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Volunteers - Keep them or dump them?

How many of you have started your regular annual garden and found within a few weeks a lone straggler of a tomato in with the strawberries, or the compost pile, or your rose garden, or even your driveway? On the one hand, you might think, “What is this? I don’t want this! I don’t even know what THIS is?” It could be a tomato you grew last year that you loved and are already cultivating transplants of in your garden. It could also be one of THOSE never-agains that each of us comes across from time to time. Another perspective is that this little plant wants to LIVE and life found a way, as it often does.

Volunteer Tomatoes-slide0
Open Stock Resources
Volunteer tomatoes are sometimes worth the effort.

The positives of hanging on to these staunch little soldiers are these: they’re free, it’s fun and it sort of feels like the “right” path to take, even though the interloper is a complete unknown. We’ve waited and waited for spring to arrive and it just seems somehow wrong to rip the midget out of the ground and unceremoniously toss it onto the compost heap.

While there is no real way of knowing exactly what you’ve got growing there and whether or not it’s going to present you with a lavish harvest of tasty fruits, many folks have given these ‘maters a shot and been pleasantly surprised with the hardiness and results of their efforts.

If you’ve been growing tomatoes for a while, you might be able to identify your visitor by leaf shape. If not, you can always consult with the fine folks at the extension office and the Master Gardeners. They always love a challenge and are super nice and helpful.

I’m sure you’ve noticed that some tomatoes have a leaf shape that is very traditional for a tomato, while others have a leaf more closely resembling a potato leaf. Still others, like cherry or grape type tomatoes, have smaller leaves with a greater “fringe” effect, than other types. Many of you grow the “Brandywine” tomato variety, as do I, which commonly has a potato-leaf. If you grow these and are finding volunteers with similar leaves, it is a safe assumption that it could easily be a Brandywine. If your volunteers are popping up where you last grew tomatoes, check your garden journal to see what was grown in that area. This clue can – and usually will – give you answers.

Allowing your volunteers to stay and become a part of your garden is truly a step onto an unknown path. As long as you have space and you do not allow the interlopers to bully their neighbors, everyone should get along just fine. Sometimes volunteers will pop up in inopportune places like the carrot patch. Get them out of there and into an area where they can be allowed to thrive. If you’ve got one in your compost pile, a healthy and vigorous volunteer can become so ungainly that you might not be able to get to your compost pile. Don’t allow your volunteers to become unwelcome houseguests.

Some gardeners will tell you never to adopt volunteer tomato seedlings due to bringing disease into your garden. In my mind, a volunteer that sprung from something you grew in a previous growing season is not likely at all to cause an outbreak of disease. Of course, if you see any signs of early blight (dark spots on the leaves), you would want to pull these and destroy them. In fact, it is generally a good rule of thumb to pull and compost volunteers that appear in April as these are the most likely to develop blight fungus. Seedlings that present themselves later – in May or June – will generally grow clean due to the warmer weather. In addition, these particular plants should make fine replacements for any other plants that didn’t quite cut the mustard.

How to choose? As with most things in life, balance your decisions with both your heart and your head.

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