Social Distance XIV – Self-Spreaders

We continue our exploration of ways to pursue  gardening while maintaining social distance.

Care for Your Garden

Last week’s column listed some basic landscaping concepts, one of which is “Plant in Groups.” As an expansion of that concept, we explore landscape uses of self-spreaders: plants that propagate by generating lots of seeds and plants that propagate by creating roots, stolens, bulbs, corms, or rhizomes. We could call these groups self-seeders and runners.

When we adopt the objective of planting in groups, we can regard the self-spreaders as botanical partners in landscaping. While it is quickest to develop plant groups by purchasing and planting multiple specimens of a selected plant, collaborating with these partners can require a few seasons of growth, but is considerably less expensive.

To begin planning for self-spreaders, acknowledge that they can appear in one of three broad categories: garden-worthy plants, thugs, and weeds. These categories are not botanically distinct. Instead, their membership in one category or another depends on their circumstances and the gardeners’ priorities. The landscape planner should be prepared to recognize which category to which an unexpected seedling belongs.

Many weeds propagate quickly, using either seeds or runners for the purpose. The most notorious in my garden include Bermuda grass ( Cynodon dactylon), which is a popular for lawns in southern United states, and Bermuda Buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae), which has no friends that I have encountered. Both are South African natives, and both might have been introduced to the United States through Bermuda.

There are countless other self-spreading weeds.

Gardeners can learn to recognizing weedy problem plants best through experience. It is not always important to know their common or botanical names, only to know them when you spot them. The best control is hand-pulling by their roots; effective inorganic approaches exist for both annual and perennial weeds, with each group needing seasonal control schedules.

At the other extreme of self-spreading plants are the garden thugs. These are plants that have appealing qualities, but that spread more vigorously and persistently than gardeners usually want. This is another large category. Examples from my direct experience include Bears’ Breeches (Ancanthus mollis), Spiny Bears’ Breeches (A. spinosus), California Wild Rose (Rosa californicus), Japanese Anemone (Anemone hupehensis and other species), and English and Algerian Ivy (Hedera species). With hesitation, I include the California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) because it pops up in unexpected spots presents cheerful blossoms, and then evolves to a mess. This is our state flower, but I would rather it would grow elsewhere.

Acanthus Blossom
Acanthus spinosus grows aggressively in the garden

Finally, we get to the garden-worthy. self-spreading plants. These self-spreaders can be genuine assets to the landscape, and still their propagation can be managed seasonally without great effort.

The strategies for working with these botanical  partners include first allowing them to go to seed. If you deadhead, you get more blooms; if you don’t deadhead, your get more plants.

A second practical strategy is to manage the spread of these plants in the spring by removing misplaced progeny or transplanting them with care to a preferred location. Plants that propagate from runners can be moved quite successfully when the transplant includes a substantial amount of root. 

Happily, a large number of plants fit in this category. Examples from my direct experience include the following:

Winter Blooming Bergenia or Pigsqueak (Bergenia crassifolia).This plant was given to me about twenty-five years ago and has spread courteously in my garden. I have recently given away more than 100 gallon-size plants without creating a gap in my landscape.

Cranesbill/Hardy Geranium (Geranium x cantabrigiense). I installed this plant several years ago as a low-growing border. It has since spread slowly and methodically to create a  blanket about eight feet wide. It is an attractive plant, but one that must be reduction to share through the garden exchange or compost.

Four O’clock (Mirabilis jalapa). I started this plant two years ago from seeds shared by a friend and from selected seeds from Rene’s Garden. It  has been a reliable perennial that produces good flowers that bloom late in the day, dies to the ground, and returns vigorously in the spring. The seedlings are easily controlled to manage its spread.

Advance Your Gardening Knowledge

All plants propagate themselves one way or another, and many are garden-worthy selections or weeds or garden thugs. There are far too many to list here, advance you familiarity with each of these categories, make systematic observations in your garden, search your local library or bookstore of online book seller, or search the interne for “self-seeders” or “plant runners.”

Enrich Your Gardening Days

As you work patiently with your garden’s botanical partners, you will gain considerable satisfaction in developing your landscape in a well-managed and very inexpensive manner. This easy process is at the core of real gardening nature.

Keep your emotions positive and your viruses negative and enjoy your garden.

Sharing Plants

The fall season is both the best time for planting, and an excellent time for gardeners to share plants.

Plant and cutting exchanges, which are popular in the Monterey Bay area, invite gardeners to bring plants or cuttings from their garden to swap for plants or cuttings offered by another gardener.

That seems like a fair trade, but because plants vary greatly in size, condition and desirability, a really balanced exchange would be difficult to achieve.

Still, these exchanges often succeed without even requiring a contribution. They work because plants propagate naturally on their own: the gardener does not incur a significant cost, and still reaps the satisfaction of giving something of value to another gardener.

Cheap thrills!

Propagating plants for sharing require a significant investment of time: growing plants from seeds or cuttings and then giving them away could amount to a generous gift of the gardener’s time. However, opportunities exist for sharing plants with little effort.

For example, if your daffodils or irises need dividing, you could very well end up with a surplus of bulbs or rhizomes that you could share.

Another example: plants might self-propagate in your garden to the point that you have more than you want, and would prefer to reclaim the space for other plants.

In my garden, Pig’s Ear (Cotyledon orbiculata) and Japanese Anemone (Anemone hupehensis) had grown too large. With the help of a friend, we uprooted dozens of each plant for others to propagate.

Succulent Cotyledons can be propagated most easily from tip cuttings.

Japanese Anemones are best propagated from root cuttings taken in the late fall or early winter. We lifted them rather early, but we saw vigorous new white shoots on the roots, and felt that they would re-root quickly in a new environment. This plant produces beautiful pink or white blossoms, and grows so readily that it’s almost invasive.

Plant society sales offer another sharing opportunity. While these are not free exchanges, they typically offer plants at below-market prices. And the gardeners who grow these plants gain satisfaction from sharing both their plants and their enthusiasms.

Watch for opportunities to share plants with your friends and neighbors. You will both grow from the experience.


The Web has very helpful information resources for plant propagation.

Wikipedia – Plant Propagation (often my first stop)


Stover’s Nursery

North Carolina State University

YouTube also offers several short video recordings (often simply produced) on aspects of plant propagation.