Volunteer Plants in the Garden and Landscape
A wise gardener once described a weed as any plant that is growing where you don't want it…grass in the perennial garden, dandelions in the yard, and creeping charley in your lawn or vegetable garden are classic examples.
A volunteer, on the other hand, is an unintended plant that adds beauty or whimsy to your lawn or garden…a gift of Nature that may initially come as a complete surprise. Just because you didn't plan for it doesn't meant that a volunteer can't add color or form to your well planned garden. So, as you weed, cultivate, and mulch your gardens this summer, consider whether some of those weeds that you'd pull might be interesting volunteers.
Self-Seeding Annual Flowers
Many volunteers are in the category of self-seeding annuals. These plants produce seed in the late summer and autumn; some produce seed so prolifically that it's impossible to prevent the seed from becoming part of the flower bed soil. Celosia Plumosa (or Plume Celosia) and Cleome (also called Rocky Mountain Beeplant and Spiderflower) are classic examples of annuals that will reward you with numerous volunteers the following year.
A mass of Plume Celosia makes a wonderful border along walkways, while individual volunteers in the vegetable garden can add unexpected color and variation to an otherwise solid green expanse. Spiderflowers add interesting form and color where you have the room to enjoy them; they're wonderful along a deck railing, in a large flower garden, or in open spaces near the house foundation. As one of the common names implies, they'll attract bees (as will virtually all flowers), but they're also attractive to hummingbirds…which can be a real treat to observe on a summer afternoon or evening.
A natural forest is the result of many years of volunteer trees, the natural result of seeds being undisturbed by human intervention. We who have gardens and lawns also experience volunteer trees that result from seeds being dropped, wind-blown, or planted by squirrels or birds. As trees are usually a long-term and bigger space commitment, not all volunteer trees are as welcome in the lawn and garden as the surprise Spiderflower or Plume Celosia. But, occasionally a volunteer tree can be a delightful gift.
The American Holly tree shown here is a volunteer, probably planted by a bird more than 10 years ago, that was allowed to grow and has since become an integral part of the homeowner's landscape.
Fruit and Vegetable Volunteers
For most backyard gardeners, fruit and vegetable volunteers are rarer than flower and tree volunteers. Notable exceptions are "wild" blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries that are "planted" by birds. Many rural areas have prolific crops of wild berry plantings, often under utility wires, for obvious reasons!
Of course, tomatoes contain a lot of seeds that will germinate in next year's garden or in the compost pile. Unfortunately, these volunteers usually arrive much later than we would normally plant tomatoes. And, seeds from hybrid tomatoes will not yield the same hybrid tomato plant; they revert to one of the parents that was used to create the hybrid seed. Open-pollinated tomatoes will result in plant "true to type," but, as mentioned earlier, they usually germinate much later than we'd prefer to start our tomatoes.
Your compost pile is filled with seeds, roots, potato eyes, and other plant producing material in a growth promoting environment. If you've ever left your compost pile unattended for several weeks in the summer, you've probably seen volunteers eager to repeat the natural cycle. If you have lots of compost, you might consider allowing a potato plant volunteer to complete the cycle and reward you with home-grown potatoes.