April 13, 2015

4 Reasons to Rethink Volunteer Crops - Photo by Kevin Fogle (UrbanFarmOnline.com) 

A few weeks ago, I was watering the garden and began to look over several uncultivated areas where I’ll be planting my summer crops. In these unused plots, a multitude of weeds and grass had already taken root. Among the weeds, I found a small crop of volunteer tomato and potatoes plants already growing.

The tomatoes had grown from last year’s dropped fruits and the potatoes starts had sprouted from some random tubers accidentally missed during the fall harvest. The question now becomes: What do I do with these precocious upstarts?

Several options exist when deciding how to treat volunteers: You can let them grow where they are, attempt to transplant them or remove them completely. Here are some things to keep in mind if you’re considering letting them grow.

4 Reasons to Rethink Volunteer Crops - Photo by Kevin Fogle (UrbanFarmOnline.com)

1. Luck of the Draw

For seed-based volunteers, like my 50-plus tomato starts, you almost never know what type of tomato will actually grow. Volunteers can be similar to their parents or completely different. Some folks like to keep these tomatoes around to see what they get and enjoy the benefits of new, free tomato plants.

2. Plant Competition

Certain issues come with allowing volunteers plants to grow where they sprout, including shading out your intentionally planted crops, overcrowding and stealing water from nearby crops.

3. Kill Frosts

Many volunteers sprout quite early in the season and are killed or injured by cool weather conditions. About half of my volunteer tomatoes in my front-yard garden were lost in last week’s frost. Even if you’re interested in transplanting volunteers, you should know that the success rate is often pretty low due to the very fine size of the established root systems, especially for squash, melons and cucumber plants.

4. Spread of Disease

By letting volunteers grow in your garden, you risk introducing and spreading disease to the entire garden. Volunteer potatoes, for example, are a common source of late-blight spores, which can wipe out your tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and many other crops in the garden.

My Advice

The best policy regarding volunteer tomatoes and potatoes, like mine, is to remove them quickly and completely. Many garden experts recommend the removal of all volunteer starts to prevent the introduction of common plant viruses and diseases. While volunteer-borne diseases might not impact your garden every year—or even every couple years—the threat is enough for me to remove most of the volunteers I find. The sole exceptions are volunteers that occur far away from the garden, like the plants that take root in the compost pile located behind the house.

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