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.
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.
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