Self-seeders can be the Jewels of the Garden
A friend called and found me lying flat on my stomach underneath a rampant eruption of "Eddie's Jewel". It's a rose. A fantastic rose. And I planted three of them, not realising quite how wildly ambitious they were. Twelve-foot stems arching out under the weight of deep, rich-crimson flowers, each with a central golden boss of stamens. Generosity in plants is a likeable trait and, in its season, nothing could be more outrageously lavish than this wondrous beast.
I'd built a story around "Eddie": that he was an ardent lover of roses, living in a cottage, probably in Suffolk. He'd spent his life as an agricultural labourer and now kept a superb cottage garden. I'd imagined him in his collarless, flannel shirt, quietly enjoying his treasure in the late June sunshine. And giving away cuttings to his neighbours, because that's how plants used to travel about. You swapped them. Seeds of my good beans for "slips" of your good rose.
So I was mildly disappointed when I discovered that "Eddie" is a firm, not a man. It's the name of the American nursery which bred this rose in the 1960s. Well, thank you anyway, Eddie. I wouldn't be without your jewel.
"I don't know what you see in gardening," said the friend, as I wriggled out backwards from under the roses, swearing at the thorns that dug into my scalp on the way. And at that particular moment, neither did I. I'd gone into the thicket to unwind bindweed, before its white trumpet flowers started thumbing their noses at me from the tops of the roses' long stems. Bindweed lurks in the soil with fat white roots and, when it emerges in late spring, grows prodigiously fast, twining around the stems of anything within reach to haul itself up into the light.
Looked at dispassionately (but what gardener can?), bindweed is a pretty thing. And undemanding. But it's a bully. The weight of its twining stems pulls over less stalwart plants and it can smother a shrub in a season. For a while at least, I enjoy the sensation that the garden is wildly out of control. But there are limits, and bindweed is one of them.
We wandered down to the house to get coffee, picking our way through the forest of self-seeders that have almost obliterated the stone path: frilly Californian poppies in a wonderful shade of apricot; feathery ammi with flat white heads; sky-blue love-in-a-mist; mounds of honeywort with flowers of purple and turquoise. "This is why I garden," I said to the friend, waving a vague arm over the explosions of growth on the path and the waves of poppies, columbines, iris and peonies on the bank. "It's better to look at than couch grass."
In our garden, self-seeded annuals often do better than the ones I raise myself. The hardy ones, such as love-in-a-mist and Californian poppies, start growing at the end of summer. By the following spring they are big, splendid plants, with root enough to support a long season of flowering.
Many hardy annuals are profligate with their seed and only a tiny proportion will ever grow into new plants. But the ones that do are the ones that find themselves in situations exactly right for them. They understand what they need better than we ever can do. The poppies are particularly brilliant; the plants at least two feet across, with black-blotched red flowers that have already been singing out for six weeks.
It's easy to pull up self-seeders that have put themselves where you don't want them. But the fact that they are there at all means that you will at some stage have introduced them into the garden yourself. These will be flowers you like. Some plants, of course, need protecting from self-seeding neighbours. I keep plenty of air around the tree peonies and make sure nothing lolls over the pinks at the front of the border.
So some of gardening is about control, but you choose your targets. If, at the outset, you choose the right plants and put them in the right place, with plenty of room to grow, you won't have to crack the whip around their heads.