Gardening where the sidewalk ends

Valiant Volunteers September 19, 2008

Cynthia of the wonderful blog Brambleberries in the Rain had a very thought-provoking post yesterday about allowing volunteer plants into the garden and the sometimes pleasing, sometimes frightening consequences that can ensue. It got me thinking about my own faithful garden volunteers.

Since my parking strip garden started from nothing (after we ripped out all the St. John’s wort, it was a blank slate), and my budget for replacement plants was small, I have relied a lot on volunteer re-seeders from my first year’s plantings. And some stuff just wanders in from the neighborhood via bird or wind distribution and I have to decide what stays and what goes.

Being fairly faint-of-heart when it comes to plant removal (Instead of “Hey little guy, you chose to sprout in my garden? That’s great. Now die!!!” I’m more likely to just let it stay and see how it grows.), I of course end up with a fairly random selection and a bit too much of some stuff. I am trying to learn to be more ruthless, and maybe next spring I will also recognize more of the “babies” as they emerge and can decide whether to edit (i.e. eliminate), transplant, or let them stay.

My parking strip garden as of 9/16

This summer, I didn’t spend very much time in the garden. Between taking care of my daughter, having the cold from hell, going on a few vacations, and generally succumbing to massive laziness in the few hours that could have been used for chores indoors and out, I just pretty much let things be. So, the volunteers were my heroes – they did their work (growing with no help!) while I neglected mine. For that, I am grateful. Below are some of my favorites.

Sweet alyssum sometimes overwinters in my garden (Zone 8), sometimes not. But it usually leaves some seeds in the ground that sprout the following year. It doesn’t take over much space, its clusters of tiny white flowers smell delicious, and it’s one of the lower-growers that keep the weeds down a bit.

Sweet alyssum

Calendula officinalis, or pot marigold, seeds itself annually in my garden too. I usually have to pull a few out, since it tends to like to sprout right where I’m planning to plant my beans or parsley. Its flowers are so cheery, and I love their silky texture. The petals are edible and make a bright addition to salads. They do need fairly frequent dead-heading to stay nice-looking, and are also susceptible to mildew late in the season, as you can see from this photo.


Cerinthe major purpurascens, aka Blue Shrimp Plant, has always been a favorite of mine since I first saw it growing in a street garden a few years ago. Its gently arching stems produce a purply-blue flower that does indeed look a bit like a shrimp (its other common name is honeywort). In my garden, it sows itself liberally and sprouts in spring and again in late summer. No flower on this one yet, but click here to see what it ends up looking like.

Volunteer cerinthe

Hm, this is turning into a pretty long post (for me). I might have to think about doing a Part II. I’ll close this chapter with one of my favorite volunteers, Bachelor’s button (Centaurea cyanus), aka cornflower. The first year these started appearing in my garden, I pulled them up by the bucket-full, thinking they were a weed. They’re a bit on the tall side, so they don’t work as well at the edge of the border, but I usually leave a lot in, because they come up early in the spring and then again in the late summer. Most are blue, but there’s the occasional pink or white one that appears. How can I resist? Plus, the bees dig them, as evidenced below.

Bee in Bachelor's button

Do you have any garden volunteers whom you welcome in every year? Are there others you wish would pass on by?


6 Responses to “Valiant Volunteers”

  1. Cynthia Says:

    Hi Karen,
    I will be looking forward to Part II as this post was fun.
    I also love the bachelor buttons. My son grew some from seed 2 years ago and they continue to volunteer. I probably shouldn’t mention this but I let some St. John’s Wort come up in my herb garden…..
    I couldn’t resist though! Their little yellow flowers are pretty and it is yet another handy plant….. even if it is invasive and illegal to buy its seed in some places (like California).

  2. Racquel Says:

    Sweet Alyssum is one of favorite reseeders. It smells like honey & isn’t too invasive for an annual. I tend to let my Four o’ Clocks & Verbena Bonsariesis reseed to the point that I regret it. I use to have an invasion of Cosmos & Spider plants but that was taken care of finally. I think my tendency to mulch cuts down on most reseeders.

  3. Hi Karen,

    I share your love of the honeywort! From the cool glaucous foliage to the way the bees love the little bells, I just can’t resist those cerinthe. 🙂

    I like my atriplex hortensis (red mountain spinach) and my ‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth, but they are definitely rampant. I like the former for its foliage and because it’s edible… the latter is fun because of the dark leaves and flowers, and because the birds love to eat the seeds.

  4. I love alyssum and bachelor buttons, but I don’t have either in my current garden. Alyssum is a little trooper. It’s covered in blooms, and has that sweet scent you mentioned. Also the bees seem to like it. Bachelor buttons come in one of my favourite colours, sky blue. They reseed so easily, and hardly need any care.
    The one that I wish the former owners had not planted is yarrow. It is a particularly weedy type that is impossible to get out of the lawn now.

  5. jgh Says:

    I set aside a little section of my garden this year where I’m putting flowers that I hope will re-seed and allowing volunteers. The volunteers I got were chickory, Queen Anne’s lace, cosmo – they were welcome but I wish there had been more. I put in lots of marigolds this year and am wondering if they’ll come back. I’m with you on the alyssium – love the smell.

  6. greenwalks Says:

    Cynthia –

    Thanks, I need to get it written before I forget! Oh nooooooo, don’t let the St. John’s wort get into your herb garden, you will never get rid of it!!!!!????!!!!! 🙂 Sorry, it’s my personal nemesis and top on my list of no-no plants.


    Racquel –

    Alyssum is so nice and you are right, that scent is just like honey. I’m sure you’re spot on about the mulch.


    Northern Shade –

    Hm, haven’t had yarrow show up here yet. I need to find out what it looks like as a seedling, so I don’t let it become a problem if it does arrive. Thanks for the warning!


    jgh –

    That’s a cool selection of volunteers, and odds are you’ll have more and a bigger variety next year. Neat idea, to set aside a special place for them!

    – Karen

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