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English lavender garden in the west

Perennials That Naturalize - Bulbs and Perennials For Reseeding

How To Select Plants That Will Spread In The Garden

Who doesn't enjoy free plants? Start by planting the right naturalizing species and you'll be thrilled will an abundance of volunteer plants. Many species of annuals, perennials and spring blooming bulbs are willing re-seeders; their seeds germinate without our help to establish new plants in the landscape. This process is often referred to as "naturalizing." The key to a garden with naturalizing garden plants is to choose the right ones and provide them with an environment conducive for them to reproduce. When done with a broad palette of naturalizing species, it will create an naturally informal style in your landscape. For neatniks or gardeners that like a formal look, this strategy is not for you. But even if you don't want to fully adopt the naturalizing life style, a little bit of weeding can be used to edited the garden within more comfortable bounds.

Pink Penstemon mexicali Red Rocks
Penstemon mexicali Red Rocks is a willing reseeder, but is a hybrid and will not be true to form.
Yellow Twig Rabbitbrush with monarch butterfly
Yellow Twig Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus Yellow Twig) provides fall and winter interest in xeric landscapes and will spread by seed.

Planting Pioneers

Certain plant genera like Penstemon (the beardtongues) are pioneer species in the wild and are among the first groups of plants that will re-colonize disturbed areas. Fires, road construction, mining, mud slides and other natural and man-made damage to wild areas create a void that pioneer plants can take advantage of. Penstemon love these disturbed sites and their seeds can quickly germinate to re-populate the area. In time, as the soil regains its microbial populations (micorrhizal fungi and other organisms) and the pioneer plants have built up some organic matter on the soil surface, the next wave of plant succession will begin and crowd out the Penstemon. Many other genera of native plants are also pioneers and can be used to reclaim and re-populate wild areas. You see many of these plants when post-construction roadsides are re-seeded to stabilize bank cuts and road margins.

Some Gardens Are Better Than Others for Naturalizing Plants

In our landscapes, these pioneer species are best in new or "young" gardens; here the soil is disturbed either from home construction, turning of the soil to create new flower beds or both. Pioneers also appreciate that all the plants in new gardens start small (not yet mature with wide spreading roots) and there is plenty of room to compete above and below ground. On the flip side, these pioneer species are not generally a good choice for established gardens. Too much root competition from established plants. And often too much shade from trees overhead and other plants that shade the soil. (Pioneers like hot, dry soils.)

Strategies to Encourage Naturalizing Plants

There are some simple strategies that gardeners can use to encourage (or discourage*) plants to re-seed themselves.

  1. Mulching - the best technique for encouraging re-seeding is to mulch with small diameter 3/8 inch or smaller gravel (crushed angular is best). Spread it about an inch thick and DON"T use any weed barrier. Or leave the soil bare. *To discourage re-seeding, use bark mulch.
  2. Planting Mother Plants - Plant a half dozen of many different species spread around to act as mother plants. They will flower and provide plentiful seed, some of which will find the just the right growing conditions, and germinate. These volunteers are almost always more vigorous and longer-lived than the mother plants. Then the volunteers become the next generation of Mother plants and the process continues.
  3. Mycorrhizal inoculation - when planting into disturbed soils created by building construction, it is essential to bring life back to these compacted, lifeless soils. Spread mycorrhizal inoculants when seeding grasses and wildflowers and use them in planting holes when transplanting potted plants.

Recommended Re-Seeding Native Plants

  • Apache Plume (Falugia paradoxa): Shrub
  • Beardtongues (Penstemon): Suggested Varities: P. eatonii, P. psuedospectabilis 'Coconino County', P. pinifolius and cultivars, P. strictus, P. virens. (Avoid hybrid beardtongues for naturalizing as they will not come true-to-type from seed.)
  • Blackfoot Daisy (Melampodium): Suggested Varities: M. leucantha
  • Blanket Flower (Gaillardia): Suggested Varities: G. aristata 'Amber Wheels'
  • Butterfly Weed (Asclepias) Suggested Varities: A. speciosa, A. incarnata, A. tuberosa
  • Chocolate Flower (Berlandiera): Suggested Varities: B. lyrata
  • Columbine (Aquilegia): Suggested Varities:A. caerulea, A. chyrsantha, A. chrysantha 'Little Treasure', A. desertorum
  • Fame Flower ( Phemeranthus calycinum):
  • Flax (Linum): Suggested Varities: L. perenne 'Appar', L. narbonense
  • Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea) Suggested Varities: Sphaeralcea munroana
  • Golden Rod (Solidago) Suggested Varities: S. sp. Wichita Mountains form
  • Hummingbird Mint (Agastache) Suggested Varities: - A. rupestris, A. cana 'Rosita', A. cana, A. foeniculum (Avoid hybrid Hummingbird Mints for naturalizing as they will not come true-to-type from seed.)
  • Blaze Little Bluestem Grass (Schizachyrium scoparium Blaze)
  • Silky Thread Grass (Nassella) Suggested Varities: N. tenuissima
  • Prairie Clover (Dalea): Suggested Varities: D. purpurea
  • Purple coneflower (Echinacea): Suggested Varities: E. paradoxa, E. purpurea,
  • Rabbit Brush (Chrysothamnus): Shrub Suggested Varities: - C. nauseosus
  • Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida) Suggested Varities: R. pinnata, R. columnifera
  • Sundancer Daisy (Hymenoxys): Suggested Varities: H. scaposa, H. acaulis v. ivesiana
  • Wild Four O'Clock (Mirablis): Suggested Varities: Mirablis multiflora

Old World Re-seeding Plants

Text and Photos by David Salman.

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