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Loving Volunteers in Our Garden

We’ve all had them. Plants that sprout up in places we never planted them. It’s not so hard to figure out — grass in the flower patch, dandelions in the lawn, clover in the vegetable garden. Most likely, in these cases, the plants would be called weeds.

Weeds – my definition of a weed is any plant that comes up in a place you don’t want it to grow. I probably learned that from another long-time gardener friend.

So even a popular plant such as an Oak tree that comes up in the middle of the groomed lawn of your front yard could be called a weed.

Now, if you want to grow an Oak tree, once the ‘weed’ has its second set of leaves, you can transplant it to a pot and later to the desired location in your yard. In that case, it is a perfect volunteer plant.

Seeds are spread by the wind, dropped by birds, carried in the compost pile or merely fall from plants last season. These unintended plants either add chores or whimsy to your garden. Even unplanned, a volunteer can add color, food or structure to your garden.

A Pain in the Neck

Large planting of purple Ruellia

Ruellia brittoniana – Mexican Petunias

I prefer focusing on the positive side of life, but I experienced the invasion of a plant I once put into a pot. Ruellia brittoniana ‘Purple Showers’ or Mexican Petunia.

I was drawn by the purple color of the flowers and the three-foot height that gave stature to the pot. Before I knew it, Ruellia plants were coming up all around the pot. We quickly removed them as they were unwanted.

But next season, there were Ruellia everywhere, and the neighboring beds became root bound with the deeply rooted plant. They already had taken hold of the soil and were miserable to deal with.

(Side note: I have recently heard that some new cultivars have been developed that are showing to be far less invasive. Look for Ruellia MayanTM)

The Positive Side of Volunteers

Self-Seeding Annual Flowers

Many volunteers are in the category of self-seeding annuals. These volunteer Alyssum is a familiar example and were a delightful and fragrant surprise one winter in Tucson.

The containers on the wall were full of the little flowers. Watered by irrigation, the runoff would drain onto the ground on the outside of the walled patio. Lit by a western sun, the seeds readily germinated and provided casual passersby a special show.

Volunteers Add Whimsy to your Garden

In this narrow garden of an urban townhome, the owner created a postage stamp garden where she could go out, feed the birds and enjoy nature and the peace it provided while living a hectic city life.

Volunteer flowers have popped up around the pots grabbing for the water provided by the pot irrigation runoff.

This creates a woodland retreat – all that is needed is a comfy chair.

How you look upon volunteer plants is up to you. They can be seen as a treasure or a gift from nature – such as a volunteer watermelon that springs up from the seed of an unharvested fruit of the previous season.

Once I had a volunteer snapdragon sprout in my hanging, succulent wreath. What a surprise! It stayed small due to the limited root space and low light. But there it was!



  1. Ann Lancero on at

    Thank you and I do love volunteers in my garden. It is always fun to see what comes up. Thanks, Ann

  2. Jim Burns on at

    The worst weed for our potted plants continues to be OXALIS. We can’t get rid of it ! Weed killers also kill the plants and pulling it out just seems to cultivate the soil for future growth. And when it grows with potted cacti my hands become pin cushions. Oh how I hope you have a solution!

    • Hi Jim – has it moved from one pot to another? I haven’t had that experience. I would try to repot the pot, removing all of the roots except for the plants you want and start with new soil. I am not sure of any other solution.

  3. Judi Witter on at

    Hi Marylee,
    Thank you for these posts. I need them to keep on track. Two things,
    I LOVE the volunteers. I say, “if it has the where-with-all to try I will support it. Right now my little garden is full of these wonders. And they are Free!
    Second, do you have advise for me about what to do for a Myers Lemon that I planted in a pot three or four years ago. It is losing its leaves, it’s almost bare but blooming right now. Someone told me it would need a “root prune” which I can’t imagine doing. I have fertilized it regularly. I have added compost, my own, which has resulted in volunteer tomatoes coming up in the pot. I love that tree but I’m afraid it will die in spite of my efforts.

    Thank you in advance for any help you can give me.

    • I hope I replied to you via email while I was sailing on a cruise! I would imagine that it is root bound. It’s too late to do a root prune now – you can plan for it in October but what you can do is to remove as much soil as you can from the top and sides and add fresh potting soil into all the space you can. You may be able to dig down the sides of the pot and get some fresh soil in the slots.

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