Let your plants self seed and get free veg

When vegetables prematurely run to seed, just enjoy the benefits, says RHS Horticultural Advisor Caroline Mazzey

Sowing seeds in the garden

Caroline MazzeyDo you, like me, allow some of your vegetables to flower and set seed themselves? A few crops can be grown from  seed scattered naturally on the soil around them, rather than from packets.

Which self-seeders should I sow?

Quite honestly, what’s not to love? The seeds are bountiful but cost nothing. They’re planted naturally at exactly the right time of year, according to their type. And, without any work transplanting, often establish much better than any sown by hand – either direct, or in the greenhouse. Plus, the flowers are pretty and great for pollinators. 

Parsnips, chard and kale are examples of vegetables that fall into this category. Other self-seeders are lamb’s lettuce (corn salad), bacon weed and good King Henry.

Growing self-seeding parsnips

Parsnip seedlingsI’ve always found parsnips hard to grow. They are notorious for being slow and patchy in their germination. In the past, I’ve tried the multi-sowing technique, plus inter-planting with something super-fast like radishes, to mark the row and use the space productively while awaiting the unpredictable parsnip seedlings.
However nowadays, with my new approach, I reliably have a pretty carpet of apple-green seedlings in the vicinity of the parent – hundreds more than I need.

Although seeds fall randomly, I introduce some order by first hoeing them into a straight line. Then, I gradually weed out those remaining, leaving a nicely spaced row.
Parsnip flowers and seedsAnother way to prepare a row for next year is to bend down the flower stems. They are 1m tall, so you can expect that the seeds to fall at least that far away. Alternatively, cut down the stems and lay them elsewhere — weighted down so they don’t blow away.
Even if you don’t save the seed, the flowers of parsnip are an interesting shade of acid yellow-green and can be used as a cut flower. However, be very wary in bright sunlight, of brushing through them with bare skin. Parsnip burn is a nasty blistering caused by touching the leaves on sunny days. Luckily, this doesn’t happen after they are cut in a vase.

Try growing other veg too

Chard and kale also seed themselves, but are easier to move. Because they are leafy vegetable rather than grown for their roots, I simply dig up seedlings as they appear and transplant them into rows. Do this as young as possible, to cause less disturbance to the roots. Happy growing!

Pick of the crop

Look for the RHS Award of Garden Merit (AGM) when buying vegetable seed or small plants. You can also download the RHS lists of recommended cultivars.

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About the author - Caroline Mazzey
I’m an ex-lecturer turned RHS Horticultural Advisor and triple allotmenteer, aspiring to be self-sufficient. My core job is to try to help RHS members with their gardening dilemmas but as a scientist, I can’t help pondering what we think we know about plants and soil. My motto is ‘think like a plant’.

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