My all-time favorite master gardener, P. Allen Smith says, “It’s important to learn to identify your volunteer seedlings so you don’t pull them up as weeds.” It bugs me to think about how many perfectly planted, “free” seedlings I’ve uprooted over the years because of my ignorance in being able to identify a good plant from a weed. Everything looks so much alike when they start out. In fact, the initial leaves that appear on every type of seedling (depending which parent family they belong to) are so identical it’s almost impossible to tell whether they are friend or foe!
The more skilled I become at gardening, however, the more adept I get at distinguishing the good, annual and perennial keepers from the other, destructive green invaders that I want to get rid of. There are a few key things I’ve learned over the years that have helped me to become more successful at determining weed seedlings from the sprouts of last year’s plants that I’d like to keep.
The practice that has benefitted me the most, by far, is starting my own plants from seed. By taking a whole year to watch the entire life cycle of an individual plant – from seed to seed – I’ve learned to identify what the plant looks like at all stages of its life. From the initial leaves it sends shooting out of the earth, to it’s first set of true leaves, onto the maturation of the plant, when in puts out it’s flowers or fruit, and then begins it’s final phase of life, when it develops seed heads for self-preservation; it is all a process that, when I’ve taken the time to carefully observe it, has helped me to become intimately familiar with the characteristics of what I grow. I can now identify all of the volunteer seedlings that show up in my garden each year that have come from parent plants that I’ve started from seed myself.
A second habit that I’ve learned to employ when wanting to know whether something growing in my garden should be there or not is patience. A mature plant has very little in common, visually, with it’s seedling. It’s “true” leaves are completely different from the leaves that first emerge from the seed. When a plant first sprouts, the first leaves that appear may help identify the parent family that it belongs to (such as achillea, celosia, helianthus, lamiacea, etc.), but the particular variety (scarlet sage, mealycup sage, flamingo purpole celosia, Soraya sunflower,etc.) isn’t usually revealed until it grows (at least) it’s first true set of leaves — and even then it can still be difficult to determine the exact species. Therefore, instead of automatically getting rid of anything that I can’t identify and know I haven’t planted in myself, I wait. Usually, within a few weeks, the identity becomes clearer as to whether the greenery in question is worth saving or destroying. This is a technique that Jesus explained about in the parable of the wheat and the tares. He said that it was difficult to know the difference between the two when they were young, and that the good might be pulled out with the bad because of misidentification. His solution was to wait. In time, He said, their true identity would be revealed, and the tares could then be removed without worry of uprooting the good wheat. Now, waiting does mean having to abide by having a few (or many) weeds in the garden. But, in due time, when the true character of the enemy is known, it can be removed without the unintended consequences of mistakenly taking out the good guys with “friendly fire.” Over time, as more and more wanted volunteers fill up the garden, they will crowd out their competitor weeds, making the job of identification even that much easier.
The final solution in volunteer identification is taking the time to become personally acquinted with what naturally grows in my area. Before I lived in Kingsburg, California, I had no idea what a stinging nettle looked like. I quickly became familiar with it, though, when I brushed up against it with my bare legs one day and felt the burn and sting of it’s volatile oils! Likewise, before living there, I wouldn’t have been able to identify an elderberry tree. Unfortunately, I had a volunteer growing in my front yard, but by the time I had figured out what it was, I had already destroyed it, thinking it was a destructive, invasive plant. Now that we’ve moved to Visalia, I have an entirely new ecosystem of native species that I need to become familiar with. There are a new variety of plants, both good and bad, that I need to learn to identify so that I don’t accidentally remove something that could be of great value and beauty on my property, and am able to reduce or eliminate that which could be very detrimental.
The learning curve for identifying the many new volunteers that spring up in my garden each year is getting smaller and smaller as I take the time to learn the characteristics of the plants that I desire to grow, wait patiently for the seedlings to make their identity known, and become more familiar with the native species (good and bad) that grow in my area. I love volunteers because they add variety and mystery to my garden. I look forward, each year, to seeing what nature (under God’s direction) does on her own. I am eager to behold the changes in my garden, from year to year, due to the contribution of favorable volunteers. I’m already starting to seeing a few strategically placed vols beginning to settle in and make their homes in some of the many bare spots of my front yard this year. I welcome them! Had I not known what the seedling were, they surely would have been lost under the overzealous weeding-action of a garden hoe. Now, they will remain and, hopefully, grow to become strong, vibrant plants with lovely flowers that grace my garden with their presence this year and for many years to come.