Keep an Eye Out For Volunteers

September 20, 2012

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Nature and benign neglect brought me my first volunteer garden the year after my daughter’s birth, when I managed the planting and harvesting but skipped the post-harvest garden cleanup.

Lo and behold, the following spring, tiny lettuces sprang up with the dandelions and quackgrass, soon followed by cilantro, dill, cosmos, and other annual flowers. The year after that, parsley and forgotten parsnips came up, made beautiful flowers favored by pollinators, then set seed that popped up the following year in April. To get an abundance of volunteer crops, all I had to do was thin the volunteers.

I started calling it my perennial garden, and decades later, I make a game of seeing how many crops (from non-hybrid seeds) I can get to keep coming back year after year.

A couple of days ago, I discovered many beautiful slender zucchini-like fruits ripening on a volunteer plant that had emerged from the compost pile and wandered into the asparagus patch. No doubt they came from the seed of one of last summer’s hybrid squash varieties, so it wasn't true to the variety I’d purchased, but beautiful in its own right, with a delicate, nutty flavor.

Harvesting those squash got me to pondering the volunteer side of life in a broader context, all those serendipitous moments when life volunteers something that produces welcome but unexpected fruit. A few examples sprang to mind:

  • The phone conversation with my neighbor who said her 11 year-old daughter was bored stiff at home that summer. As it happened, I was desperate for someone to spend time with my toddler daughter, so I could retire to my attic office for a few undisturbed hours of writing. What a great arrangement! Molly got a responsible, devoted companion for about four hours a day, and Susan escaped her boredom and discovered the joy of earning her own  spending money.
  • My old Honda was ready for the scrap heap the day I heard a guy at the corner store telling someone that he’d just agreed to park a friend’s three-year-old Toyota Corolla on his lawn, hoping for a quick sale. Said it was in perfect condition with only 27,000 miles and was going for $6000. My old Honda had just died, so I hustled right over. The car checked out with my mechanic, I could afford it, and Shazam! I’m still driving that Corolla 13 years later.
  • Enjoying dinner out at a Chinese restaurant, instead of trying to tune out the loud stories coming from the party in the adjoining booth, I tuned in. In half an hour, I got three great ideas for the weekly column I was writing at the time.
  • A former colleague told me that he was often punished as a child by being sent alone into a fenced back yard. There weren’t any toys or play equipment, so he spent most of his time there sprawled on the grass, observing insect activity. He never lost his fascination with ants and beetles and went on to a PhD and a distinguished career in entomology.

Life’s randomness sows endless moments when some overheard snippet, some seemingly ordinary encounter—even a painful one—delivers something useful.

But the trick is keeping one’s inner eye peeled, prepared for the fruitful moment. In truth, both nature and life volunteer many fruitful moments, but we ourselves are the most important volunteers.

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Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.

Comments

About 1985, when my mama,

By TeaSet1970

About 1985, when my mama, daddy, and I lived in town we didn't have enough room for a garden. Mama and daddy and I loved homegrown beefsteak tomatoes so daddy planted a couple of vines at the corner of the porch. The next year, he didn't plant any but a vine volunteered and grew even taller than the one the year before. It had to have been 6 feet tall, as daddy fixed a trellis of sorts for it. A sweet memory for me because daddy passed away in 1988 at 64 when I was only 23. The year before his passing he planted daffodil bulbs for me, and they were in bloom when he passed on March 1. So daffodils always remind me of daddy.

We haven't bought garlic,

By Anonymous Janice

We haven't bought garlic, cherry tomato or butternut squash/(never planted - came from compost) plants for years because they come up every year somewhere! We also occasionally get romaine lettuce and dill, and (although never planted) pumpkin and watermelon plants came up one year. This also happens with many flowers, bushes and trees that come up in mulched areas, especially black walnut trees. It is a lot of fun and wonderful to see all the plants grow without the work of planting them!

Thank you for your comments,

By Margaret Boyles

Thank you for your comments, Kay, Michelle, Julie, Sharman, Luann, and BC Gardener. I love hearing from far-flung members of my tribe--lovers of the natural world in all its wonder. Keep spreading the love!

I store my potting soil in my

By BC Gardener

I store my potting soil in my garden shed which keeps everything dry but by no means keeps out the mice who like to pass through. I repotted some house plants last fall and was surprised a few weeks later by dozens of pea shoots coming up in the pots. Seems the little creatures had gleaned some dried peas left behind after harvest from the garden and stored them securely in the garden shed in those convenient tubs of dry potting soil. We enjoyed that trendy gourmet addition of pea shoots in our salads and stir frys. Thanks to our mouse friend.

My little garden helpers are

By Luann Barnes

My little garden helpers are the squirrels. Two years ago I notice a pumpkin scaling my tomato trellis and joking told him that if he didn't smother my tomatoes he could stay. The tomatoes actually engulfed the poor pumpkin so I did pay much attention after that. At the end of the season I notice a flash of orange in my tomatoes and found the most perfect 45 pound pumpkin I had ever seen in my life!

Beautiful. This year I had

By Sharman in Landover

Beautiful. This year I had volunteer broccoli and several varieties of flowers. I never totally clean out my garden so every year I get something. It's like I give myself a surprise gift. Nature is wonderful. We just have to be on the lookout for the presents..... Thanks for the story.

Beautiful...how my husband

By Julie in the Berkshires

Beautiful...how my husband and I love the country, the natural wonder of God's creation and the constant surprises to be found if only we have eyes and ears to discover the gifts! Thank you...!

Mine was leaf lettuce... I

By Michelle H

Mine was leaf lettuce... I grow my veggies in pots.. and always prepare them (add compose, fertilizer, coffee and eggshells) a month before I plant.. when I went to look.. I had lettuce growing.. smile.. nice to see.. had lettuce a whole month early this year.

Enjoyed your post, you are

By Kay Coleman Wells

Enjoyed your post, you are living the life I sorta had growing up on a farm...loved it. I have had volunteer plants grow in my compost pile this year, a butternut squash that had more and bigger squash than the ones I planted, and some tomatoes came up also. I live in a subdivision, have a raised garden 12'x24', but yearn for the farm life. Keep posting,
Thanks,
Kay Coleman Wells

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