by Charlene Burgi
Wait! Before you stop reading with the thought that I am fishing for volunteers for a local event, this blog is about another type of volunteer—the volunteer plants growing in the garden. Surprisingly, some folks call those volunteers “weeds.”
It is said that any plant growing in a spot you didn’t intend is a weed. As I look around the garden, I wonder what it would look like without these so-called weeds. The California poppies are filling in all the vacant spots where the perennials haven’t yet met maturity. And sunflowers are brightly blooming, covering up what’s left of the deer-browsed understory. There is even a tomato plant growing out of the weep hole in the nursery can where I transplanted some iris. Will I pull them? Yes, but only after they are spent.
You might ask why. If I had a French knot garden, I might not be so happy about the presence of volunteers. But in my eclectic garden they are an asset. Volunteer plants shade the root systems of the other plants and prevent unwanted weeds from sprouting up (that sounds like an oxymoron). The beneficial insects don’t seem to mind harvesting the nectar found in the volunteers’ blossoms. I know the birds will enjoy the seeds from the mature sunflowers, and I hope they, or a vigilant squirrel, will spare a few well-placed seeds for next year’s crop. The other benefit of volunteers is their ability to thrive without any care. They grow where conditions are best for them. For example, the sunflowers are growing in the rocky area where I planted red hot poker and succulents. (Yes, the deer ate my succulents and red hot poker—stay tuned for that story.) They know naturally which hydrozone is best for them.
The garden catalogs are great about sharing which plants will freely seed themselves. Just a word of caution: Be certain any plants you might choose aren’t listed as invasive species and won’t crowd out your permanent plants. Look for well-behaved volunteers. If you aren’t sure, ask your local nursery. What could be a pest in one microclimate could be an asset in another.
I won’t keep you waiting for the story. I always said that when I retire (oh, that would be now) I would write a pictorial book entitled, A Deer’s Last Choice Diet. However, the mule tail deer in Lassen and Modoc Counties have convinced me that the book would be filled with blank pages.
Drawing on my history of what deer typically ignore, I planted a beneficial garden with red hot poker, hummingbird mint, sunflowers, yarrow, coreopsis, prairie coneflowers, lilies and assorted wildflowers. And what better place to grow hardy succulents that can take the sub-freezing temperatures of winter and dry summer heat? The soil here at “the ranch” is fast-draining and the evapotranspiration rate is much higher than in Marin—all perfect conditions for these plants. Visions of color filled my head as I dreamed of this garden teeming with birds and beneficial insects.
To my dismay, I arrived at the ranch last week to find the newly planted garden struck down by what could only have been a lawn mower gone wild. Some plants were eaten, others spit out and now added to the layer of mulch. Tiny sprouts of new-growth yarrow were emerging from the bark. I picked up some of the succulents that were spit out and stuck them back into the rocky soil hoping they would take root. I watered everything, and only hope as I head back to Marin that the sample platter was not pleasing enough for a repeat visit for appetizers. My book will wait for the outcome!