Let Volunteers be Your Guide for When to Plant


A question I am often asked is, “when do I plant?”  It’s an important question.  Different plants require different growing conditions and should be grown at different times. Without a doubt, one of the keys to a successful garden is knowing when to plant all of the different varieties that you will be growing.  But, how does one determine when to plant?

Well, there are a few different ways this can be done (I’ll save the best way I’ve found ’till the end)…

First, you can make a trip to your local nursery or home and garden center and look to see what they currently have for sale. Typically, they stock plants based on growing seasons.  However, you should just use this as a general guide, especially in the spring, when the ground and air temps may not be warm enough for planting in your specific area.  I can’t tell you how many people I know who have lost their entire investment, in the spring, by planting too early just because the plants were available in the nursery.  Also, they often don’t stock vegetable transplants year ’round.  Just because they’re not available in the nursery at the moment, it doesn’t mean it’s not the right time to put them in your home garden. Typically, home and garden stores make transplants available one time per year, in early spring.  There are many vegetables that can be put into the garden right up through the fall, like lettuces, cabbages, peas, and oriental greens, but you may not find them for sale in your local stores.  So, yes, see what’s available at your local nursery, but don’t use it as the only method for determining when to plant.

cool weather seedlings

Next, you can go by the instructions on the back of a seed packet.  Some seed packets have very general (and sometimes confusing) instructions.  It may show a map with color-coded zones and planting times.  If there are a lot of different climates in your state or county, it can be tricky to pinpoint, exactly, which zone you fit in just by looking at the small map.  Also, the range of planting dates can be quite large – i.e. if you are in zone x, plant between early February through April – that’s a pretty wide range.  It can be a bit of a guessing game when you use these types of seed packets.  However, there are some wonderful heirloom, organic seed companies that provide planting instructions with great detail on their packets, including whether or not the seeds need overnight soaking, cold stratification, or scarifying, which can make all of the difference when it comes to successful germination.  These types of packets also base seed starting time on your first and last frost dates.  For example, the packet might say something like, “start seeds indoors four weeks prior to your last frost date.”  This really helps you to zone in on a particular planting date for your seed starting.  The key here is knowing your first and last frost dates so that you get those seeds in the ground at the right time.

This leads me to another tactic, which I greatly employ in my own garden planning – a vegetable planting guide.  There are a variety of different guides that you can reference and download on the internet.  Some are designed for specific hardiness zones, counties, and regions, others are more general in nature.  Some cover very basic garden vegetables, herbs, and flowers, others get into more specific types of plants.  Some are very visual, others more technical.  I keep several different types of guides on hand to help me with my planting times.  I like to use simple, at-a-glance-type guides at the beginning of the gardening season to quickly plan out what I’m going to get started and when.  When I get closer to the fall, I prefer to use a more technical guide that includes a “days to harvest” column so that I can count back from my final frost date and know when I can safely sow or plant out my final crops.

Finally, a method that I’ve really come to appreciate in helping me know when to sow and plant (and the one that I’ve found to be the most reliable) is using volunteer seedlings as guides.  Whenever I see a baby plant growing, it indicates to me that it’s the right time to sow brother and sister seeds of that variety. Here’s why:  that seed has been lying underground for some time, waiting for just the right conditions to spring to life.  It’s presence in the garden indicates that there must be ideal conditions for it to be growing, and, therefore, it’s time for me to begin sowing or planting out more of it (the exception being warm weather varieties that show up late into the season, when there won’t be enough time for them to set fruit for harvesting).  The key to using this method is letting some of my plants from the previous season set and drop seed.


(with potatoes or garlic, I  leave some of the harvest in the ground, for plants where the seeds are contained inside of the fruit, I  allow the fruit to mature, then leave it to decompose right in the garden bed. Bugs, insects, animals, wind and water can also disperse seed, setting up the opportunity for more volunteers to pop up later on.  If you compost, you may also find volunteers there.)

Each year, there are variances in weather conditions in my area – variances that home and garden centers, seed packets and charts can’t predict, but I can almost always guarantee that I’ll be planting at the right time if I do it in conjunction with volunteers that I see sprouting in my garden!

Won’t you give it a try?



Transplanting, Instead of Culling, Makes Me a Much Happier Gardener

Ever had a hard time thinning or “culling” those extra seedlings that spring up from over-sowing or volunteering?  It’s very common, in my garden, to find seedlings that are way too tightly packed together.  Even though I know it is the absolute right thing to do, I can’t tell you how it pains me to remove these sweet little gems from my garden.


The other day I was working in a bed of lettuce that I had sown a few weeks prior – one that I sowed an over-abundance of seed in to ensure better germination rates.  It was now time for the weeding and thinning to take place.

I like to let my seedlings grow a couple of sets of true leaves before starting the thinning process.  Crickets and grasshoppers around our homestead love those first little, tender leaves and often chew them right off, leaving nothing but the stem and roots, essentially killing the plant, but they don’t tend to bother them once they get larger.  So, rather than thin early and risk losing what’s left to these pests, I leave them to grow until they are large enough that the pests won’t bother them and then begin the thinning.

As I started the process of locating the lettuce among the weeds, to my happy surprise, I also noticed that there were a ton of carrot seedlings scattered about – no doubt from seeds that had dropped off and germinated earlier in the year  from a carrot plant that I’d let go to seed for the purpose of seed saving…


If it were spring or summer, I’d thin any unwanted plants by gently pulling them up or cutting them off at the soil line and then toss them aside. But now that it’s fall, and the days are shorter, the weather is cooler, and the ground is staying saturated longer,  I’ve decided to try and salvage as many seedlings as possible.  I know it’s a risk with the carrots because transplanting can cause the roots to fork, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take to save these dainty little volunteers!

Digging up a clump of soil – plants, weeds, and all – I take care to pry the weeds away,  and then I gently divide the seedlings…


Although I try not to disturb the roots, I find that in this cooler weather the plants don’t mind having their roots exposed as much.

Then, using a hand trowel,  I pry open up a small area of soil, slip the transplants into place (evenly spacing them out as I go), and give them a good watering to get them off to a good start in their new homes.



What a joy it is to have a few more beds of lettuce and carrots growing, now.  It makes me very happy!

So, if you’re like me, and you absolutely can’t bear to sacrifice all of those perfect, albeit not so well placed, vegetable seedlings that you’ve sown or have volunteered, and if it’s the right time of year, you might just want to consider taking the time to transplant them into another area of the garden where they’ll have adequate space for proper growth, ensuring happier, healthier plants.  Knowing that you’ve save those little beauties, I’m sure you’ll feel a lot happier, too! 🙂

Transplants, Direct Seeds, Volunteers – And The MVP of the Garden Is?

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.

squash transplant

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…

direct seed squashOn this one, the leaves are bigger, the plant is stockier, and the fruits are more abundant and uniform.

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?

Direct seed melon100_3884

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.

volunteer squash

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?