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.
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.