The decision to pull or not to pull a volunteer plant is hard for some of us. We’ll discuss the pros and cons of pulling them and share our guidelines for dealing with volunteer plants.
I didn’t pull my volunteers this year. Don’t be shocked. I admit I have a problem. Yes, I have a problem pulling any live plant.
I know in my head it needs to be done for the overall health of the garden and especially when thinning a crop. I blame my grandfather. He had trouble pulling up live plants too.
His reasons were related to what the plant might produce. He lived by the “get it while you can because you don’t know when a crop will fail” experience. To help me with this “problem”, my husband and I came up with 5 guidelines for determining if a plant should be pulled or allowed to live.
What Are Volunteer Plants?
When a plant comes up where it wasn’t sown, it’s called a volunteer plant. There are so many ways it could get there, but the most obvious one is when over-ripe fruit drops the seed.
In my garden, mice have been known to “move” seeds from fruit (Yikes!) Then of course there are birds, rabbits…I’m sure you know where this goes.
Last year, we started 25 okra plants from seed and transplanted them into the garden. In the area around them, peas, sweet potatoes, and zinnias were planted. Before I knew it, there were okra volunteers coming up everywhere!
The only ones that got yanked were the ones in the sweet potatoes. When all was said and done, we had over 60 okra plants. These volunteers provided most of our harvest. We’re still eating dehydrated okra from them.
To my merriment, I had several Ali Baba Watermelon volunteers this year. They had the opportunity to hide in some tall grass last year and missed being harvested. The sneaky devils spewed their seeds everywhere when the bush hog ran them over!
Our Guidelines for Dealing with Volunteer Plants
1) Strict Rotation of Crops
Strict crop rotation is used here on our farm. This is just one component in the maintenance and improvement of our soil’s health. Our garden is a 100′ x 50′ traditional row garden and several raised beds and containers.
Keeping accurate records allows me to look at the previous two years’ garden layout without relying on my memory. Having these layouts allows me to see the movements of the crops across the garden.
- If the volunteer plant has not been in this area for more than two seasons, I leave it. The two-year period is to allow for the risks of nutrient drainage or disease contamination to be minimal.
Unless there is some extreme circumstance, there are usually only a few volunteers.
2) Overall Health of the Crop
Fungus spores, insect eggs, and blights can all hide in the soil. The seeds of these volunteer plants have been exposed to any diseases in the soil. This makes them likely to develop them and susceptible to the insects that feed on them.
- If there were any health issues with the previous year’s crop, I yank the volunteer plants.
It’s vital to your present and future garden health to remove any diseased plant. Our farm is an organic, non-GMO farm. This means we don’t use any chemicals or GMO seeds.
I’ve found that deep mulching helps to discourage disease. Isolating and eradicating any disease has proven to be more efficient and easier with deep mulch.
We leave any healthy plants in the garden for the chickens to “till” under. We rotate them through the garden plot in the winter. This creates compost, fertilizes, and aerates the garden soil. We don’t intentionally leave seeded fruit in the garden, but hey, accidents happen!
3) Did we like the crop
We aren’t picky eaters, but every so often we run into something we don’t care for.
At least one rare or unusual fruit or veggie is added to the garden every year. Sometimes it’s just an unusual variety of a garden favorite like tomatoes. This is a fun way to try new things and to help preserve plants that need a little help.
- If a plant’s going to grow in our garden, we have to be able to justify its taking up the space. So these same decisions have to be made about volunteers.
4) Is there room
Some plants take up more space and require more of the soil than others. This has to be part of the decision-making process.
- If a volunteer plant interferes with the growth of a crop I sowed or if it won’t have enough room itself, I pull it.
Most of the Ali Baba watermelon volunteers came up around the bell peppers. Since the two won’t interfere with one another in space or nutrition, I let them live.
Do you practice companion planting? My grandparents taught me to garden in the same way their parents taught them. They planted corn and when the corn was knee-high, they planted beans around the corn. They planted pumpkins in the middle of the rows once the beans were up high enough. These are known as “The Three Sisters.”
I’m sure they didn’t know peas and beans fix nitrogen in the soil and that corn is a heavy nitrogen feeder. They did know things grew better this way.
- If volunteer plants aren’t compatible with the crop it comes up in, I have to pull it.
I learned this lesson the hard way when I left a volunteer next to an incompatible neighbor. Needless to say, neither of them was productive. If you can’t be neighborly, you get evicted!
I chose to leave my volunteer plants where they were this year. They passed all the guidelines we’ve set.
- They don’t interfere with crop rotation.
- The crop was healthy last year.
- They’re delicious
- Everyone had the required space
- They were compatible with the neighbors.
Oddly enough, I have two tomato volunteer plants in two of my container gardens. One’s in the lettuce and the other is in a container with a baby cedar tree. My husband rescued a cedar sapling from the bush hog and he put it in a container until it gets big enough to transplant.
He was checking on his little cedar and called to me, “Hey, this looks like a tomato plant.” Sure enough. it was. We’ve no idea how it got there! Maybe I dropped the seed in the soil when I was starting the seeds? A bird could’ve deposited the seed in there, who knows? But we’ve sure enjoyed those tomatoes!
I certainly hope I’ve helped you make a plan and be able to determine what to do with your volunteer plants.
As always, we’re here to help.