Plants that grow themselves can be a real garden treat

I haven’t planted sunflowers, cosmos, marigolds or zinnias, such as this one, for years because they do it themselves. With volunteers like this, it’s like having my flower bed on autopilot.

My general rule with volunteer plants, such as the ones that produced these tomatoes, is that if there’s enough room for the volunteer to grow where it decided to sprout, I let it do its thing.

Some of the most productive plants in my garden are ones I didn’t even plant.

OK, sure, the weeds are embarrassingly prolific as well, but I’m talking about flowers, fruits and vegetables that magically appeared and seemed to choose their own spot in the garden.

Many gardeners refer to these stray plants as “volunteers,” since they weren’t officially planted and just decided to grow on their own.

You might wonder what the difference is between volunteers and weeds. Well, personally, I find that weeds are anything I don’t want growing in a particular place, especially if there are a lot of them and they’re difficult to exterminate. Any plant could potentially be a weed; it just depends on your attitude toward it growing in your garden.

Some plants lend themselves to volunteering more than others, depending on your gardening style. If you forget ripe tomatoes and cucumbers under a canopy of leaves, and they eventually rot and burst open, the chances are better that you will have volunteers. But if you dutifully pick all the ripe fruits and veggies every day, you probably won’t have as many volunteers.

The same goes for flowers. If you deadhead all the blooms (cut them off after they wither), the seeds will not have a chance to plant themselves.

In some ways, the number of volunteer plants in my garden tells you a lot about me as a gardener this year (and last year).

Summer vacations have led to some forgotten produce re-seeding themselves. I’ve given up on being a neat gardener. I like a hodge-podge of random flowers, herbs and vegetables growing together, like a potager garden.

I don’t dead-head. I wait for the blooms to dry out and I save seeds for next year, but inevitably some of them fall to the ground and get a head start.

I haven’t purposely planted sunflowers, cosmos, marigolds or zinnias for years because they do it themselves. It’s like having my flower bed on autopilot, and I rather enjoy it.

Of course, gardeners who value control, order and neatness miss out on volunteers, which disrupt the master garden plan.

These gardeners usually want to know exactly what’s growing in a certain place, what color it will be and what seed company it came from. They have far fewer weeds than I do, I’m sure, but they miss out on the happy surprises that happen after years of plants doing their own thing — new color combinations and cross-breeds that nature’s laboratory invented.

My general rule is that if there’s enough room for the volunteer plant to grow where it decided to sprout, I let it do its thing.

If I’m lucky, the volunteer grows in a free space. Or, it fortuitously grows next to something that isn’t doing so well anyway, and I scrap the plans for the vegetable I planted and sacrifice it so the volunteer can move in.

This summer, my first try with bok choy was a total disaster. Luckily, volunteer tomatoes popped up in the middle of the pathetic crop. I scrapped the bok choy and the tomatoes flourished.

This can be a little more complicated if you end up with volunteer plants that take up more room. Watermelons, squash, cucumbers and other vining crops are what I refer to as “space hogs.” Sometimes it’s just not worth keeping a volunteer space hog if you have to sacrifice several other established plants.

The only other thing that dictates whether I keep a volunteer is if it “gets along” with its neighbors.

Plants in certain families do better next to each other, or far away from each other. This is called “companion planting” and it can get a little complicated, but one example is not allowing plants in the nightshade family to be neighbors.

So, if I have a volunteer tomato pop up next to a pepper plant, one of them has to go. But if that tomato pops up by the carrots, it can stay (because carrots and tomatoes are compatible).

Surprisingly, the volunteer tomatoes that revealed themselves mid-season are doing much better than the plants I purchased at a local nursery and coaxed along, trying to get an early start and eat a fresh garden tomato by the Fourth of July. My totally unscientific theory on this is that attempting to plant something where or when it isn’t ready to thrive is a bit futile.

Volunteers have already planted themselves in a place that was successful for germination and their tender early days, and I suspect this sets them up for a healthy, prosperous season.

As our gardens wind down, give yourselves a little present and let those rotten tomatoes melt into the soil. Leave the sunflower heads to the birds and know that some of the work is finished for next year.

Erin McIntyre is an advanced master gardener, writer and Grand Valley native. Please email her at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) with story ideas or feedback.


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