Gardening With Volunteers

I garden with volunteers. And not the helpful kind that show up with shovels and experience.  :-) Man I wish more of those were roving around…

I garden with the volunteer plants that sprout up in the spring. Where ever they sprout. Whatever they are.

To a lot of people that sounds kinda crazy. But let’s take a look at what those little volunteers are. They survived winter cold, and the spring frosts, with no coddling from me. Some of them self seeded themselves.   That’s no small thing. I spend lots of time and effort, and sometimes money, buying seeds and starting seedlings and protecting things from frost. Then here come those volunteers, sprouting up where ever it pleases them and surviving quite handily with utter neglect on my part.  So, mostly out of  a sense of respect I think, I let them live.  As I figure out what plant they are, I use my clever monkey brain and I figure out ways to get everything to coexist  peacefully.  Sometimes with more success than others, but I’m getting better with practice.

Now, I should mention that I don’t do the intensive gardening styles like Square Foot gardening.  I don’t have beds. I have a 10’x16′ rectangle that I hoe by hand to suit the needs of the moment.  So, there’s a lot of fluidity and breathing room built in.   I plant most things in blocks, so that when they harvest I have spaces that open up. I direct vines to those spaces, letting them do their thing, just gently arranging.  In one case this spring, I had a vine that sprouted behind my cabbage patch.  Some sort of squash is all I could tell, but I knew it would want to vine, and there were 6 cabbage plants that I didn’t want to get suffocated out.  So, I used some chicken wire, and some wooden stakes, and I built the squash vine a bridge over the cabbage plants, not very high, just a few feet at the highest point. But it was enough.  The cabbages are doing great, in fact, I think they did a little better in the heat wave because of the shade from the squash vine above them.  The squash vine for it’s part went straight over the bridge, put some fruit up on it for decoration, then went on to vine in the empty space from the onion crop.  I’ve harvested a couple heads from the two earliest cabbage plants, and I didn’t notice any lessening of quality or flavor.

Speaking of quality, that is one of the gambles with volunteers.  Sometimes, a lot of the time, they end up giving you something tasty. Sometimes they are duds, so far reverted back to wild that they are practically inedible.   Sometimes you have to be forgiving of the form they give you bounty in. For example I’ll have tomato volunteers sprout up, and invariably they are the little cherry tomatoes. It’s still a free 2 pounds of tomatoes, but it’s in tiny bite sized form.  I’m not too proud to accept that.

When you are dealing with a volunteer that has sprouted right in the middle of another crop, there are a few things to keep in mind when deciding how to get them to cohabitate.

Root structures – you don’t want them competing too badly for root space, if you are uncertain of the root sizes for that type of plant, there are lots of resources online and in books to help, you don’t need to know the exact variety to get a good guess for the root shape.

Height/width – will something be shaded out, pushed aside, or choked?  Use what you have, if you have chicken wire, it can be shaped into cages or bridges, wooden stakes, twine, and mulch can all play their parts too.

Timing – early vs late can help. Early crops can have an easy time dealing with late crops sprouted nearby, as they’ll be harvested before the later maturing volunteer gets big enough to compete.  And likewise, early volunteers can help fill the spaces that are waiting patiently for the warm weather seedlings in the window.  I have a variety of lettuce (Tango) that self seeds and comes up early spring, and then is done and flowering by the time I have to remove it to get space for peppers or tomatoes.

Sometimes, of course, I do have to make the decision to remove a volunteer. I had 6 squash volunteers come up in a garlic patch, and I only let 1 that was close to an edge survive.  Use your judgment, based on the value of the crops in question.  Obviously you don’t want to end up negatively impacting how much food comes out of that space. But, maybe, think twice about those enterprising volunteers next spring.  There could come a time when those extra calories come in handy, if you can work with them instead of against them.

Calamity Jane