A Returning Beauty

I have some of the nicest volunteers in my garden. Some of them have been people, many of them are plants, and one of my favorites – among the plants, that is – is columbine. Years ago, I planted some native columbines, those dainty plants whose orange and yellow flowers hover on thin stalks above their ferny foliage. Since being planted, these wildings self-seed – volunteer, that is — every year in various nooks and crannies around my yard, such as in the thin crevice of soil between my bluestone front path and the adjacent stone wall.
       Native columbine
I once also planted cultivated columbines, the common McKana Giants, and their offspring have been volunteering around the yard as well. Flowers and foliage of these more cultivated sorts are similar to the natives, just bigger in all respects, which is not necessarily better. Or worse. Just different.
Cultivated columbine
Colors of these larger columbines are different from that of the natives. My original McKana Giants sported various colored bracts and petals. Seedlings of these plants, 20 years later, have segregated out into just a few solid colors, and the cool thing is that each year’s colors are a bit different from the previous years’.

Columbine and trumpet honeysuckle

The once “high-bred” columbines back by my vegetable garden have mostly soft pinks flowers, a color that marries well with the scarlet of the trumpet honeysuckles behind them.
Right near my front door, poking through cracks between the bluestone patio and my home’s brick wall, is a big, beautiful columbine with dusky, purple flowers.

I do help out these volunteers by weeding out those in excess or interloping where they shouldn’t.
volunteer columbine

Greenhouse Volunteers

Not all my volunteers are beauties. Some are only practical.

For instance, in the greenhouse, I once planted claytonia, also known as miner’s lettuce. It’s one of many lesser known “greens” that thrive in cool weather so are good for adding variety to salads once fresh cucumbers and tomatoes are just a memory.

Since that first planting, late every fall claytonia shows up all over the place in the greenhouse with no help from me. “All over the place” usually applies to a weed, but when I grab a whorl of claytonia leaves and lift gently, the plant gives in and lifts, hardly disturbing the soil.
Claytonia in greenhouse
This past winter was relatively mild and, for the first time, I see a few claytonia plants out in the garden. Uh-oh.
Claytonia in garden
Years ago, I would sow celery seeds in flats in February for transplanting in May; the seeds take a long time to sprout and then the seedlings grow very slowly. No more. I once grew celery for winter in the greenhouse and, in spring, when seed stalks started pushing up from the plants’ middles, I decided to let the plants do their thing. They self-seeded, so all I need to do these days is weed out excess. Some of those excess can also be potted up for transplanting into the garden.

Some greenhouse volunteers — mâche and cilantro — help out both in the greenhouse and in the garden. That’s nice of them because then I get the early crop in the greenhouse and the later crop outdoors.

Mâche show up in winter in the greenhouse, again in early spring and then again in late summer. The early spring crop is from plants that overwintered; mâche, though delicate in texture and flavor, is perhaps the most cold-hardy and among my favorite of all fresh salad greens. In spring, plants go to seed and the seeds slumber in the ground until cool weather coaxes them to sprout.



Cilantro, in contrast, only sprouts in late winter in the greenhouse and mid-spring out in the garden. It does so profusely. Like claytonia it never segues over into the category of “weed” because any excess is easily removed.

Sacrilege and Hope

One volunteer that shows up only outside, in the garden, is garlic. This may sound like sacrilege, but I don’t grow garlic. Many years ago I did, and then decided to devote the garden space to vegetables whose garden-fresh flavor is truly better than anything I could buy. And anyway, I don’t use that much garlic. So I stopped planting it.

Garlic did not go away, though. It’s been propagating by the little offsets it produces atop its flower stalk to the point where it’s everywhere among the leaf-mulched berry plants adjacent to my garden. (It’s not allowed in my garden.) The mostly grassy plants hardly ever yield bulbs worth saving but the tender, grassy stalks are useful. If I call this a weed in my garden, the parts of my garden where I grow it are indeed very weedy.
Naturalized garlic
At the other extreme is one volunteer that once liked it here, but evidently no longer does. That’s dill, which used to self-seed in just the right amount, and usually would confine itself to the same corner of my vegetable garden.

A couple of years ago, only one or two plants showed up, and last year none. I’m not sure why. I want it to come back so I bought some seeds for this year. I’m hoping it comes back as a volunteer again in future years.

Volunteers and Clementine Boxes

Celery Volunteers for Me

I’m always on the lookout for volunteers in my garden, whether they’re people, fungi, plants, or any other organisms. The relationship is usually symbiotic. Human volunteers gain some knowledge and experience; I get some help in my ever-growing farmden. Fungal volunteers work with my plants, drinking in some of the sugars and other goodies plants produce. In return, the fungi protect plants agains certain pests and, in the case of mycorrhizal fungi, fungal threads ramifying through the soil act like extensions of plants’ roots so plants can absorb more nutrients.

  But what do plant volunteers get out of our arrangement? Plant volunteers usually arrive in droves so only some can stay. Those that stay get to enjoy especially good growing conditions.

Which brings me to celery. Volunteer celery plantsFor the past few years, I’ve allowed celery in the greenhouse to go to seed each fall. The seeds drop and, within a few months, sprout to furnish plenty of seedlings for early summer celery in the greenhouse and later celery out in the garden. All of which is most welcome because celery seedlings are very slow to germinate and grow. Before celery volunteered around here, I had to sow seeds in early February in seed flats, keep the flats warm and moist until the seeds sprouted, transplant the sprouts into individual cells in another flat, and finally transplant the seedlings, after about 10 weeks of care, out into their permanent homes.

  Robust celery seedlings have sprouted and are now growing in a greenhouse bed and in the paths near near that bed, all without any help at all from me. I just lifted clumps of them, separated the seedlings carefully to minimize root disturbance, and “plugged” them back into the ground 8 inches apart. Pest problems are minimized because their new home is a greenhouse bed where celery hasn’t grown for the past two years.

Seedlings from another clump when into individual cells of the APS Propagator; they’ll go outside into the garden in late April. I pulled a few leaves off all these transplanted seedlings so that they don’t lose too much moisture while waiting for their roots to settle into their new homes and get to work.Pricking out celery seedlings
  A lot of celery volunteers are still standing there in the paths and old celery bed. They are now weeds.

Ventura is the One for Me

Slow germination and growth, along with the need for a very rich and constantly moist soil, make celery more of a challenge to grow than most other vegetables. Which is one reason that I grow it!

  And there’s more. If seedlings are exposed to temperatures that are too cold for too long (55° or less for 10 days or more), the plants bolt, sending up seed stalks instead of growing thick, succulent leaves. Older books also talk about blanching celery, that is, piling soil up around the leaf stalks so they turn pale and tender from lack of sunlight. My celery rarely bolts, and I never blanche it.

  One reason for my success with celery (besides, I hope, a greenish thumb) is the variety I grow: Ventura. This variety doesn’t need blanching and is grow thick crisp stalks with rich, but never harsh.Self-sown Ventura celery
  The best celeries I’ve grown were fairly large volunteers that I moved from the greenhouse path into a greenhouse bed one fall. I covered the plants for a few days to increase humidity while the roots were taking hold. All winter, those plants made the juiciest, longest, tastiest celery stalks ever.

Clementines are for More than Just Eating

Clementines are as tasty as the boxes they come in are useful. I can’t bear to throw those boxes out so have a stack of them waiting to be of use.

One box is home to my seed starting supplies: various dibbles and spatulas for lifting small seedlings to replant into larger flats; various sized pieces of plywood for firming soil in seed flats, some with dowels glued to their bottoms to lay out mini-furrows; tape and marking pens for labeling flats; popsicle sticks, also for labeling.Onion seedlings
  Two other boxes are now being used as seedling flats – for onions and leeks, sown in early February and now well on their way. Each box has 5 mini-furrows in which I sprinkled about 7 fresh onion or leek seeds per inch. The seedlings will grow in those boxes until transplant time, which is a couple of weeks before I’ll be planting out the Ventura celery.