grow it cook it preserve it eat it wendy pillar blog gardener grow your own in dorset

Self-sown salads and blurred boundaries - November 2015

I've never been one for straight rows and rigid discipline in the veggie garden, but recently I've been relaxing the controls further and experimenting with allowing it to self-seed. It started with sowing some annual flowers for bees, which made themselves thoroughly at home. Borage, phacelia, pot marigolds, poached egg plant and oriental poppies self-seed everywhere. They compete with the weeds, cover the soil and are easy to weed out, producing lots of biomass for the compost - a kind of casual green manure. Always leaving a few to grow on and flower, usually those growing at the edges of the bed, they provide bee food and beauty for the plot and seed themselves all over again.

Self-sown phacelia and red orache

I have extended that approach to some vegetables. I have had three seasons of picking of red orache salad leaves from one sowing, and I haven't had to sow parsley for several years now. Whenever I sow coriander it runs straight to seed, so I decided to let it, with the idea that if it sows itself I might have a regular supply of young leaves, and this is already working. I also sowed some fenugreek from the spice cupboard this year, which has re-sown itself, and the watercress has also escaped from its tub into a bed and is growing away. It looks rather happier there than where I sowed it, so I'll keep it well watered and encourage it to make itself at home.

The Claytonia that I grew last year seeded itself into a huge patch, making the paltry tray of seedlings I grew this year thoroughly redundant and covering the soil at a time of year when it can stand empty. In the greenhouse, emerging seedlings have turned out to be lamb's lettuce, rewarding me for being slow to weed them, and particularly welcome since I neglected to sow lamb's lettuce this year.

Self-sown Claytonia

I have a vision of a garden where harvesting is more like foraging, where there is less predictability perhaps but a constant and varied supply of food, where my role as gardener is more refereeing and guiding than exercising absolute control. Allowing self-seeding is part of this, along with greater use of perennials and the new edimental garden. It's not possible to have a veggie garden run entirely like this of course. Our annual veg are too closely related and too highly bred. I'd end up with cauliflowers crossed with Brussels sprouts and courgettes crossed with winter squash, and who knows what else! The plants that are quickest to run to seed are often not the best ones to breed from either, so it's important to be selective about what is allowed to seed. The self-sown leek that I allowed to grow is noticeably feebler than its deliberately grown bed-mates.

Self-sown coriander and fenugreek

There is definitely a place for allowing self-seeding though, particularly with leafy salad crops that are not prone to disease buildup. If they want to grow themselves, I'm inclined to let them get on with it! No-dig helps, and the only thing that is really likely to interfere with them is my policy of spreading a thick mulch of compost on the beds. It smothers weed seeds but can smother desirable seeds as well.

Taking a more relaxed attitude to allowing plants to seed themselves has changed my outlook on the garden subtly. If a weed is just a plant in the wrong place, defining 'place' less rigidly leads to less rigid definition of weeds as well. The other day I was about to weed out a dandelion, and then thought that they are actually quite good salad leaves, and I put a pot over it to blanch it instead. The same is true for plantain and several other edible weeds.

There is a continuum between foraging and gardening. It must have been a small and inevitable step for our hunter-gatherer ancestors to sow the seeds or plant the roots of a favoured plant closer to home, and there began gardening. Gathering food from the garden satisfies the same fundamental instinct as foraging. Much as I enjoy doing both, daily food must be close to the kitchen. I look forward to blurring the boundaries a little more between gardening and foraging. Purists may want to look away now!

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