Volunteers Welcome


IMG_2423Volunteer mache going to seed on the left side of the path; volunteer mullein on the right

It always amazes me that I've thrown myself heart, soul, and filthy fingernails into my vegetable garden every year for 18 years, and I am still learning fundamental things. That may be what makes vegetable gardening so compelling.  I suspect that even God hasn't learned all there is to learn about vegetable gardens yet.  Otherwise, why all the new hybrids every year?

What I've learned this year–and I can't believe it never occurred to me before–is the importance of the stuff that I don't sow or plant, the things that emerge in their own good time with no assistance from me.

They are important contributors to good eating in spring after a long winter, since they show up much earlier than anything I could possibly plant.  I had self-seeded mache this year in March, and it tasted more like Chanel Coco than any mache I've ever planted, possibly because, as one of Garden Rant's readers suggested, left to its own devices, it germinates at precisely the right frigid moment for its best flavor.

I also had held-over parsnips, though I have to say, I think the ones that wintered over in the root cellar were superior.  Last year, I followed instructions and planted my parsnip seeds super-early, as soon as the snow retreated.  But some of them just got too big over the course of a long season: They aren't harvested until after a number of fall frosts.  So I've decided to allow one parsnip, which is a biennial, to go to seed this year, just so I can observe its natural cycle. I'm suspicious about all questions of timing from the vegetable gardening lore.  My volunteers allow for scientific inquiry.

The parsnips and the mache were quickly followed by two self-sown heads of a chartreuse lettuce I can't remember the name of and one head of radicchio, a straggler that toughed it out under the snow.

Asparagus, too, a perennial crop, is earlier than the first crops I sow–spinach, arugula, and peas.  The peas don't do anything worth noticing until almost July.  Rhubarb, another perennial, offers a fruity taste in April when nothing much is happening on the fruit front even in the supermarket.

RIght now, I have one bunch of kale from a seed that didn't germinate last year and welcome little snippets of self-sown cilantro.

I planted my potatoes a few weeks ago, but first up the are the volunteers.  Actually, they are small potatoes I missed digging up last year.  Since they are in spots where I don't want them, I've had no compunction about yanking them up right now, while they are a single, perfect potato rather than a full clump, slicing them very thin, roasting them in olive oil in a hot oven with some garlic until they are just soft and then putting them on pizza with rosemary, mozzarella, and Parmesan.  Really delicious.

Then there are the self-seeded flowers: poppies, Johnny Jump Ups, and one mullein in a good place for a mullein.  They make my garden beautiful in a way that my stiffly planted rows of dahlias and zinnias do not.

Of course, these kind of gifts from the gardening deities are only possible in a no-till garden.  If I were rototilling the hell out of my ground every April, the mache and the Johnny Jump Ups would suffer the same fate as the stinging nettles and the docks.  What a waste!


  1. We love our volunteers. They’re like wonderful gifts! We leave onions in the ground for tasty, early spring treats. Some will have soft spots but most are great! Here on the Prairies, we fall-plant our garlic and mulch onions and garlic with straw for extra protection.

  2. I’m with you. Volunteers are the greatest thing ever. I’ve got a front yard full of volunteer sunflowers, cosmos, borage and such this year but I’m still hoping for a late breaking volunteer on the tomato side like I’ve enjoyed two years running.

  3. We’ve been eating spinach, cilantro, onions and oregano for about a month–in Montana!

    I love looking out in the garden and seeing plants that appeared without me doing anything.

  4. I also love the volunteers. I have been giving away the cherry tomato volunteers on Freecycle. All my dill, cilantro and some lettuce are volunteers. I know when it is time to put my seed grown tomatoes in the ground when the cherry volunteers emerge. God’s timing is better than any almanac or internet frost chart!

  5. I always peer carefully at seedlings and, unless I know exactly what I’m looking at, wait for the secondary leaves before yanking. Just the other day, for instance, I realized: Ohhhhh, Sun Gold cherry tomatoes! Lucky me.

  6. Many of my volunteers come from my spread compost, which does not get hot enough, apparently, to kill all seeds. I’m happily surprized by lamb’s ear, rose campion, foxglove, anise hyssop, tomatoes, and dill, to name a few. Compost volunteers grow quite well. I also let some of my cilantro go to seed every year, then reap the benefits in early spring when it is one of the first volunteers to sprout in my veggie garden. Fresh from the garden cilantro in homemade salsa is one of the best spring tonics ever, especially when accompanied by margarita.

  7. I have recently come to appreciate volunteers much more thanks to your last post on the subject. If only it had come in time to keep me from pulling out my bolting winter garden ! I did leave a few plants, however – there’s a romaine going to seed right now & I’m eager to see what comes of it. And two little tomatoes doing so much better than the nursery-bought heirlooms. And I have Johnny-jump-up volunteers popping up in the lawn ( to my delight, but my husband/keeper-of the-lawn’s chagrin)… and everywhere else it seems. Next year, my mache will be allowed to bolt & re-seed itself – I want to see what I get !

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