The other day, I was out in my vegetable garden, observing the different plants that are growing, when I noticed that there was a marked difference in the appearance of some of my summer squashes and melons. Most of them were growing well – they had well-developed stems, leaves, flowers, and fruit, but a few of them were growing amazingly well – they were lush, stocky, vibrantly colored, and producing an abundance of perfectly unblemished fruit. I wondered what it was that was making the difference. All were growing in the same medium, and had been given the same amount of water and sunlight, but there was something significantly different about these plants – the MVP’s of my garden. Who are these MVP’s? Keep reading and find out!
There are three ways to get plants started in a garden. You can purchase or start your own tranplants, direct seed, or – if you happened to be so blessed – get volunteers to spring up on their own. I have all three types growing in my garden, and I love them all.
Transplants are great when you want to get a head start on the growing season, and some plants are just easier to grow when they are started as transplants. I’ve never had much luck direct seeding tomatoes and peppers straight into the ground where I want them to grow. For me, they do much better when I put them into the ground as transplants that I’ve started, indoor, from seed. Other plants that I prefer to start indoors and grow from transplants are eggplant, artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kohlrabi, kale, basil, lettuce, other small seeds that need consistently moist soil to germinate in, or seeds of plants that need a longer indoor growing season before placing them outdoors (certain berries, and wild foods). I also like to get a head start on the growing season by planting out transplants of summer squash, melons, cucumbers, lettuce, onions and some other flowers and herbs.
Direct seeding works best when you have a long growing season, like I do, and with certain plants that just don’t transplant well, like carrots, beets, turnips, radishes, corn, potatoes, beans, and peas. Although you have to wait a little longer (until the soil has had a chance to warm up, with most crops), direct seeding is typically less expensive to do than transplanting, and if a plant dies, you will have back-ups and can immediately get a crop going again. Besides the plants that I’ve listed, I also direct seed my garden with summer squash, melons, cucumbers, lettuce, and a few other plants that I can plant out at different intervals throughout the growing season.
Volunteers are plants that a gardener has very little to no control over. These are plants that spring up, on their own, throughout the garden, rather than being deliberately planted. These plants often get their start from stray seeds that have been brought in to the garden by the wind or water, an animal, in compost, or parent plants that have died and been left to decay in the soil. In my garden, I typically find volunteer squashes, melons, tomatoes, tomatillos, mulberry, elm, and walnut trees, and a variety of other flowers, herbs, carrots and lettuce. I love finding volunteers. They bring a sense of unexpected whimsy, beauty, and food into my gardens.
So, which of these three types is the MVP of my garden?
Perhaps you already know, but I’ve taken a few pictures to show you why one is the hands down winner.
Here is a picture of a squash plant that I started indoors, from seed, and then transplanted into the garden as soon as the weather warmed up.
It is growing and producing well, even though it does look a little scraggly. As you can see, the leaves are on the small side and the plant is tall, and thin.
Compare that with another summer squash that I direct seeded into the garden…
I’m having similar results with a Golden Jenny melon. I transplanted most of the plants in early spring, and they are growing and producing just fine. A couple of the plants were eaten by bunnies, early on, so I re-started them by direct seed. Here is a picture of the two examples. Can you tell the difference?
The one that was direct seeded has thicker stems, and larger, greener leaves.
So far, head to head, then, the direct-seeded plants perform better than the transplants when it comes to appearance, health, and overall crop production.
But, neither the transplants nor the direct seeded crops compare, to the MVPs of my garden – the volunteers.
Look at the color and size of those squash leaves, and the fullness and vibrancy of the plant! There is just no comparison, and this is true with every other volunteer plant that shows up in my garden.
And, it makes sense. Just think of all that this volunteer has had to go through in order to make it into this world. It’s managed to survive a freezing winter, and has been exposed to all of the elements. No one has taken the time to plant it at the proper depth, feed it, or protect it from predators. Yet it not only survives, it thrives! Because of the struggle that is has gone through, it has emerged from the ground with a larger stem, which makes the plant less susceptible to insects and disease. It’s larger leaves allow it to maximize the photosynthesis process, allowing the plant to make more food, which, in turn, allows it to produce more beautiful and tasty fruit.
Yes, the undisputed MVP of the garden is, absolutely, the volunteer plant.
The only drawback to these plants is that they often come up in an area where I hadn’t planned on them growing, and I sometimes end up with more than I want or need. I rarely try to transplant them, though – they just never seem to recover that same amazing luster after they’ve been moved. If I do, I make sure that I take a really big root ball so that I disturb the roots as little as possible. Oftentimes, the volunteer plant goes into shock. If I’ve taken great care of it, though, it often recovers within a few days. They are the hardiest of the bunch, after all, and that’s why I love them so.
So, now you may be thinking, “Wow! I want some of those volunteers to grow in my garden!”
Great! Here are a few things that you can do to encourage volunteers to take up residence where you live.
1. Grow plants that are propagated by seed and ones that self-seed easily. Typically, a seed packet or seed catalog will tell you this information. Wild flowers make a great starting place. A word of caution: if you use hybrid seed, you may or may not get second generation plants that look identical to their parents, and, if they’ve been genetically engineered, they may carry a terminator gene and might not reproduce at all. Also, if you use open-pollinated seed, you may not get a second generation that looks like its parent, but an entirely new cultivar may arise and surprise you altogether, depending on what the cultivar has been cross-pollinated with (which I think is quite interesting and fun, actually). In fact, the example of the volunteer I’ve shown above my be a new cultivar – the result of a cross between an two heirloom, open-pollinated summer squashes, a Bennings Green Tint Scallop Squash and a Cocozelle Zucchini. I will purposely save seed from these fruits, this year, and start them from seed, next year, to see if the unique squash breeds true to this parent plant.
2. Allow your plants to “go to seed”. This happens at the end of the plant’s growing season, when it begins to turn brown and the flower begins to form a seed head. The plants are probably going to look straggly and downright ugly at this stage, so you may want to make sure that you have some planted in an area of the garden where you won’t mind their looks, or in a place where they’ll be disguised by other, taller, plants. Some plants look really interesting when you let them go to seed, though, so you might not mind them standing front and center in a bed. Simply leave the plant to drop it’s seeds where it’s growing, then pull it out once you’ve noticed that it’s gotten rid of all or most of its seeds. You don’t need to do anything to the seeds that have been left on the ground. Somehow, they will just find a way to do what God designed them to do – make another plant.
3. Collect seed from your plants and scatter them around, in other places in your garden, where you want them to grow. Again, you do not need to do any digging or burying. Simply toss the seeds on top of the ground and let them work their magic. (Not every seed will germinate, or live, and some self-seed more readily than others. Just keep experimenting and having fun with it).
4. Leave end of the season fruits to decay right in the bed. I have a flower bed, at the very front of my yard, where a volunteer butternut squash returns, year after year, because I always leave two or three ripe squashes to decay on the vine, over the winter. Through the decaying process, they deposit their seeds on top of the soil. Eventually, the seeds work their way down further and then wait start life, anew, the following spring. This method works great with all kinds of squashes, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, and tomatillos. The trick is knowing how to identify the seedlings when they emerge, in late spring, so that you don’t mistakenly uproot them and totally destroy everything you’ve been waiting and hoping for!)
5. Toss plants with seed heads and whole fruits into the compost bin where they will lay dormant until you spread the finished compost onto your garden beds and, possibly, come to life again one day. Plants that seem to make it through the composting process and come out alive, on the other side, most readily are: tomatoes, squashes, tomatillos, and watermelons. Weed seeds are also notorious for making it out of the compost alive, so if you don’t want tons of volunteer weeds, make sure that you remove the seed heads before adding the stalks into your compost bin, or compost inside of steel barrels, like I do, to help ensure that the pile heats up enough to kill off those pesky potential volunteers.
Well, now you know that volunteers are absolutely, hands down, the Most Valuable Players at My Happy Homestead. I get so excited whenever I see one, or a patch of them popping up in my gardens. However, that doesn’t mean that plants that have been started as transplants or through direct seeding don’t also play a major role out here. Each of them serve a purpose, and definitely need to have a place in everyone’s garden. I say, “Cherish your volunteers and applaud your transplanted and directly seeded workhorses”. Together they make a wonderful team, providing you with early and steady production, beauty and bounty. That’s what I call an all-star, championship team!
What do you do to encourage volunteers in your garden? What are some of your favorite volunteers?