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The Volunteers

January 5, 2023

volunteer rudbeckiaMy understanding of what a garden is has shifted over my decades of gardening. When I began, I saw the garden as a kind of artistic product to be designed, created, and then maintained. Over time, I came to understand it more as a community of living plants that is always in process, always changing. The latter view has encouraged me to be more flexible and to welcome volunteers into the garden.

By “volunteers,” I mean plants that are growing in places where I did not plant them. Some of my volunteers are plants that I have invited into the garden and which then seed themselves around, popping up here and there. Monarda punctata bractsMy most prolific self-seeders are spiderwort (Tradescantia virginiana), spotted beebalm (Monarda punctata) and Siberian irises (Iris sibirica). While I love all of these plants, they can become rather too much of a good thing, and I periodically pull up and discard the ones I don’t want. All of these plants have desirable qualities. Monarda punctata, for example, which can be quite thuggish in its behavior, is a magnet for a wide variety of pollinators. This is the plant that seems to be attracting the great black digger wasps (Sphex pensylvanicus), with their beautiful iridescent blue wings, to my garden. That alone is a good reason for welcoming it.

volunteer tradescantia

lavender irisI never pull out spiderwort or Siberian iris plants without first letting them bloom so that I can see what color they are. The more generations these plants are from their nursery-purchased ancestors, the more genetic variation they exhibit, including a wider variety of colors. In the past two years, for example, I’ve seen several self-sown irises bloom in this lovely lavender color.

Geranium x oxonianum is another plant that shows more genetic variation after it has self-sown for several generations.  G. Oxonianum portraitI planted two or three varieties of this early in my gardening career; and for many years, I assumed that Geranium x oxonianum was a sterile hybrid. Then, one year, a seedling popped up across the walkway from the parent plants. As the years have gone by, subsequent generations have become more and more prolific self-sowers. On my side slope, where I planted several of these near the top, they have now seeded themselves down the slope. I welcome these plants, with their clumps of attractive foliage and their long flowering arms that drape themselves over other plants and bloom all summer long. Until recently, all their flowers were a soft, clear pink, with either a salmony or a silvery undertone. In the past two years, however, I’ve been delighted to see some stronger hues with more of a red undertone.

Other volunteers in my garden are plants that were already growing on my property before I created the garden. These are often native wildflowers that can be useful and beautiful additions to the garden. Sometimes, I deliberately transplant these species into the garden and then let them spread. strawberry groundcover patioA good example is wild strawberries (Fragaria virginiana). When I created my side slope planting six years ago, I decided to add some wild strawberries, transplanted from elsewhere on my property, to see if they would make a good groundcover. The answer was Yes, and I have since added them to several other flower beds, where they are happily spreading. They have also appeared in flower beds where I did not plant them but where I am happy to see them. (I suspect some these grew from seeds transported in the digestive tract of chipmunks.) Another plant that I have transplanted and that is happy to grow in the garden is flax-leaved aster (Ionactis linarifolia). I am waiting to see whether these will spread further in the garden by self-seeding.

solidago volunteersFor many years, native goldenrods (Solidago) have grown on the wild edges of my garden. This past year, for the first time, I had this genus growing in flower beds. I  planted one species, zig-zag goldenrod (Solidago flexicaulis) in the new woodland border. Two additional species (which I have not yet identified) popped up on the front slope. The verdict is still out on whether the self-sown goldenrods will stay; at least one of them seems to be too tall for the location where it planted itself. Whether these particular volunteers stay or get edited out, however, as my understanding of the garden shifts again to focus on its role as part of a larger ecosystem, I will be looking for opportunities to welcome more and more native volunteers into my garden.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Joyce M Boos permalink
    January 5, 2023 9:15 pm

    Jean, you are an inspiration!

  2. January 5, 2023 11:24 pm

    You have a very nice – and diverse – collection of volunteers, Jean. I’d be ecstatic if any Iris self-seeded here. Like you, I have a some that I’ve deliberately spread around, like Centranthus ruber, and others that I tolerate when they spread themselves around, like Santa Barbara daisy (Erigeron karvinskiana) and sweet alyssum (Lobularia maritima), although those both border on being pests in some areas. Geranium incanum is one I remove on sight, even though its pretty. I should remove all the pink evening primrose(Oenothera speciosa) but I generally don’t. Some Osteospermums have surprised me in the last few years by moving around but, sadly, most of the plants I buy based on growers’ claims they’re self-seeders, seldom comply.

    Belated best wishes for a happy new year.

    • January 11, 2023 7:17 pm

      Kris, The Siberian irises are the one of the few non-native volunteers that I’m happy to have. Although they are not natives, they are beautiful and, as their name implies, well-adapted to cold climates. The highly bred cultivars do not always perform well for me, but the self-sown seedlings are tough as nails and even pop up in spots like the gravel driveway!

  3. January 10, 2023 6:33 am

    Hello Jean, your first paragraph made me stop and think whether I still view the garden as an artist piece that, once done, is simply maintained. That has been my so-called “plan” all along. My garden isn’t established enough yet to have “volunteers” and the plants that do come in are definitely not welcome (these would be the pernicious weeds that would take over everything if left unchecked).

    • January 11, 2023 7:23 pm

      Hi Sunil, When I took an ecological horticulture course a number of years ago with Bill Cullina, who was then director of the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, he described his garden design philosophy as follows: (1) Design it and plant it using the principle of “right plant in the right place;” (2) Stand back for 2-3 years and see what Mother Nature does with your design; (3) Edit. I guess I now envision multiple iterations of this process, both as I learn from what Mother Nature has done with my design and as conditions change. In my back garden, which is now about twenty years old, I’m starting on a round of complete redesign and renovation.

  4. jpowers0135@earthlink.net permalink
    January 16, 2023 4:43 pm

    Love the volunteers! Most times I adjust to them, although some things, like redbud trees, have become weeds for me. Black walnuts are a huge problem because the squirrels bury them and they sprout. Happy New Year! Jan

    Janet M. Powers

    The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe, the less taste we shall have for destruction.

    Rachel Carson

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