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A salute to garden volunteers

In every garden, there are two types of plants: the ones you planted and the ones that just jump out of the dirt and yell, “Surprise!”

The latter leave you wondering, “What IS that?” It might be a weed, a tree seedling, or something that fell into the dirt from last season’s plantings and germinated. It might have been dropped in via wild bird poop, carried on the fur of a rabbit, a possum, a cat or a mouse — or blown in on the wind.

We like volunteers. It forces us to watch the seedling until we can identify it.

We’ve had some deliciously tasty and productive volunteer plants. One year, a seedling sprouted and grew into a bush that produced wonderful golden, cherry-sized tomatoes. The following year it appeared again, but wasn’t as productive and we removed it before the third year began. We were never able to identify it well enough to replace it with an intentionally planted plant.

Last year, we had a vine that -- eventually -- even we could identify as a butternut squash. This year, in a square patch beside the driveway where sunflowers and lavender bushes grow, another vine raised its tendrils. It flowered and produced small globes that at first had green and yellow markings like a faded watermelon. Those have been replaced with cream-colored webbing: We have cantaloupes!

A somewhat less welcome volunteer is a tomato plant growing several feet from our tomato trellis. It’s going to make life with the tomato plants we intentionally planted messy. We’ll either have to assassinate it or move it.

Some gardeners, such as Sandra Dark, believe that volunteers taste better than their planted siblings. Her theory is that volunteers grow where they have the best chance to survive in terms of soil nutrients, water, drainage and sun.

Our volunteers seem to come from our compost. For years, we’ve struggled to balance the pile enough so it will get hot enough to kill seeds from the squash, melons, fruit and other items we toss in there. Most of the time, the Van Nuys climate is too harsh to favor volunteers. The tomato plant may be the result of a fruit from last year’s crop that fell to the ground, rolled away, decayed into the soil and germinated. We do move our plants every season so they aren’t growing in the same place year in and year out. That makes the tomato volunteer mysterious because we didn’t have tomato plants there last summer.

Some things to discourage volunteers are:

  •  Deadheading flowers (removing faded flower heads before they go to seed) and bolting vegetables. We never get volunteer basil plants or kale or the marigolds we could use to discourage bugs on our tomatoes. 
  • Mulching plants well. This does two things: it keeps the seeds that may fall from getting to the soil and if they do get to the soil it shades the ground and makes it harder for a seedling to reach the sunlight.
  • Pulling up seedlings as soon as you find them. We do this with tree seedlings immediately. We usually wait until distinctive leaves can be seen before deciding what to do about other volunteers.
According to Dark, some volunteers should always be removed. She gives as an example garlic, which readily reproduces from seeds. While it does have good insect repellent qualities, she points out that when planted near beans and peas, it can make them less productive. She also recommends removing volunteers that will interfere with other plants in the garden.

We enjoy the serendipity of volunteers. Because of their water requirements, we never consider planting melons, but we’re enjoying watching the volunteer cantaloupes grow. We’re deadheading the flowers we recently planted because it makes the garden look better without so many brown leaves and flower heads. We’re aggressive with the clippers on basil, chard, kale and herbs because the plants are more productive if their seed heads are removed.

Mostly, the volunteers remind us that despite all of our plans, our garden has a life of its own. Good management of our garden doesn't necessarily rest on absolute control of what grows there. The volunteers are teachers who help shape us into better gardeners.

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