Self-seeding vegetable seedlings have been a nice surprise in my garden each spring.
Most gardeners who have grown tomatoes have missed one or two during fall clean-up. When that happens, you’ll find a clump of seedlings commonly called “volunteers.” If the volunteer seedlings are offspring from hybrid plants, you won’t get the variety of the parent plant. If you start with heirloom varieties, also known as open-pollinated varieties, and keep them from cross pollinating, your volunteer seedlings will be the same as the parent plant.
This spring I have beautiful red lettuce seedlings in the grass in front of a high tunnel. I don’t know what they are but it’s pretty. I hope they taste good because the lettuce I planted in rows has been eaten by slugs.
Onions, leeks and scallions (alliums) are easy to let reseed. These are biennials that will overwinter, break dormancy in the spring and put their energy into producing seeds. The flowers are beautiful in shades of white, pink and purple. They require little care other than weeding and watering.
The seeds are located in the flowers. When they’re almost dry and ready to collect, bend the stem over a bag or bowl and tap them in. You can sow the seeds in the fall to give the seedlings a head start, or wait until spring.
I let my onions grow where they fall and thin as needed. They do well in the spot they’re growing so I leave them there year after year. Each spring I amend the soil with a high nitrogen fertilizer and let them do their thing.
Beets are another biennial that will self-seed if the beet root survives the winter. I let one or two overwinter in a high tunnel. The plants get big and fall over so they’re in the way. But for a short time, I don’t mind stepping around them. The beets I’m growing become woody when they’re 3 inches in diameter. They’re hardy and germinate while the ground is still cold. They make tasty pickled beets.
Radishes are one of the simplest vegetables to self-seed. The radish root will probably split as the seed stalk begins to grow. Don’t pull the radish, it will be fine. The flowers are small and pretty. They stand out in the garden and attract pollinators. Each pod on the stalk has seeds. The pods are edible and taste a little milder than the root. Leaves are edible, too. They’re great in salads. You can shake shake the seeds onto the ground, pull the spent plant for the compost pile, and the seeds grow. I haven’t found that any of the varieties of radishes I grow need cold stratification.
Pumpkins, zucchini and squash are my favorite self-seeders. It’s fun to watch them grow and figure out what the parents might be and what they’ll look like, how big they’ll be and whether they’ll taste good. If they aren’t worth eating, they’re at least an interesting fall decoration.
Cross pollination occurs between varieties in the same species. It took me weeks of carrying around a cross between a zucchini and a winter squash and asking, “Do you know what this is,” before someone had an answer. Until then I had no idea the two could cross.
Cucumbers will self-seed if you leave them on the vine to ripen. We pick them when they’re long and slender and typically green when we’re going to eat them. If you want to let them self-seed or want to save seeds, let a cucumber grow. It will turn from green to yellow and possibly to orange depending on the variety. This is the third year I have seedlings resulting from the original seeds I planted two years ago.
Carrots are biennials I let self-seed, but it’s a longer process than the other plants I use. The plant resumes growth, sends up the seed stalk, flowers and is pollinated, and the seeds are collected from the flower. I tend to forget about them, my enthusiasm for seed collecting waning later in the season. I’m seldom disappointed when a hybrid reverts back to the parent until it’s a carrot. They’re good, but they’re not as sweet as I like.
If you want quick results, start lettuce now, don’t cut it and let it go to seed. You’ll have seedlings by fall.
Robin Follette and her husband, Steve, operate Seasons Eatings Farm in Talmadge, Maine.