Enjoy gorgeous flowers and tasty herbs for years to come with self-sowing seeds.

For those who love having a garden but aren't so keen on doing all that work, there's a simple solution. Self-sowing seeds offer an affordable alternative to pricier perennials. The annuals drop their seeds at the end of the season; the seeds take root and return the next year as new plants, called volunteers. Using volunteers to fill your garden not only cuts down on gardening time; it's also a brilliant money saver.

1. How to enlist volunteers:

  • Volunteers can grow from seeds, seedlings or plants, but seeds offer the best value. Prices for seeds can range from as low as 50 cents per packet to as much as $6 based on variety, number of seeds and quality, and a single envelope might yield as many as 50 plants. The fresher the seed, the higher the germination rate, so choose packets that are dated within the last 12 months.
  • Be sure to look for wording such as open pollinated, heriloom or traditional. Those are common terms on packets. When seeds with those qualifiers volunteer, they will look the same as the plant did the first year. If the wording on the package says hybrid or F1 (crosses of two or more varieties of the same plant), the volunteer flowers will revert to one of the "parents" -- meaning that a pink-and-white-striped bloom might return in a solid mauve.
  • Invest in quality. Choose a few varieties from the list on page 94, then try these resources for good values: Ferry-Morse.com, JohnnySeeds.com, ReneesGarden.com and TmSeeds.com.

2. Make a bed that promotes growth with these easy-to-follow tips:

  • Prep the soil. Turn some organic compost into the top few inches of the soil, then smooth with the back of a rake before spreading seeds.
  • Study the package. Follow the instructions on the seed envelope to make sure you are planting at the proper depth and in an area with the right light conditions. Save the packets -- you'll need them later.
  • Scatter the seeds directly into the ground in early spring -- no need to start them indoors. In warmer zones, you might need to sow some seeds in fall to get successful germination.
  • Some seeds are smaller than a pinhead and are hard to scatter effectively. Mix tiny seeds with a few tablespoons of light-colored sand to broadcast them. (The sand lets you see where the seeds land.)
  • Add water (gently). Use the mist setting on a hose sprayer or sprinkle with a watering can that has a diffuser. Blasting the seeds with an open hose would wash them away.
  • When the seeds sprout, they will inevitably be overcrowded. Check spacing guidelines on the packets (there might also be a diagram to help you identify the seedlings), and thin accordingly.

3. Care and maintenance to keep things blooming:

  • Throughout the summer: Pinch off spent blooms, called deadheading, to help keep the flowers coming. Around mid-August, stop deadheading to let some seed heads form, dry and drop so you will get a crop of new seedlings next year. And if there's only an inch or two of rain in any week, you need to do the hydrating yourself. From July onwards, conditions can get tough. Set aside at least 20 minutes per week for weeding and maintenance.
  • At the end of the season: If you want certain flowers to grow where you didn't originally plant them, sprinkle pieces of the seed heads, after they dry in the fall, onto the soil in the area where you want to see them next season. Avoid applying mulch to areas where you want flowers next year. Mulching inhibits germination of dropped seeds, because they need contact with the soil.
  • Next year: Don't be too quick to weed the garden, or you might pull out your new crop by accident. If you want to relocate new plants, wait until seedlings have at least four sets of leaves, then scoop up a trowelful and move them as a group rather than individually. Wait a week, then thin.

Bonus tip: Add some zest to mealtime with self-sowing culinary herbs.

The annual herbs chamomile, chervil, chives, cilantro, fennel and dill self-sow easily. Keep each patch well weeded and you will never have to plant those herbs again. But be attentive because they otherwise might take over the whole garden. Use these strategies:

  • Thin patches early for more robust plants.
  • Promptly weed out extra volunteers to keep them confined to the area where you want them.
  • When plants are mature, harvest and deadhead before they drop all their seeds. That helps control germination.

Photo Credit: Flikr / goodmami