For kitchen gardeners, the veggie plot in early spring is the empty canvas on which we will soon paint tidy rows of vibrant and appetizing edibles. But nature is way ahead of us. Right on schedule, seeds dropped by plants that we grew last year are already swelling in the moist, soft and gradually warming soil. And up they will come.
The weeds, of course, will be first, and we expect that. But crops we allowed to flower and fruit may have long since staked their claim, too. Did you pick up all the tomatoes that fell on the ground? Of course you didn’t. So self-sown baby tomato plants will pop up while your “real” crop is still stretching in pots on the windowsill. So might a few squash vines. And if you grew just one tomatillo, a forest of new ones will appear. Even crops that haven’t sown their own seeds can resprout from parts left in the ground: Lettuce, beets, cabbage and chard are among many that do this. Potatoes missed while you were digging in fall now give rise to new plants in the row.
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For an orderly garden and good crop rotation, most volunteers should go.
It’s tempting to let these volunteers grow. After all, they’re free food. But to have a productive garden you’re better off starting over. Full, regular rows will be easier to tend and give you much better yields. Rotating crops to sections where they or their relatives did not grow last year will make them healthier. And seedlings of F1 hybrids will not be true to their parent plants.
Still, it’s fun to let a bit of natural serendipity sneak in. Maybe the sunflowers that spring up around the bird feeder from spilled seeds can stay. Or the tall one that a bird or a mouse planted in the asparagus. Cherry tomatoes or squash vines cascading from the compost pile are harmlessly charming. And if you favor a casual look in your herb garden you might adopt a laissez-faire approach — okay, a lazy one — and let the dill, cilantro or anise hyssop resow itself each year, weaving in and out of permanent clumps of sage, tarragon and chives.
Here’s a game I’ve always wanted to try, called Garden Anarchy. Take all your old vegetable and herb seeds, the ones you’re not sure are still viable, and scatter them wildly over a patch of bare ground that isn’t vital to your life, and see what happens. Most are likely to germinate, at which point they’ll compete with each other. Make sure you get some young brassica plants early on, such as kale, broccoli and cabbage. Those will produce tasty foliage before they get crowded out. The tomato, squash and cucumber vines will win the game, but there will be some basil to snip before they do. Weeds will be hard to extricate, and by midsummer there will be masses of purslane and lamb’s quarters. But these are edible in salads, a backhanded tribute to nature’s well-meaning generosity.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of “The Garden Primer.”