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Volunteer Plants Reporting for Garden Duty

Posted Jul 03 2008 5:10pm

It really does pay to keep a watchful eye out when weeding the vegetable beds… you never know what surprise may show up in the form of an unexpected volunteer veggie sprouting up.

Knowing what various seedlings look like from the earliest stages of their development is important in order to take advantage of the free bonuses that Mother Nature sends our way. It requires a little dirt time out in the garden to get acquainted with them, but the knowledge and experience will also pay dividends when it comes to keeping the garden weed free.

The difficulty in preserving these vegetable volunteers is due to the fact that the leaves of many newly germinated seedlings look nothing like the leaves that the same plant will produce when it’s time for the “true” leaves to make their appearance.

Being proficient in the identification of those baby leaves will help prevent cases of mistaken identity when weeding vegetable seedbeds that were recently planted and are about to germinate. It’s even trickier when it comes to veggie volunteers since they show up when and where you least expect them.

Here are some of the volunteer vegetable plants that often find a welcome home when they unexpectedly germinate in my organic garden:

  • Perennial Herbs– Well this isn’t the best example of a vegetable volunteer, but the same principles apply. No gardener enjoys the “oops” moment when the realization strikes that the strange weed they just ripped out of the ground was actually their French Tarragon or a garlic chive plant emerging from its winter slumber.
  • Calendula– Seeds left behind by last seasonscalendula flowershave resulted in a couple of patches of calendula seedlings this spring. These will be thinned and transplanted to add a little color throughout the garden.
  • Tomatoes– A frequent volunteer in the vegetable garden, the problem is that they just about always turn out to be strains of the smallcherry tomato varieties. If they pop up in a compost pile I might let them grow but otherwise don’t usually allow tomato volunteers take up space in the garden.
  • Globe Artichoke– Let’s label this one as more of a survivor than a volunteer… There were a few globe artichokes and one cardoon plant in the garden last fall, only one survived the winter and it is growing rather nicely now. It would be pretty easy to weed the artichoke sprout from the garden if you weren’t paying close attention.
  • Epazote– An uncommon herb,epazoteis a very common volunteer that can be counted on to self seed and yield new plants. That is if you’re able to distinguish the rather weedy looking seedling and refrain from pulling it out of the garden when it germinates in mid-spring.
  • Fingerling Potatoes– I’ve received questions about planting potatoes in the fall, which I never do because there doesn’t seem to be much to gain from it. But I’m sure it’s possible based on the fact that spuds missed at harvest time and left in the ground will grow the following season. I have a number of volunteerfingerling potatoeson my hands, guess I was rushing at harvest time last summer.
  • Garlic- Just like the Fingerlings, garlic bulbs missed at harvest time will bide their time and begin growing when conditions are suitable. Don’t expect to harvest full sized garlic bulbs from these volunteers, the segmented cloves will send up clusters of stalks that are too close for decent bulbs, but are just fine for producingbaby garlic.
  • Squash- Squash, pumpkins, melons and even cucumber seedlings often sprout from rotted fruits or seeds that were left in the garden or compost pile. The problem is that even if you have a rough idea of the plant’s identity there’s still no way to be sure that the seeds weren’t crossed. So unless you’re prepared for an inedible, mutant, gourd-like fruit, I would just discard these volunteer plants.
  • Leafy Greens- A lot of kale went to seed last summer and this year I’m seeing kale seedlings pop up in the strangest places. They are perfectly edible and nutritious so don’t pass on these volunteers. Other greens such as lettuce, collards, arugula, and mustards may also make mysterious appearances if you save seed or allow the plants to bolt.

Whether it’s of their own devices or with the help of birds, wind, animals, or even unintentional assistance from the gardener, plants will take advantage of every opportunity that they have to be fruitful and multiply. I love to discover volunteers sprouting in the garden because it’s like a surprise gift of healthy plants sent our way without effort or expense.

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