for stratification to spark germination the next year. There are exceptions, but it has been noted that the best results come from letting nature do the job for which the seedheads were intended, feeding the birds with some and reproducing with the leftovers. The heavy lifting has been done by the pollinators in spring, summer and fall. The plants know what to do next, if the gardener will leave well enough alone. Shown above: Vernonia gigantea allowed to go to seed, attractive, eh?


By late winter, the job should be complete and the seedheads can be scattered about. Some will have already scattered by various mechanisms that can fling the seeds far, wide and near. It is at this point that the stalks can be cut and composted. I usually cut the seedheads off and let them fall to the ground in situ. Instant composting. Sometimes the whole plant is so treated, sometimes cut up, sometimes not. Chop chop. Shown above: Echinacea purpurea.


Spring and summer will find babies showing nicely, especially in the gravel paths that are somewhat clear of growing things. It is time to do some strategic weeding. Shown above: After weeding, Vernonia gigantea at bottom, Talinum, the little round gold leaves and Salvia coccinea out of focus near the top.


Knowledge is everything at this point. Knowing the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad is crucial. One must learn their weeds, what the babies look like, leaf shape, markings helpful for identification. One must also learn their volunteers, take photos and study them for differences from the weeds. From experience, I can vouch that there are many bad guys that look strikingly similar to good guys, and vice versa. One has to get low, eye to eye with them to be able to tell for sure. There is no standing upright with a weeding tool, not with my poor eyesight, anyway, when this task is attempted. Shown above: Digitalis purpurea babies.


For several years there were no baby Eryngiums in the shed bed, even though every source claimed they would self sow. Then the Eureka moment occurred as we were once again pulling violets. Some of the violets seemed to have scalloped edges and were more rounded, different than the others. Nearby the larger Eryngium plants were seen to also be rounded with scalloped edges. The young’uns were allowed to grow and turned out to indeed be baby Eryngiums. It was an epiphany. Shown above: Violets, baby Eryngium and baby lambs ear. Can you tell which is who?


The same discovery was made about the baby Muhlenbergia capillarias, the delightful pink muhly grass. Baby grass plants of all types look like so much lawn grass, and were always pulled from the flower beds and pathways. One day it was noticed that a grass seedling that was under a shrub and had not been pulled had grown large enough to flower. It was the pink muhly, and squeals of joy rang out through our neighborhood when brain cells connected to each other enough to realize that this plant would produce viable seed. Shown above: Muhley baby in the knot garden path, among others.


The moral of the story, or the how to of it, is to study very carefully the foliage of plants suspected of being able to produce offspring that remain true to the parent. Hybrids need not apply, but sometimes their offspring revert back to a parent that is an heirloom species that one finds attractive and useful. The Echinaceas are a good example of that. Know your weeds, as well. For everyone who enjoys free plants, it is worth the effort to get down and dirty and educate yourself. Shown above: October 28, 2010 pink muhly grass extravaganza. This mass planting is thanks, in part, to the identification of the seedlings. The rest are from divisions of the original three purchased plants.

For other How To posts written by Fairegarden, look for How To on the sidebar page listing or click here.

Frances

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17 Responses to How To Weed For Volunteer Seedlings

  1. Susan says:

    Wise words!
    I finally started putting “unknowns” into a separate area and let them grow on. I had some wonderful surprises. And of course, I let a few weeds grow into lush examples before I realized what they were-LOL!

    Thanks Susan. Finally being able to identify the good guys has saved me a ton of money and made mass plantings possible. There are still mystery plants being allowed to grow on and flower. You never know what might fly in!
    Frances

  2. Racquel says:

    Good advice Frances, I usually leave things be if I’m not quite sure until they reach a size where their easier to identify. But yes volunteers are welcome here too. 🙂

    Thanks Racquel. It is easier in the gravel paths to keep an eye on things, since they are traveled daily. New plants are continually poppping up in there. Wildflower books are helpful.
    Frances

  3. Carol says:

    Very helpful. I met a horticulturist who specialized in trilliums. His seedbeds contained the tiniest of seedlings and he would not let anyone else weed in them because he said it took years for him to figure out which sprouts were trilliums and which were weeds. It does take a trained eye.

    So true! It has take many years to identify some of these, and there are so many more that are still unknown. Exciting!
    Frances

  4. Cindy, MCOK says:

    Thinning seedlings is painful for me … I hate tossing out all those potential plants! I’m getting better at it, though. The poppies were more spectacular than ever this year and I know it’s because I thinned them out so ruthlessly as babies.

    ‘Tis true, Cindy. Seedlings that come in too thickly need to be thinned, poppies in particular. It is hard to pull them, knowing they won’t transplant successfully, but it must be done.
    Frances

  5. I really like your article, the advice and the photos. I deal with volunteers kinda like you and how you look at things in your garden are kinda how I look at them too….I used to have a lot echinacea purpurea cultivars so seedling were always a problem for me as far as new ones coming true from seed. But after the disease Aster Yellows swept through my garden one year (and more than one year) and took all my cultivars with it, I reverted back to some old reliable and less expensive standards that do come true from seed. echinacea purpurea, echinacea paradoxa and echinacea purpurea ‘White Swan’ and for all that I’m a happy camper once again. Not on the cutting edge of every new coneflower introduction but not having every new one that comes out don’t hurt too bad…….:-) But I still look at the catalogs…..:-) As for Verbena bonariensis and Salvia coccinea ‘Lady In
    Red’ well I got them volunteering in abundance, which in a way is no small feat cause I’m a heavy user of mulch. A hardcore ‘mulcher’ like myself has to have some plants that really, really want to propagate and reseed themselves in my garden and as for Verbena bonariensis and Salvia coccinea ‘Lady In
    Red’ “, them two really, really want to live and prosper and they do even in my overly mulched garden. Thanks again for a great post that was informative and fun to read and to look at. You have a nice gardening week.

    Thanks Paul. Those two, the Verbena and the Lady in Red are really fantastic plants and they reseed nicely in the gravel paths. The gravel makes it easy to lift and transplant since the whole root comes with a gentle tug or just a tiny dig with the hori hori. I have had the same awful experience with the Aster Yellows. What a scourge.
    Frances

  6. Marcia says:

    Sometimes the seedling volunteers don’t live up to their parent plant’s strength. I’m thinking of the volunteer foxglove that I so carefully transplanted. They’re not nearly as showy as the parent was. I have to contend with volunteer trees, especially the tulip poplar. I’d have a forest if I let all those grow where ever they want to. Volunteer vegetables are fun too.

    I hear you about those tree seedlings, Marcia! It would be a solid forest of oaks, maples, pines, birches, dogwoods and redbuds here, with the odd black walnut and chestnut thrown in. They really are the worst weeds. Tomatoes are the best volunteers here, we always plant heirlooms for that reason. The foxgloves are wonderful volunteers, not as fancy as some of the parents but still beautiful.
    Frances

  7. Valerie says:

    Thanks to you Frances I put in three muhly grass plants last fall. Now i am wondering if I should cut them back this fall or spring. Also can I just cut the plants with scissors apart next spring to make more plants? Hope mine turn out as well as yours.

    Hi Valerie, that is fabulous! I cut the muhly back in late winter, all the way to the ground. That way the seeds have had a chance to blow around and maybe find a good place to germinate. I transplant in the earliest spring by pulling the clumps apart rather than cutting them. They will separate into clumps sort of on their own so you aren’t cutting into the rootballs. Good luck!
    Frances

  8. Sheila says:

    Great post! The hardest thing for me is thinning the volunteers …

    Thanks Sheila. Lucky you, having so many volunteers to thin.
    Frances

  9. Barbara H. says:

    What a wonderfully educational post! Since I moved I have a much harder time identifying the weeds! Every summer I end up with 4-5′ plants that I let live because I thought they might be something I want. I always remember that they are probably a weed, but I’m not quite sure until they are so big that they are hard to pull out! I was able to recognize the foxglove seedlings this spring, so progress is being made.

    Thanks Barbara. It does take time and trial and error to learn the weeds from the desirables and so many look so similar. Good deal on the foxgloves!
    Frances

  10. Good post. I’ve made the same mistake to my detriment. This year, for the first time, I have Actaea racemosa seedlings, but I have a feeling I’ve pulled Eryngium seedlings. It’s a learning experience for sure.

    Thanks Barbara. Good deal on the Actaea, I am struggling just to keep it alive here, and not doing a very good job of that. Maybe someday there might be babies. I will study the leaf! The Eryngiums are tricky.
    Frances

  11. But I can’t kill the seedlings! I feel awful if I do, even if they come back weaker or not true to the parent. Argh. This is another reason to plant with native straight species I guess. Hey Frances, would you email me? I can’t find yours anywhere….

    It is hard to pull viable plants, but it must be done! Harden your heart, Benjamin. I will drop you a note, my email is not public.
    Frances

  12. Kathy says:

    Excellent tutorial, Frances. It really helps to be a detail person for this kind of gardening because what seem like minor differences are often the key to making accurate identifications. When I finally figured out how to tell the difference between Malva alcea, which I introduced into my garden but now consider a weed, and Malva sylvestris, which just showed up in my garden bed but still consider a worthy garden plant. (I suspect it was originally planted by my predecessor.) The book Weeds of the Northeast has pictures of weed seedlings, and Wildseed Farms has pictures of seedlings of the flowers they sell. Those two resources have helped me in my quest to leave the desired seedlings and pull the undesirables.

    Thanks Kathy. Wildflower books can be a great help, but nothing works better for me than trial and error. Then I try to remember what was what. I like the Malva sylvestris, too. We have Zebrina, a passalong from my neighbor.
    Frances

  13. Wonderful and true! I rely upon self-sowing plants because they are SURVIVORS (and look pretty, too). I often collect a few pods to ensure that I can sow seeds in certain places.

    Exactly, Freda. Not only are these free plants, but they have been garden tested.
    Frances

  14. Lola says:

    That was a very informative post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading. I too must learn how the babies look. I’m sure I yanked many a baby out not knowing. I didn’t know that Lambs Ear would reseed itself. I have 1 plant that I’ve tried very hard to keep. I’m hoping it will cool off a bit in order to get some much needed work done/

    Thanks Lola. Knowing what the babies look like is key, and some things were surprising when we weren’t so tidy about deadheading, like the lamb’s ear. There is one that is sterile, the larger leaf lamb’s ear. If it doesn’t flower, no seeds. But you knew that! HA
    Frances

  15. Victoria says:

    Fantastic post, Frances, full of good advice as ever. I can completely relate to your excitement on finding that a favourite plant has self-seeded. It seems as if they’re paying you a compliment!

    You are too sweet, dear Victoria! We are ever on the lookout for new babies of new plants, and have to allow some to flower for identification. Sometimes it is a very pleasant surprise, like the muhly grass.
    xxxooo
    Frances

  16. Gail says:

    Frances, Your post and the comments are perfect for me to read as fall and transplant time approaches. Like Benjamin, I have had a hard time pulling seedlings out of the garden. Not editing has been a double edged sword. I have nice drifts of wonderful natives, but, then, the taprooted ones have gotten a strong toe-hold where I don’t always want them! xoxogail The Buckeye Butterfly is a beauty!

    Thanks Gail. We too, are looking forward to cooler and wetter fall. Thinning the babies is time consuming and not always at the top of the to-do list here. We learn from our mistakes!
    xxxooo
    Frances

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