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Native Plant Gardens: Encouraging Volunteers!

Free plants anyone?

Volunteer Eastern Red Cedar Seedling in Wood Container
Volunteer Eastern Red Cedar Seedling

The very best plants are free volunteers. First, they are free. Two, they have indicated to you they like where they are. Three, it's so easy to acquire them!

Volunteer seedlings are sublime. As your native plant garden matures, you may find yourself with more and more volunteer seedlings. September is a very good time to be on the look out. Seedlings have likely been growing for a bit and have some substance.

Likely you already know which of your plants are the prolific self sowers. Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum), black eyed susan (Rubeckia fulgida), celandine poppy (Stylophorum diphyllum), golden alexander (Zizia aurea) and lyre leaf sage (Salvia lyrata), I'm looking at you. Those are the prolific sowers in our garden. You may have others. I know that every year, I will find a number of these volunteers. They are all easy to move or pull out depending on how many and where they are.

The real treasures are those plants that are not so reliably prolific. Those are the ones I really keep an eye out for. This year, it seems blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica), blue wood sedge (Carex flaccosperma), eastern columbine (Aquilegia candensis), eastern red cedars (Juniperis virginiana), skullcaps (Scutellaria incana) and plantain leaf sedge (Carex plantaginea) are having a good year which is very good for me! I am particularly excited about the sedges.

Each year's weather pattern will be different. The pattern of temperatures and moisture and the duration of those all can affect our gardens. Different conditions can mean different seeds may be more likely to or not to germinate. All the more reason to be on the lookout.

Where to Look

Seedlings can be just about anywhere and everyone's garden will be unique.

black eyed susan volunteers in gravel path
Black Eyed Susan Volunteers

In our garden, most of my discoveries are in gravel. In our two short gravel paths, I will often find the prolific sowers like black eyed susans and golden alexanders. The best time to look? After being away a few days. The grass is shaggy and volunteers abound. I will also often find volunteers like blue lobelia in between the pervious pavers in our driveway. The space between the pavers is filled with free draining gravel too.

plantain sedge volunteers among stones
Large Plantain Sedge and Tiny Penstemon Volunteers

This year, for the first time, I am finding volunteer sedges in and among stones dug up from the garden surrounding a bubbling fountain. It is not so much a free draining area but a place where the rocks might shelter seedlings and also allow plenty of water.

Do you Know What Your Plants' Seedlings Look Like?

Sometimes seedlings look just like the adult plant. A celandine poppy seedling is pretty easy to recognize from the bluish hue of the foliage as well as the shape of the leaves.

Others, like blue hyssop (Agastache foeniculum), may have darker color foliage as they emerge.

Yet others, like blue lobelia, form rosettes of foliage first before developing the mature perennial plant. A google search can help you find a photo of a young seedling you may be on the lookout for. You may also find the plant you are looking for in the Ernst Seeds "seedling gallery."

native blue mist flower
Blue Mistflower Volunteer

What to Do with Volunteers

The best case scenario is to leave the volunteer seedling right where it is growing. In all likelihood, it will grow into a very strong and robust plant. This blue mistflower landed in a place I would never have planted it. To me, it's self selected location is perfection.

When plants are not growing where I would like to will them to (!), I move them at this time of year. I try to be mindful to relocate the plants to a place where light and water conditions are similar to where they volunteered. After a soaking rain and cooler temperatures is the best time to make the move, being careful to dig up as much soil with the plant as possible. Some people like to grow volunteers on in pots in a protected location for the winter. Others will wait till spring to move them. All of those should work.

How to Encourage Volunteers

Usually, seeds need to come into contact with soil to root in. Heavy layers of mulch or matted leaves can make it very challenging for seeds to germinate. Even when our garden was newer and we were mulching to prevent weeds, we always left bare spots for seeds to land.

If you have areas with free draining gravel, you may want to let new plants mature enough so you can differentiate between a possible treasure and a weed. Avoiding high energy activities like pressure washing, raking and using blowers where there might be volunteers will also increase their chances.

Do you have strategies you like for encouraging volunteers? Please do share.

Happy volunteering!


We want you to be as excited about planting Chesapeake natives as we are. “Plant This or That” gives you a native alternative to popular plants. Other posts highlight really fabulous fauna native to the Chesapeake.

Nuts for Natives, avid gardener, Baltimore City admirer, Chesapeake Bay Watershed restoration enthusiast, and public service fan.

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