On Volunteerism in the Vegetable Garden

Published in the Addison Independent PATCHwork Column 4/21/11

Some call them uninvited guests, interlopers, opportunists, ne’er-do-wells, even weeds. Earnest gardeners work hard at banishing these trespassers from vegetable beds, pulling them in fall and spring, evicting them when they pop up during the summer. It makes sense, I suppose. If left to their druthers, they’ll get a little greedy; they’ll stretch and elbow out their neighbors, and in so doing, destroy some sense of human order, of orchestrated balance.  Indeed, they can turn a well-planned garden seemingly into a wild Darwinian free-for-all…which is precisely why I tend to let them run loose around here.

summertime dreams

storming the garden

Now don’t get me wrong. I certainly don’t mean those arch villains poison parsnip, wild chervil or garlic mustard. Nor do I mean grass or Queen Anne’s Lace or goldenrod or the many other assorted ruffians that blow and creep and slither into the garden from the meadow beyond. Those early successional “wild” species threaten to turn a productive rural garden into, well, a field. They’ll leap and creep to fill every gap, every bruised bit of earth. Those I yank with impunity. Not yet, I say, someday, perhaps, you can have it back and unspool your ever-changing carpet wherever you like. Indeed, you can have most of our yard back. Now. No more mowing wide swaths of perfect lawn for us (whatever were we thinking to want a lawn at all). Have at it!

coriander

Coriander seeds (cilantro)

I’m talking about the vegetables and herbs I sowed last year or the year before or the year before that–their progeny returning home, unexpectedly even, planted by the birds, the critters and the plants themselves with the help of gravity and a well-timed breeze. (I’m not, however, talking about my old friend-foe mint which is in a special class all its own.) I’m talking about dill and chives, tomatillos and cilantro, thyme and lettuces, sunflowers, chamomile and Johnny-Jump-Ups—what my mother calls garden volunteers.

I like my mother’s take on these upstarts. They know better than I where they want to grow and how. They offer their services for free, so I don’t need to purchase seeds or seedlings of many herbs, edible flowers and greens; in fact I routinely dig some out of the garden to give away—it’s gleaning of a sort.

morning after

Bread Seed Poppy at dawn

I appreciate the way volunteers find their own way home, settling into spaces that suit them, where they will flourish. They teach me about the soil, the air, the sunlight. They teach me to pay close attention, to look, to see. There in the far beds, close to the winter bird feeder grow baby sunflowers planted by the chickadees. They’ll stay right there unless they’ve nested in the middle of a crop that needs lots of room and little shade—in that case I’ll just scoop up the offending seedling and move it off to the side a bit to shelter mid-summer arugula or radicchio.  The same goes for the breadseed poppies that wander all about the garden—what a lovely bit of whimsy to spot a bit of pink or red in among the broccoli, the artichokes. Why do they need to be all in a cluster? So sage jumps out of the garden beds to settle much more happily in the gravel path—why not?  They vacate their old garden space for other plantings better suited to that soil and sun.  Makes sense to me.

Volunteers in any enterprise can, of course, through their very generosity, get a bit too exuberant.  In the garden sphere, dill, for instance, will fly all about making friends with everyone.  No problem.  I make sure I harvest most of the new crop before it flowers; I move a few into the flower garden where they fill spaces in the perennial beds with their pretty, lacey fronds; I give them away, and I use the tiny plants in that night’s dinner.

early appearance

Right now the animals are emerging from their dens—we’ve seen chipmunks, a skunk, a  muskrat, a snake, and a solitary bat.  The birds are returning—this week the bluebirds, swallows and flickers.  Soon it will be the hummingbirds. And the bees. Why not the vegetables and herbs?  Why not welcome them back, too—and not just the perennials who stay put where they’ve always grown?  Why do we desire to impose a tidy structure of our own imagining on our gardens?  Is this one reason we’ve caused so much harm to our planet—our need for pesticides and fertilizers and weed-killers? Have we forgotten to participate instead of control?

birthIndeed, the garden is a far more intriguing and productive place when I relinquish some of my hold over it—not all, but some.  No field here, but dill mingling with the sorrel, chives with the lavender, cilantro beneath the blackcurrant bushes and Johnny-Jump-Ups somehow always in the lettuce patch, wherever that might be in any given season. These are the stories the garden tells, the lessons it has to teach us if we let go a bit.

Think of it as a migratory cycle. Think of it as a partnership. Think of it as a whole new kind of volunteerism. Sign them up!

Tips on a Couple of Eager Volunteers and How to Use Them

Dill

dill ready for dryingI move dill seedlings around, pot them up, give them away.  If you do let dill go to seed, make sure you pick most of the seed heads (for pickles!) or your garden will be showered with seedlings—even in the same season.

I harvest most of the leaves young, just before the plant flowers when, like most herbs, they are most flavorful. Use dill leaves in a cucumber salad, tuna or chicken salad, with smoked salmon or steamed fish.

To cook baby new potatoes, Swedes often throw a handful of dill stems, a pinch of sea salt into a pan of water covering baby potatoes and boil them until tender. The potatoes take on a subtle flavor of dill.

Dill freezes very well as a pesto for the winter.  Just chop the fronds, mix with olive oil and freeze.  It also freezes well by the stem in freezer bags with nothing added.

I dry dill in a dehydrator with great success. It stays bright green and full of flavor.

Chives
chives in rainOne of the first herbs to return to the garden and one of the most determined to move around,  this grassy herb will root just about anywhere its seed lands, and so you need to decide just how willing you are to have chives move about the garden (and into the paths).  Some (clever) people plant them in pots.

Pick the gorgeous flowers in May and June to chop and sprinkle on salads and to make a stunning vinegar.

Fill a sterilized bottle with washed and thoroughly dried fresh chive blossoms.  Fill the bottle with white vinegar and cap it.  Leave it in a sunny window for a month or so—it will turn a beautiful deep pink color.  Strain and rebottle, store in a dark place.  Use in vinaigrettes for a mild onion-y flavor.

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Categories: Column, Garden, lessons, Musing, Seasons, Spring

4 Comments on “On Volunteerism in the Vegetable Garden”

  1. April 26, 2011 at 10:25 am #

    Barbara, you say it so beautifully! Gardens are so much more enjoyable when we relinquish (some) control and let nature play along. Yours looks like an English cottage garden, run by a wise gardener, and your lovely words do it justice.

  2. April 26, 2011 at 4:55 pm #

    Laura, thanks for your kind words–I am glad this piece resonated with you. I wish my garden looked like an English cottage garden; it’s a bit more wild or mixed up than that, I think, but I had a mix of a Vera Sackville-West garden and an abbey-cloister potager in mind when planning these gardens, as much as those are possible in Vermont!

  3. April 30, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

    I love the way that you describe the volunteers in your garden. Dill is certainly friendly from what you say. I have wished that I gardened for years. The most I do is help my parents a little. Maybe this will be the year. If not, I will continue to enjoy it through your eyes. Well, we have had a banner year for tulips where I live and my parents have hundreds of them!

    I have been following you on and off since I stumbled into your other blog, “bgblogging.” I love your diverse interests. It sounds like you have found a way to bring them together with this blog. 🙂

  4. May 2, 2011 at 10:10 am #

    I’m glad you found your way here from bgblogging, Barb. I do find satisfaction in writing about the world through the garden and kitchen, with words and photos. I’m learning all the time and enjoying the conversation!

    Tulips are lovely! We have problems with the deer eating them, so I only ever get a few. Anytime we get our hands in the dirt helping things to grow–whether in our own gardens or helping out–is time well spent, I’d say. And then there’s container gardening on windowsills and on patios…perhaps you’ll find your way to a little more gardening–it’s just plain old good for the soul.

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