UF Hack: Encourage Self-Sowing Plants

A self-sown garden may go against your green-thumb intuition, but it could make your garden life a whole lot easier.

by Lynsey Grosfield
PHOTO: Lynsey Grosfield

In the natural, undisturbed lifecycle of fruits and herbaceous plants, reproduction relies on fallen, rotting fruit and dispersed seeds from bolted seed heads. Typically, gardening involves disrupting these processes for the sake of order, disease prevention, consistency of cultivar and yield. Instead of letting tomatoes fall to the ground and bolted lettuces self-sow unpredictable offspring, we pull up the tomatoes and cut off the lettuce seed heads, usually planting new hybrid seeds from a fresh packet next year.

In many ways, this commitment to neat rows and consistency prevents the development of plants uniquely suited to our biomes (often called “landraces”). Doing the counterintuitive thing—leaving plants largely to their own devices in a competitive environment—can, over the course of a few years, develop hardier strains with unique adaptations to a local climate.

If you decide to self-seed, make sure you're adept at plant ID.
Lynsey Grosfield

Two years ago, I began an experiment in going no-till in a couple of sections of the garden, in order to create a better soil structure. Beyond that, I let the garden “go wild” with open-pollinated plants: excess fruit was allowed to drop and rot, and herbaceous plants were free to go to seed. I wanted to see what would come up and be competitive without my intervention.

This strategy is not for the beginning gardener. The results were beds with poisonous foxglove growing alongside delicious chicory, spinach and lettuce. Picking out the seedlings that were edible leafy greens depended on a keen eye for plant identification.

Self-seeding can lead to hardier crop development.
Lynsey Grosfield

Beyond leafy greens, surprising successes were all the smaller, cherry-like tomato varieties that came up on their own volition. While the hybrid beefsteak-types were nowhere to be seen by year two, I have been swimming in small, extremely cold-tolerant flavorful little fruits. Over time, I’d like to completely switch over to this kind of wild, landrace gardening. Starting the season with seedling flats is a lot of work each year, and I’m interested in the possibilities of working with self-sowing, competitive, and hardy annuals in a low-maintenance edible forest-type landscape.

Trying this in your own garden is just a matter of letting it run a little wild and seeing what comes up next year! It might just tell you something about which types of plants and which cultivars are best adapted to your local climate.

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