Self-Seeding Vegetables: The Easy Way Out

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You can let a surprising number of vegetables and herbs self-seed. Photo: silverserviceconsultancy.co.uk

Traditionally, home gardeners buy vegetable seeds and sow them themselves in the spring. Or they collect seeds the previous season and sow them themselves. In both cases, there are actions to be taken: preparing the soil and sowing the seeds.

But did you know that some vegetables (and several herbs too) can reseed themselves? All you have to do is allow at least one specimen to go to seed and leave part of the vegetable garden free of mulch (plants can’t self-seed when the soil is covered with thick mulch). And there you go! Mother Nature does the work for you!

A Little Supervision

It is still handy to know what the young self-sown seedlings will look like. You wouldn’t want to let unfamiliar seedlings grow which will turn out to be horrible weeds!

Also, it’s very possible that the plant will reseed itself … where you don’t want it to. In that case, the solution is easy: dig up the young plant and replant it where you want it to grow.

Take the Climate Into Consideration

Self-seeded tomato plant
Tomatoes self-seed readily, but in short-season climates, don’t have time to produce mature fruit. Photo: tipsfromashton.wordpress.com

Obviously, some plants that self-seed readily—the tomato is one—won’t have time to mature in climates with short summers, so even if they sprout in such a climate, they’re not worth keeping. The rule of thumb is that if you need to sow any vegetable indoors in order to get a good harvest, it won’t be a good choice for self-seeding in your area.

White ball of onion flowers
If you’ve never seen an onion flower, leave one in the ground over winter. It’s a biennial and will flower in year two. Photo: plantsam.com

Also, a surprising number of our vegetables are biennials. A lot of gardeners never consider this, as they harvest all their vegetables the first year, so just don’t see that these vegetables bloom and produce seeds the second year. In such cases, if you want them to self-seed, you have to leave at a few plants unharvested in the fall so they can overwinter and go to seed the next year, thus serving as mothers for the next generation, thus in year 3. This is the case with more vegetables than you would think: beets, carrots, cabbage, onions and many more.

Vegetables That Self-Seed

Here is a list of vegetables that readily self-sow … with occasional precisions about their behavior:

  1. Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus and others)
  2. Arugula (Eruca sativa)
Beet flowers.
Beets are normally biennials, but sometimes “bolt” (flower before their time) and then produce seed the first year. Photo: gardeningknowhow.com
  1. Beet (Beta vulgaris conditiva) (biennial)
  2. Cabbage (Brassica oleracea capitata and others) (biennial)
  3. Carrot (Daucus carota) (biennial)
  4. Celery and celeriac (Apium graveolens) (biennial)
  5. Corn salad or lamb’s lettuce (Valerianella locusta)
  6. Cucamelon (Melothria scabra)
  7. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) (biennial)
  8. Garden huckleberry (Solanum nigrum and others)
  9. Garlic (Allium sativum) (from bulbils)
  10. Ground cherry (Physalis pruinosa and others, need a fairly long growing season)
  11. Kale (Brassica oleracea acephala) (biennial)
  12. Leek (Allium porrum) (biennial)
  13. Lettuce (Lactuca sativa)
  14. Mustard (Brassica juncea and others)
  15. Onion (Allium cepa) (biennial)
Red-leaved orach seedlings.
Orach seedlings are bright red, so you can spot them easily when they sprout. Photo: johnnyseeds.com
  1. Orach or mountain spinach (Atriplex hortensis)
  2. Parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) (biennial)
  3. Purslane (Portulaca oleracea)
  4. Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa)
Green seed capsules of radish
If you don’t harvest radish seeds, they’ll self-seed quite effectively. Photo: ruralintelligence.com
  1. Radish (Raphanus sativus)
  2. Rutabaga (Brassica napus) (biennial)
  3. Spinach (Spinacia oleracea)
  4. Squash (Cucurbita pepo and others)
  5. Strawberry spinach (Blitum capitatum, syn. Chenopodium capitatum)
  6. Sunflower (Helianthus annuus)
  7. Swiss chard (Beta vulgaris flavescens) (biennial)
  8. Tetragon or New Zealand spinach (Tetragona expansa)
  9. Tomato (Solanum lycopersicum) (long summer climates only)
  10. Turnip (Brassica rapa rapifera) (biennial)

Herbs that Self-Seed

  1. Angelica (Angelica archangelica) (biennial)
  2. Basil (Ocimum basilicum)
Blue-flowered borage
Borage self-seeds so readily, many gardeners mistakenly think it’s a perennial. Photo: amazon.ca
  1. Borage (Borago officinalis)
  2. Breadseed poppy (Papaver somniferum)
  3. Chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium)
  4. Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) (perennial)
  5. Coriander or cilantro (Coriandrum sativum)
  6. Dill (Anethum graveolens)
  7. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) (biennial)
  8. Garlic chives (Allium tuberosum) (perennial)
  9. German chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla, syn. Matricaria recutita)
  10. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) (perennial)
Blue Love-in-a-mist
Love-in-a-mist is often grown as an ornamental, but can be used as a herb. Photo: Wildfeuer, Wikimedia Commons
  1. Love-in-a-mist (Nigella damascena)
  2. Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus)
  3. Oregano (Origanum vulgare) (perennial)
  4. Parsley (Petroselinum crispum) (biennial)
  5. Pot marigold (Calendula officinalis)
  6. Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) (perennial)

Annuals and Biennials Too

Of course, if vegetables and herbs can self-seed, other plants can too. Biennials—hollyhocks, foxgloves, mulleins, etc.—almost all reseed: in fact, it’s one of their basic characteristics! And a lot of annuals can too. You can find details on the latter in following article: Annuals That Self-Sow! And so-called short-lived perennials (read the article Perennial, But Just Barely) are actually varieties whose survival strategy involves frequent self-seeding.

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A vegetable garden that sows itself and grows almost on its own? It should be the ultimate goal for any laidback gardener!

3 thoughts on “Self-Seeding Vegetables: The Easy Way Out

  1. Joe

    I’ve been experimenting with seedling recognition and relocating them when they come up, or letting them mingle with other intentionally-planted vegetable seedlings, for soil protection and companion planting. Also I now consider it beneficial to let plants like radish or lettuce go to flower, to help pollinators find food, but cut the stalks down before going to seed. It’s been educational to just allow things to unfold, but then learn to intervene before it all gets out of hand.

  2. I do not do this intentionally, but all the greens that I get from the forest naturally self sow; nettle, turnip, radish, mustard, dock, thistle, etc., At work, the oregano self sows. We remove it from where it is not wanted, but it politely grows mostly in the right spots, where it can stay.

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