Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Now where did you come from? An ode to weeds...I mean volunteers

I've mentioned several times this spring and summer that I've adopted a new outlook towards many plants I had previously considered weeds, both to reduce the work of keeping my widely scattered garden weeded and to take advantage of free plants. It's produced some interesting results.

Certain native volunteers have always been welcome. These include Viola sempervirens, Iris tenax, Trientalis latifolia, Campanula scouleri, and Prosartes hookeri. Others, like wild strawberries, have generally been confined to only a few garden locations. Still others, until now, have always been removed from garden beds, such as Prunella vulgaris. Things that I've planted generally fall into the "always welcome" or "always removed"category, depending on how much they spread. Growing up seeing things like English ivy and Scotch broom taking over forests and clearings, respectively, made me leery of any non-native that produced more than a handful of seedlings per year, thus making the "confined" category almost nonexistent when it comes to exotic plants. The only one I can think of is Crocosmia 'Lucifer' which reseeds a bit if the flowering stems are not removed before the seed matures. I love the plant, and think the old flowering stems are attractive, but it's hard enough to control without seeding around. First let's look at some of the "always welcome" volunteers.

Though Asarum caudatum is native, I generally think of it more as a cultivated plant in my garden because I've never seen it in the woods at my house or in the state park nearby and had to introduce it myself. I know it grows in the general area, though, because it grew in the woods at our old house. The original planting has formed a solid carpet under the Japanese maple in the driveway island. After the first few years, I started finding seedlings in the rest of the bed, usually hidden under or on the north side of larger plants. Since this is one of my favorite natives, I was thrilled to find volunteers beyond my original planting, but was uninspired as to how to utilize them aside from planting them in the shady areas with the rhododendrons. My new attitude towards volunteers caused me to re-examine the possibilities in the pending redesign of the driveway island. Asarum caudatum is mostly evergreen, something I've been wanting more of in this bed. Why not take a cue from the volunteer seedlings? By planting asarum under deciduous plants like the variegated purple moor grass, 'Lucifer' crocosmia, the semi-evergreen bearded iris, or on the north side of other tall plants, the asarum would be protected from the most intense summer sun while providing some evergreen weed control. Wild ginger is surprisingly drought tolerant for something I usually see on moist, shady slopes along trails, so as long as it's shaded it should be perfectly compatible with the other drought-tolerant plants that will fill the bed.

Another native, evergreen groundcover that I was thrilled with was Satureja douglasii. This patch next to the patio is the only time yerba buena, its common name, has volunteered into a cultivated area of the garden, despite being abundant in several drier sections of the woods nearby. It did get a touch crispy this year with the dry, hot spring and summer we've had so far. I meant to water it before it got to that point, but other plants took higher priority. It's only a few brown leaves.

Juncus effusus is another infrequent volunteer, because my garden is mostly dry. This specimen volunteered along the edge of the dry creek bed, evidently getting enough water during winter to last through the summer drought.

I got Mimulus cardinalis when I still worked at Castle Rock Nursery in high school. It appeared in two pots of pink phlox. I didn't care for the phlox at all, but loved the orange flowers of the scarlet monkey flower. I planted it in the paperbark maple bed, which was filled primarily with rich "soil" from a landscape supplier with a bit of native soil mixed in. In this rich, loose soil, scarlet monkey flower is a monster, growing almost four feet tall and covering almost the entire bed, but a gorgeous one and much loved by hummingbirds. Since I left for college and then the east coast, the bed remained mostly empty and the monkey flower was a welcome filler that at least helped keep one or two weeds down. In the last couple years, it has started showing up in the driveway and along the dry creek bed, as well, but much smaller in the tougher, drier soils in those locations. Despite having removed it from the first bed to plant it elsewhere while I cleaned it out and laid down newspaper to smother the Canadian thistles that had taken over, the monkey flowers have returned from seed this summer, loosing little speed. I'm glad, because I almost lost the others last summer. This year I'm being a bit more attentive to watering to keep the remains of those patches going, but I'm glad I have those backup seedlings in the paperbark maple bed to transplant this fall.

I did not expect Allium christophii to spread by seed, but last summer I noticed there were a few small plants of this bulb that were too far from the originals to have spread by offsets. Not many, but welcome. I'll take as many of these volleyball-size spheres of stars as I can get.

Stipa gigantea also reseeds in the driveway island. My original plants were terribly root-bound and unhealthy, but managed to bloom before they died. I dug up most of the resulting seedlings and potted them up, intending to plant them somewhere else. I moved away and the plants grew root-bound and died of neglect. Luckily, a couple more seedlings popped up in the driveway island, where they've lived and bloomed for a couple years now. I'm hoping to get more seedlings but, just in case, I've collected some seed, too. I've also collected seed from Alyssum spinosum, which produces one or two seedlings each year. I sowed the seeds in containers of soil, kept them moist, and saw germination in two days! What a great plant. Doesn't volunteer enough by itself to be a nuisance, but so easy to make more when you want to. It doesn't look like that many in the photo below, but there are over 40 seedlings in this one pot, with more coming up, and a second pot with similar numbers.

Now we'll look at some plants that I've been altering my view towards, moving them out of the "always remove" category. The first one is Carex comans. Originally planted in the small dry creek beds in the driveway island, the initial plantings disappeared after a couple years, but not before producing copious amounts of seedlings. I'm talking a veritable lawn of sedge. For several years thereafter, I tried to eradicate the seedlings, viewing them as a short-lived, unsuccessful garden plant at best and a virulent weed at worst. I have a hard time accepting short-lived plants, thinking garden plants should be practically permanent (silly, I know). Then I went away, and a few of the remaining seedlings matured into attractive, flowing mounds of silvery sea-green foliage in fortuitous locations. I decided then that perhaps it wouldn't be so bad if I left a few here and there. This year, looking at a fresh carpet of seedlings in one area of the bed, I decided to take it further and actually transplant those seedlings and use them in the landscape, rather than weeding out the majority and simply allowing ones in certain locations to grow.

As I was looking at those seedlings, I noticed some variation, which I've mentioned before. First, there are seedlings with relatively wide leaves and others with narrow, almost hairlike leaves. The other variation is color. I started noticing a few olive and bronze seedlings. One of them, below, has an olive base color, but it's so silver that "olive" just doesn't cover it. Over the last few weeks, it's become even more metallic, but distinctly darker than the sea-green silver typical of the majority of the seedlings. Too silver to simply be called "olive", darker than the normal silver, I finally arrived at calling it my "pewter" seedling. Can you think of a better description? Seriously, I'm open to suggestions.

Another color variation cropped up, too. This is the largest of the seedlings that are distinctly bronze. Like the pewter seedling above, the color has changed over the last few weeks. It started out closer to olive, too, but has taken on more coppery highlights along with a silver sheen towards the tips of the leaves. All this is very exciting and I can't wait for fall to arrive so I can separate these neat little mutants out and plant them elsewhere without having to worry about heatwaves frying them. I want to isolate them from the normal silver-green ones to maintain their distinct color.

Another plant I added to the garden in high school and regretted almost immediately was Eryngium venustum. I loved the glossy, evergreen foliage rosettes, veined in white. The second year, the three original plants sent up tall, branching inflorescences of increasingly spiny leaves, culminating in blue-tinged thimbles of tiny flowers set in the center of spidery six-pointed stars. They did wind up looking a bit dingy as some sort of caterpillar decided to chew the tough leaves along the flower stems. The following spring, it's virulent nature revealed itself when, as with the carex, a carpet of seedlings was produced, threatening to overwhelm the other, more delicate plants in the bed. Let me tell you something, plants with taproots are hard to remove from hard clay soil. These baby eryngiums were worse than dandelions, even if they were pretty. Since the flower stems had been chewed up by larvae and I didn't want the small native penstemons, sedums, and other plants smothered by eryngiums, I forged ahead to rid myself of them. After almost two years of digging, waiting, and digging again, I thought they were gone. Then I come home this year to find I missed one.

My memory a little vague, I decided to let it bloom so I could re-evaluate it under my new, more tolerant perspective. If I decided I wanted to keep it after all, I could collect seed and scatter it elsewhere. I have a lot of garden. I'm sure there's somewhere it can grow where it won't bully smaller plants. Besides, who can say no to those leaves and blooms?

Salvia forskaohlei is another plant that caused me to ask, "What have I done?" Collected from a garden I worked in one summer in high school, this salvia is drought, shade, and clay tolerant, all things I have an abundance of. On top of that, they are deer resistant, which at the time was my biggest obstacle. The three-foot tall, branching stems of blue-violet flowers with speckled white lips, held above foot-long, bright green leaves, were beautiful in the bright shade of that garden. I didn't see a large number of seedlings, either, so I thought it would be safe. Boy, was I wrong. Not only does it reseed in my garden, I think it also spreads by very thin rhizomes. Still, it's tough as nails, growing and blooming even in the dry shade under Douglas firs in rock-hard clay soil. The bloom stalks are only about a foot tall under these conditions. The display could be improved if I watered a bit more. I love the color of the blooms and the big leaves help keep weeds down, so even though it frightens me a little, I'm going to keep it in a few tough areas where even the natives have trouble growing.

I don't even know what this next one is. It's one of those anonymous plants that comes up every year that I simply label as a weed. It's almost exclusive to the driveway, the island bed in the middle of the driveway, and the nearby bed along the west side of the house. It likes hot, dry conditions. Never having allowed it to get very large, this year I decided to let them grow. The driveway island has so many bare patches from the plants I dug out this spring, I don't mind something coming in to fill those spaces. I actually find it quite attractive, with furry silver leaves on even furrier white stems and insignificant flowers almost hidden in more white fur. The largest one, shown below, is a low mound less than a foot across and perhaps four inches tall at most. Since I'm planning on putting a lot more silver plants in this bed, I don't really have problem with this "weed" coming up in the future. Why fight this weed when it looks good and there are others that are less attractive and more aggressive?

 Now for the really surprising volunteers, the ones that seem to have come out of nowhere and defy explanation. I've already mentioned the Zeltnera muehlenbergii that had appeared once before years ago, only to be weeded out and not appear again until this year. I'm currently waiting for the seed to ripen so I can spread it around different locations and hopefully it can continue somewhere other than the driveway island. I still have no idea where the seed came from or how it got here.

This final weed -oops, volunteer- is even more mind-boggling. It started out as a few ferny, almost carrot-like leaves. I had a vague suspicion and an open curiosity, so I let it grow. It has done so quickly and now my suspicions have been confirmed.

I can think of two possibilities as to how Nigella damascena, or love-in-a-mist, came to my garden. The lime thyme that until recently covered large swaths of the driveway island originally came from a garden where this annual grew. It was also common along the front of the nursery I worked at in high school. Perhaps some long-buried seed was exposed when I tore out all the sickly or dead thyme this spring and finally germinated. The other possibility is that I grabbed a couple seedpods during a visit to the nursery, or even some other garden, last year and sowed the seeds then. While the latter is more likely, I have absolutely no memory of it and am therefore left to wonder. 

I started this post over a week ago, intending to post it then. Various other posts delayed this one, so now I have a picture of the first open flower to share. It's a bit darker than this photo shows, but still a rather pale blue. I was hoping for a darker blue, but this is nice, too.

This fall I'm planning to scatter a few California poppy seeds here and there. I don't know why I haven't before. I was probably hung up on the fact that they can reseed prolifically and are short-lived, but with my new perspective I'm going to enjoy their cheery orange flowers and the natural look they produce as they self-sow. Volunteers tend to appear in places where the conditions are right for them and don't experience transplant shock, so they often grow better than the same thing planted by a gardener elsewhere. They also tend to look like they belong, choosing serendipitous locations both environmentally and aesthetically. At least, that's what I've seen in pictures where a few self-sowers are used. It depends on the plant and the style of garden. I love Mediterranean or xeric gardens with a few volunteer grasses, like Stipa barbata or Carex testacea, and flowers, like California poppies, filling in some of the spaces between plants like cistus, manzanitas, Salvia officinallis, heaths, and perennials like Eryngium agavifolium or bearded irises with structural leaves. I don't like cottage-style gardens full of self-sown, floppy perennials tangled in an almost indistinguishable mass with other floppy perennials. But then, that's my personal taste.

14 comments:

  1. Great post Evan! There's a lot to be said about the resilience of these 'weeds'. And often their accidental presence in a planting area can turn out to be a very wanted addition or change.

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    1. Thanks guys. I agree. These are all pretty tough, easy to grow plants and they can produce lovely results by popping up on their own.

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  2. When you have a lot of space, i think it's almost necessary to adopt this kind of an attitude if you don't want to spend your whole life on your hands and knees.

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    1. Definitely. Still, there are many more weeds that I will keep pulling, like Canadian thistle, dandelions, and creeping buttercup. I need more of these good weeds to help fight the bad ones.

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  3. Lots of interesting natives, I haven't seen most here. I've tried twice to grow Asarum caudatum but they didn't make it, possibly it was too dry. It's great that you could find some stray seedlings that were worth growing. the monkey flower is so colorful.

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    1. Just to clarify, only 5 of those plants are native. The woolly grey weed might be native, too, so maybe six. I'm a bit surprised you've had such trouble with the Asarum. Mine has been very easy and vigorous.

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  4. You've got some very choice weeds there, Evan. I've adopted something of the same attitude. In my garden, Erigeron karviniskianus, Geranium incanum and Centranthus ruber (Among others) are active "volunteers." While I at first sought to eliminate them, I've given in and allowed them to serve as fillers, especially in areas like my back slope, where it's hard to establish anything else.

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    1. I'm coming to see the advantages of plant like these that fill in empty spaces and prevent undesirable weeds from taking hold. I have a lot of space and I need cheap fillers to hold places until I can put in something more permanent.

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  5. Hooray for all your wonderful volunteers. You have some interesting self-sowers. And lots of possibilities for offerings at future plant swaps. I, for one, would love some Eryngium venustum, maybe its prickliness would help deter my pesky raccoons. If you like I can send you some more Nigella seeds, a mix of colors.

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    1. Hehe, that was another thought that occurred to me. These volunteers make easy swap material, as long as people don't mind growing something that will spread a bit in their gardens. I'll trade you some Eryngium seeds in exchange for some more Nigella seeds.

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  6. I believe that silvery plant is a Gnaphalium. I have a volunteer like that, too. I was thinking Anaphalis at first, which eventually led me to Gnaphalium when I searched related plants. The wonder of Google!

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    1. Thanks for the id, Amy! I believe you're right!

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  7. I waited to have a free morning so I can dedicate myself to this post. I enjoy reading about your transformation and appreciate your new found attitude. Even though I can't apply it to a smallish city garden, it will work well for you; as you said, you have a lot of garden!
    I have a few different color Carex in my garden; their prolific nature drives me nuts. They look best in larger groups, and it will be fantastic if you can create a "sea" of them. I've created a 'down stream' under an old pine, on a difficult dry slope. I'd rather thin them out then fight real weeds or have bare ground.

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    1. Your dedication to read this lengthy post is much appreciated, Chav. :) I imagine there are a few occasional volunteers, like the Alyssum spinosum, that you could incorporate into your garden. I only get one or two new ones each year. They germinate easily in a moist container, but not in the dry soil outside. I have a few places where I plan to put large swaths of that carex. I hope it looks as good as I'm picturing it. Lol.

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