Gardens can be a lot of work. So I appreciate the many volunteers who make my dream of having beautiful garden flowers without 24/7 attention. I love volunteers.
This time of year, while my vegetable seedlings are just starting to settle in and newly planted perennials are starting to get their legs, patches of gold and orange flowers welcome me to my morning garden work. Calendulas (Calendula officinalis) planted from a six-pack a few summers ago burst into sunshiny blooms on their own schedule now in early spring. One six-pack has grown to a 10-foot patch in the garden while other flower seedlings on the deck are not quite ready to plant.
Also called pot marigold or Scotch marigold, calendulas are part of the Asteraceae, or aster family, with daisy-like petals. The blooms are usually a deep, rich golden orange, although some varieties come in a warm palette of bright yellow to soft apricot. Calendulas are hardy and pest-free and bloom in my garden almost all year. Give them a couple of inches of water a week in the hottest part of summer and keep flowers picked to prolong bloom. If they get really out of bounds, cut them back by half after bloom, give them a good drink and they will start all over again.
Calendulas may slow down during the hottest months, but they quickly revive when the weather cools. Historically calendulas have been used for many purposes, from skin care to dyeing fabric to cooking. Each year my volunteer calendulas come back stronger, more prolific and more colorful than ever. Most garden pests don’t like them, so you can use them to protect your vegetables.
Nigella (Nigella damascena) is another prolific self-sower and a noteworthy addition to the garden patch. Part of the buttercup family, Nigella has wispy foliage and celestial airy blossoms, most commonly in sky blue but also available in pink, lavender and white. Despite its delicate appearance, Nigella is a tough, drought-resistant plant. At the end of its growing cycle it produces a lantern-like seed pod that adds interest to floral arrangements. Its common name is love-in-a-mist. The seeds from Nigella sativa, known as black cumin at the spice store, add an oniony cumin flavor to dishes and are treasured by Indian cooks.
Nigella self-sows readily, or you can harvest the pods, trek around the garden and squeeze the lantern-like seed receptacles into the air to sow new patches where you want them. Happy in full sun to partial shade, Nigella needs good drainage but not much else. You can buy seeds now or purchase a six-pack to get a head start on your volunteer garden.
And let us not forget the generously self-sowing forget-me-nots. With cheerful true-blue flowers and a bright yellow eye in the center, forget-me-nots (Myosotis) make a wonderful ground cover. They are also lovely in overflowing pots and make charming teapot bouquets. Carpeting the ground with six-inch soft green foliage and cheerful, carefree flowers, forget-me-nots can brighten a shady or tree-covered corner. They produce foliage the first year and, like biennials, flower and go to seed the second year. One source describes their self-sowing proclivity as “wanton” and warns that once you have forget-me-nots, you will never forget them. They might turn out to be pests. But hey, they are volunteers.
Can you have too much of a good thing? Absolutely. That may be why so many prolific self-sowing annuals are listed as weeds in the University of California Weed Identification book.
But a weed is really just a plant where you do not want it. Luckily, seedlings from most of these plants are easy to eradicate if they are overwhelming you or nearby plantings or are just where you would rather see something else growing. Uproot seedlings while they are still small, or carefully dig and transplant them to another location, planting them as deeply as they were before.
You can always control proliferating volunteers and spread the wealth to other areas or to friends by collecting seeds at the end of the season. Store seeds, carefully labeled, in a cool, dry place.
Next workshop: “Rose Care” on Saturday, June 1, from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., at the UC Cooperative Extension, 1710 Soscol Ave., Napa. For more details & online Registration go to http://napamg.ucanr.edu or call 707-253-4221.