Thursday, June 16, 2011

In Praise of Volunteers

My cilantro reseeded itself last year, giving me quite a free crop of the herb (and, soon, coriander) without any intervention from me.  I have dill coming up on its own all over the property.  I found a leek growing in the leek bed that I didn't have to purchase, and the tired old potatoes that I planted after cleaning out the potato bin have sprouted and show every sign of generating potatoes.  And this is all not counting the tomatoes that grow up everywhere I have spread finished compost -- I have a row of 10 of them I have transplanted into the garden, and there is a new little tomato sprouting out of the compost at the base of nearly every carefully-nurtured "purebred" seedling that I have planted in the garden.

In my world, these are called "volunteers," plants that so badly want to be part of your garden that they don't wait for you to ask them.  I once read a blog where the writer spoke of painstakingly "weeding out" all the volunteers so that they didn't disturb her perfect greenhouse plants. I think Mr. FC&G had to revive me with smelling salts.  I was horrified.

For me, volunteers are free food.  Not only free, but free food from plants I didn't have to start from seed!  Epic win!

One of the traditional objections to volunteers, especially volunteer tomatoes, is that they don't breed true to the mother plant unless you are careful about growing only heirlooms.  And even then, they don't necessarily breed true.  I actually love this part; we typically get a variety of volunteer that is clearly the result of the crossing of some long-ago grape tomato with a juicy slicer; the tomatoes are the size of golf balls, pleasingly round and red, and very juicy.  I have a hard time bringing any of those in from the garden, because they seem like a ready-made snack while I'm out working.  Seeing the crosses that develop, suited just for your own microclimate, is part of the fun.  And if you are worried about accidentally growing a sterile hybrid, think of it this way:  a plant that doesn't produce viable seeds this year won't be a volunteer "problem" next year.

I have so many volunteer tomatoes this year that I could probably have grown exclusively volunteers and still had close to 40 healthy plants.  I still like to start my seeds myself in the winter, but I am always excited to see what the volunteers will bring and enjoy guessing about their parentage. 

Now, if you will excuse me, I need to go harvest some dill and coriander for the spice rack, from the plants that required nothing from me but a helping hand at harvest and the willingness to allow some seeds to remain on the plants to go into compost.

The Analysis

Fast:  Certainly, a plant that pops up on its own and gives you food is not a time-consuming endeavor for the gardener.

Cheap:  Again, volunteers are free food.  Can't get better than that!

Good:  Allowing plants to adapt to your microclimate and return year after year is a net gain for all.
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