Thank the volunteers

Susie Hill
Frederick County Master Gardener

(8/29) "I couldnít get a date with her in college because she was always volunteering at the soup kitchen," my husband likes to say. As a young adult, I spent hours working as a literacy tutor, volunteering at community health clinics, and educating youth about drug awareness. All of this has resulted in good karma coming my way. In my garden, I always have volunteers that surprise me with their appearances and delight me with their offerings.

This year and last, the most abundant patch in my garden has been the same one. It is an eight by eight square that was last to receive attention. While I was busy elsewhere, that bed was warming the soil to the perfect temperature to germinate the seeds of cherry tomatoes. They came up so thickly and quickly that they were overgrown before I could manage to thin or train them. Hence, they took on the form that would exist in nature. It is a sprawling and prolifically abundant tangle of delicate, sweet cherry tomatoes.

Naturally, tomatoes take on a prostrate form. As gardeners, we train them to grow upright, keeping them off the soil, just like we try to get our teenagers out of bed. For teens, it is when they are flat in bed and asleep that their bodies are able to grow, consolidate and store memories, and generate energy and resources for the next day. Tomatoes fight our efforts to train them in an upright position too. Like people, plants are loaded with hormones. The position of the plant stem affects hormonal regulation and, consequently, growth. Auxin is the hormone that is responsible for cell differentiation and function. If a tomato stem is vertical, it communicates to the plant to promote flowering tissue. If the stem is vertical, auxin will cause the cells to change their form to become root tissue, allowing the plant to absorb more water and nutrients from the soil.

Before this patch had germinated I did plant one cherry tomato. I placed it with intention and thought. It failed to thrive because a tomato hornworm kept it so thoroughly defoliated that it could never get itself established. Hornworms would be hard-pressed to defoliate my wild tangle of tomatoes- and they have tried. It makes me wonder if that isnít the reason that in their natural environment, tomatoes sow their seed in clusters, thanks to fallen fruits, rather than as individual seeds sown in flats.

I have never been one to undervalue a volunteer. When seeds germinate on their own, they do so when environmental conditions are exactly right for them to thrive. Last year, I had a great crop of Kentucky wonder beans that fed my sonís insatiable desire for the only green vegetable that he likes. If I had been more careless in my clean-up efforts last fall, I might be able to say the same for this year. Instead, I only got one light sowing in before the distraction of my childrenís activities and demands took my attention elsewhere. Consequently, I have been buying beans this year.

I am not advocating the dismissal of tried and true gardening methods. Rather, I am suggesting that Mother Nature is exceptionally good at what she does. Every year, I find happy surprises in the garden- things that did not come from my own ideas or efforts. Volunteers fill in holes in my garden. This fall, I might accidentally on purpose drop a few bean pods and leave fallen tomatoes in place. Next year I will gladly accept the abundant offerings and simply say, "Thank you".

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