self-sowns and overgrowns: use-what-you’ve-got gardening

I KEEP SAYING: Eliminate the polka-dot look of onesies by repeating the best plants. Happily that doesn’t always mean big purchases. In early spring, it means a sharp hori-hori knife or my favorite trowel (above) and an even sharper eye. I’m scouting the garden for self-sowns and overgrowns, and they’re getting moved into spots where they can add up to more impact.

The plants are generous to produce these “extras” in coming years, but they don’t put them where I want them. That’s my job–to reorganize and make pictures with their serendipitous bounty.

Seedlings scored and replanted in a half-hour in April:

Even at $5 apiece (a conservative estimate if they were potted up and allowed to grow a month at a nursery): 47 plants, or $235. Free, thanks to shopping in my own garden.

That’s just a very few of many self-sowns littered around the place that I can poach (or share with friends); I haven’t even started dividing most of the big clumps of overgrown perennials.

Another recent haul (seen standing in a bucket of water that’s standing inside a big, empty pot; above) was a side-effect of needed pruning, with a different tool in hand.

hellebore seedlingsSoon to emerge or get moved:

  • Nicotiana and Verbena bonariensis seedlings galore (both self-sown annuals)
  • Some of thousands of hellebore babies (various ages, above)
  • More of all of the above perennials and biennials

seedling and knifeThe process: With a tray (or the saucer from a large pot) to put things in, pop them out, preferably on a morning after a rain. Poke them in their new homes, and puddle them in with a gentle shower from the adjustable sprayer nozzle. Got it? Pop, poke, puddle.


Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Final tips: Look for seedlings too close to bed edges for their own good, where letting them grow would mean they ended up spilling over the boundary. Also scour the cracks in the pavement, or in the gravel areas. That’s where things like to sow—and where the weeding knife really comes in handy.

  1. Beverly, zone 6, eastern PA says:

    I am a firm believer in using one’s powers of observation to enlarge a plant collection. If you spend a lot of time weeding, crouching down close to the ground, it soon becomes evident when you are seeing a perennial seedling full of promise and when you are seeing something worthless that needs to be thrown on the compost pile.

    My recent finds include Husker Red Penstemon, Yellow Corydalis, Viola tricolor, Linaria, Hosta sieboldianna, Great Blue Lobelia, Chelone, Dicentra, Primula japonica, and Lilium tigrinum.


    1. margaret says:

      There are a number and of course depending what you’re looking to ID (weeds, perennials, veggies, etc.) one or the other is “better,” plus regionality comes into play. Try this UK one, or the weed-seedling ID from Minnesota Extension (which of course is for that region probably most of all); and on and on. I think I know most of the plants I grow in all their life stages just by watching over the years, which might be the best teacher, if slow as can be. :)

      1. T Patterson says:

        Thanks for the excellent added resources on identifying seedlings! Bookmarked ’em. Developing powers of observation adds to the game of gardening.

    2. Joeth Barlas says:

      For seedlings, I love the old Park’s Success with Seeds (by Ann Reilly), which is available used from 3rd party vendors at http://www.abebooks.com (best prices). Excellent propagation and cultivation info and — best of all — a closeup picture to identify young seedlings (helps you learn what to protect, what to remove if you’re looking for self-seeders in an area).

  2. Lisa says:

    I am excited to say I have lots of what I believe are angelica gigas seedlings growing by the parent plants where I shook off the seeds last fall. I will try to carefully pot some up when the are large enough so I can perpetuate them in my garden from year to year without having to by new plants. I plant them right outside my window so I can watch all the amazing pollinators and hummingbirds they attract.

  3. Mollie Curry says:

    Ones that have self-sown or grown so quickly they need dividing Lamb’s ear, Echinacea purpurea, wild ginger, (great in place of hostas), and so many more. I love seeing columbines self-sow.

  4. Sandra Barnes says:

    What a good idea. I have literally hundreds of Verbena Bonariensis seedlings which are growing between the cracks of paving. The main plants come up every year in a gravel bed – I only initially had one plant. I leave the seedlings where I want them to flower but will now pot on the seedlings.

  5. Jill J says:

    I know this is an older post, but I am hoping you can tell me what the small seedling is resting on the knife in the bottom photo? I have these scattered in the yard of our new home and I wasn’t sure what they were. At least they look like that plant.

  6. Sharon says:


    In particular, I have a columbine that reseeded quite far away from its parents. It’s in the edge of my shaded walkway, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be happier if I move it somewhere sunnier.

  7. Mathew says:

    Last year I planted dill from the store for the purposes of letting it go to seed. After weeks of checking this spring, I finally found dill seedlings…growing everywhere except the spot I want them! So in a few weeks when they are just a bit bigger, I’ll move them. The knife pictured in your blog post is really very helpful for tasks like moving self-sowed seedlings.

  8. S K Hebelka says:

    Don’t overlook exchanges with neighbors. I regularly exchange plants with them. We both get greater variety that way at no cost. We have similar goals to provide plants for butterflies & hummingbirds, so the more we have the greater the chances to increase habitat.

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