Thursday, July 28, 2011

Plants that volunteer in the garden

A volunteer in garden lingo is a plant that you did not actually plant, but that just pops out of the ground. This can happen in several ways. Volunteers are fun, but keeping all of them may not be the best idea for maximizing yield, and space in your vegetable garden.
Tomato plant that volunteered and I discovered on my birthday
This plant volunteered because I had my compost bin here last year, and then I moved it. I must have put tomatoes in the compost and the seeds did not completely decompose. When I moved the compost, the seeds took the opportunity to sprout up as new plants. I love plants, and so I really love volunteers because they just appear, and feel like a gift.

You have to be realistic about keeping all of them. Many times you really have no idea what the volunteer will turn out to be. You'll probably be able to recognize a tomato plant, but the variety will remain to be seen until the plant starts producing fruit. I uprooted this volunteer and transplanted it into one of our Earthboxes in April.

I did not know it would turn out to be a yellow pear cherry tomato until a few weeks ago. 
This red cherry tomato also popped up in the compost spot. I potted it too. 
Squash plants are another one that will easily volunteer in your garden. I took some of my compost and spread it around in the front garden where I planted corn and sunflower seeds. I must have overlooked some squash seeds in the compost while I was laying it down because we got a couple squash volunteers in that area.

Corn and sunflower bed with mystery squash volunteer in April. 
When I first saw this one pop up, I assumed it was a zucchini because I had zucchini in this area last year. I was wrong.

It soon became a massive vine that tried to envelope the entire front garden. 
It turned out to be a Kabocha squash that we only got one really good squash off of. It took up way too much room, and was attacked by fungal disease, which then transferred to our cucumbers that we did plant intentionally. I should have taken it out as soon as I saw it. It's easy for me to become invested and attached to plants, but I am guessing the most productive, and successful gardeners pull volunteers like weeds when they see them. I am going to start taking that approach, but I imagine I will always try to pot or relocate tomato volunteers when possible. It is fun to be surprised by the plants you are growing.

Initially, we had the kabocha, a cherry tomato, and a butternut squash that volunteered in this area.
I took out the kabocha squash and the corn we had growing here and replaced with tomatoes and peppers.

Cherry tomato tied to sunflower
This is the cherry tomato that we left here, but it is not in an ideal location, it is producing but not as much as it could if its location were planned in advance.

I also left this sad little butternut volunteer - for now
The butternut is not getting enough sun or space because the sunflowers above it are shading it, and are too close to it. When plants volunteer, they don't pick the best locations, and with squash plants, it is very hard to determine what it will become, so it is impossible to know what their requirements will be during the season.

Here is a photo of my friend, Janet Glover's butternut squash, this is what it should look like. 
I was hoping that our plant would produce at least one sizable squash but it hasn't. The one that is on the plant is ready to be harvested, and we will eat it, but then I am going to pull the whole plant.

A squash volunteered in the back area last week and I did not hesitate to pluck it right out like a weed 
We have a lot of palm trees that volunteer under our avocado tree each year because the seeds drop from the neighbors tree. I have been trying to save them by potting them and giving them away. You'll want to pluck them out early though because they develop strong, deep roots quickly, so they can be a pain to get out if you wait too long and you may traumatize them too much at that point to save them.

Potted palm tree volunteer

Sunflowers also volunteer easily
These plants did not volunteer but I am hoping that I will get volunteers in this area next year because I plan to let some of the seeds just drop here. I want a patch of sunflowers here for years to come. 

Sunflower volunteers from bird feeder above
If you have bird feeders, then you will certainly get all sort of volunteers because of dropped seeds. I pull most of them but these two sunflower won my heart and I'm allowing them to stay.

This is a nemoticidal marigold that volunteered from seeds  I put here last year. 
Sometimes, you'll get volunteers because you planted some seeds the year before. I wanted to grow this plant here last year but it never popped up. It did this year, and it is in a place that I didn't do anything else with, so they're very welcome volunteers in the garden.

Lemon rose geranium volunteer
I love this plant and was thrilled to see a baby volunteering next to the main plant. I will pull it up and pot it soon. Now I know of two ways to propagate my favorite plant. 

Capturing strawberry volunteers
Strawberries volunteer in the form of new plants that grow on shoots. They are also welcome sights for us, and we try to propagate them as much as possible, soon we'll be giving away strawberry plants. 

When you encounter volunteers, it is a good idea to take your space and goals into consideration. If it pops up in a place you have other plans for, then it may be a good idea to relocate it, or just pluck it like a weed. Ultimately, you want to put your dinner first and an unknown squash plant will probably not be worth handing over space that you can grow known, and productive plants in, especially in a small urban garden.

"So...basically you're saying plants multiply like rabbits. Let's just get rabbits! Our many plants clearly are not working to attract them because I haven't seen one yet. I want REAL food!"


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