Volunteer Plants Reporting for Garden Duty

June 9, 2008

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 seasons calendula flowers have 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 small cherry 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, epazote is 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 volunteer fingerling potatoes on 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 producing baby 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.

Other Related Vegetable Gardening Posts:

  • This is a great round-up of information, Kenny. I just pointed you out to my friend Michelle, who has discovered a bevy of volunteer tomatoes in her garden — this is quite well timed!

  • Cherry and grape tomato volunteers have been fairly common in our garden over the years. We give them a start and then put them into 4-inch pots and give them to neighbor kids or take them by the commumnity garden on Saturdays when there is almost always someone who would like to give them a try. As for the leafy greens, this is deer country and just last week we set greens volunteers outside the garden and the fawns finished them off quickly.

  • Interesting to read about your volunteer plants, I certainly appreciate and love my volunteers in my garden.

  • What a blessing these volunteers are. I sometimes get rogue spuds from a previous year, but not much else. However, volunteer aquilega, foxgloves, feverfew and poppies add such colour and give me a lot of pleasure.

  • Kenny Point

    Thanks Genie, those tomato volunteers can be almost weed like when they show up in mass. Stephen that’s a great idea to share the tomato plants with others. I love the volunteers too and they truly are blessings… whether they are veggies, flowers, or herbs that make a surprise appearance in the garden.

  • Yes, I like my volunteer plants too.. who doesn’t 🙂
    Good thing for them too!

    Keep up the good work with amazing content!

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