The valuable volunteers

According to my old dog-eared, perhaps by now outdated copy of the American Heritage Dictionary, two of the definitions given of a volunteer are: “a person who renders aid, performs a service or assumes an obligation voluntarily,” and, “ a cultivated plant growing from self-sown or accidentally dropped seed.”

While the help of a human volunteer is truly a privilege, there is no dearth of volunteer plants in the garden, unless one is meticulously tidy in the sense that any plant that is considered unnecessary is not given a chance to survive because of continuous cultivation and weeding. However, an average gardener like me, tends to weed to a certain extent only, thereby finding a wealth of  volunteer plants at all sorts of expected and unexpected places.   

Though “uninvited guests” in a way, volunteer plants are a gardeners’ perks or freebies, so to speak; they are tough and carefree, and generally fare well since they show up where conditions are well-suited for their existence. This year, three such plants, all annuals, have added quite a bit of excitement in our garden since we didn’t get to plant any of these: they are cleome, balsam and a hot pepper variety we grew last year and liked it very much.

Cleome, also called the spider flower, is a lovely summer blooming annual that bears clusters of white, pink or rose colored flowers on tall plants, hence often need staking; since plants popped at places which are already crowded, I dug up some and planted them in bare spots in our flower beds that needed some color; speaking of which, I have no way of knowing what the color of the flowers of these self-sown plants will be, but frankly as far as I am concerned, it matters very little. Definitely much shorter is balsam, another carefree annual. Since balsam prefers partial shade, I left them under the tree where seeds shed from last year’s plants germinated, but I did have to thin them out as to space evenly. The pepper volunteers turned out to be very valuable as our son, who lives in D.C., was in desperate need of pepper plants. Not only is he happy about the variety and the time saved by not making an extra errand in his already busy life, but plants dug from our garden always seem to have a special meaning.

In order to assure the return of self-sown plants the following year, such plants need to be allowed to go to seed during the current year, although due to cross-pollination, the progeny might be different from the original parents. Also, one has to go easy on the use of pre-emergence weed-controlling agents.  True, practices like these  might lead to one-too-many seeds left in the ground resulting in one-too-many volunteer plants the following year, but then again who said life is fair.

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