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Most of the leaves in this photo belong to young, volunteer cilantro plants in my home kitchen garden. These sprouted about where last year’s main cilantro patch stood, but there are cilantro volunteers scattered through about two-thirds of my vegetable bed.

My home kitchen garden likes to give me surprise gifts. Most of those, I’d rather not receive; my garden isn’t very imaginative and it tends to give me the same presents year-after-year: dandelions, thistle, and a host of other plants I can’t name and I don’t want. I call them weeds.

But other surprise gifts my garden gives me provide a lot of pleasure. These are plants that grow from seeds left behind by last year’s vegetable crop: volunteers. There is only one significant difference between a volunteer and a weed: You would never intentionally try to grow a plant you think of as a weed in your garden. A volunteer is a plant you would grow intentionally, but it’s growing in a place of its own choosing rather than where you planted it.

I’ve spotted dozens of volunteer tomato plants in my home kitchen garden. While they’re likely to produce mediocre tomatoes at best, I’ll let them grow as long as they don’t interfere with the goodies I planted this season.

Stand up to Volunteer

In past years, I’ve had decorative gourds and pumpkins grow as volunteers in my home kitchen garden. I’ve also had tomatoes, peas, beans, cilantro, and dill weed start unexpectedly from seeds left by the previous seasons’ plants. In fact, I planted cherry tomatoes one year, and harvested little red gems three years in a row—the last two years from volunteer plants.

Volunteers start where seeds fall, or where they end up after spring tilling. For me, these locations are rarely convenient. On the other hand, volunteers amuse me enough that I try to work around them. If I weed my garden, I avoid the volunteers. And, if they don’t overshadow or crowd this year’s crops, I let them grow to maturity.

So far this year, I’ve identified volunteer cilantro, dill weed, and tomatoes scattered among my peas, lettuce, spinach, and onions. The dill weed and some cilantro are in particularly convenient places. The tomatoes aren’t so convenient.

I’ll let most volunteers grow, but I don’t have much enthusiasm for the tomatoes. Last year, I planted from flats bought at a garden store. All the varieties were hybrids meaning they’re crosses between two other varieties of plants.

This is not a stand of volunteer dill weed plants. However, I harvested seeds from a volunteer dill plant two seasons ago and planted them last season. The resulting plants were dramatically more robust than the original dill I’d grown from commercial seeds four seasons earier. This year’s volunteer dill sprouts represent a fourth season of dill grown entirely from descendants of those commercial seeds.

Seeds from hybrid plants may not grow at all. When they do grow, they may not produce fruit. If they do produce fruit, it most certainly won’t be the same quality as the hybrid fruit from which the seeds came. But you never know until you try. So, I’ll let the volunteer tomatoes grow and, unless they become a major inconvenience, I’ll see whether they produce decent fruit.

Volunteers Outside My Kitchen Garden

If volunteers in my garden’s planting bed don’t provide enough entertainment, I have a convenient fallback: my compost heap. Through the growing season, it receives damaged and rotting tomatoes, dead and drying herbs and pea plants, and a gallon or so of pumpkin guts. Usually, some of the seeds in all of that take root and I work around the plants. One season, the heap disappeared under the leaves of some large pumpkin vines and I eventually harvested several carving pumpkins.

Garden and compost volunteers are amusing, and sometimes rewarding. I look forward to seeing what pops up in my garden; it’s a little bit like having Christmas morning in mid-spring.

 

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