The View From my Kitchen Window
Wendy Whitehorn-Dr. Dirt
Summer is here! I went to the Westside Orchard Garden last Saturday to volunteer on their workday, and the Russian olive trees were in bloom. For me, their heady, delightful fragrance means summer has arrived. If I could bottle that scent I would wear it for perfume all year and be reminded of summer in January. Did you know that Russian olive trees are now classified by Montana as a noxious weed, and you can't buy them in nurseries anymore? Seems they tend to "volunteer" and take over some areas, especially along waterways, and can choke out native vegetation. Those trees were planted in windbreaks in large numbers by early Montana settlers because they are extremely hardy and can withstand Montana's harsh climate and thrive. My parents had rows of them on the farm, and that's where I fell in love with the fragrance of their tiny yellow flowers.
There are two kinds of volunteers. The first is a person who performs or gives his or her services of his or her own free will with no expectation of financial reimbursement. Donating your time and energy to help out a not-for-profit organization is volunteering. Helping your neighbor with yard work is volunteering. Offering to drive your kids’ friends to soccer practice is volunteering. The second kind of volunteer is when a plant grows from self-sown or accidentally dropped seed. My chamomile in the garden is a great example of volunteer plants. The first type of volunteer is almost always wanted, needed, and appreciated. For everything from the Red Cross to Hospice to the Westside Orchard Garden, volunteers give of their time and energy to make this world a better place to live. Volunteers in the garden can be a blessing or a curse, or both.
These are some of the volunteers I’ve found in my garden this year, besides the chamomile: lettuce, spinach, cilantro, dill, alfalfa, clover, cosmos, California poppy, love-in-a-mist, sunflowers, calendula, Echinacea, Bells of Ireland, borage, fanweed, lamb’s quarters, kochia, cheat grass, dandelion, and a few unidentified plants (aka weeds). Whew.
When I grew for Farmer’s Market the volunteer spinach and lettuce was always earlier than anything I could plant, and I often had those greens to take to the first market of the year. I also love to plant big sunflowers to give the birds some cheap (cheep?) food over the fall and winter. The only problem is that the birds never eat all the seed, and that seed germinates where ever it falls and grows baby sunflowers all over the garden. I used to leave some to grow (another plant that once you have it you can always have it), but it was taking over parts of my garden and I’ve had to get ruthless and pull out every little sunflower I find in order to have room to grow other things. Sunflowers grow tall, shade out smaller plants, and have an allelopathic property that inhibits other plants in their vicinity. Cilantro is also a vigorous grower and can take over an area if left to go to seed. The difficulty in ripping out all the cilantro is that the flowers of the Umbelliferae (cilantro, parsley, dill, and many more) are beloved by pollinators and therefore are very beneficial in the garden. Well, maybe I could leave a few. Years ago I planted Bells of Ireland to add to my flower bouquets for market. They are a lovely green flower spike that adds interest to the bouquets, and I thought I’d try them. They grew very well, but the seed catalogs didn’t say that they grow nasty thorns on the stems that should be cut off if people weren’t going to be in danger of impaling themselves. That was too much work, so I never intentionally planted them again. The key word here is “intentionally.” Several years after that first planting I am still finding the occasional Bells of Ireland seedling. Being ruthless, I pull them out before those horrific spikes can appear.
I could go on about the relative benefit or detriment of various “volunteers” in my garden, but I think you get the idea. Lamb’s quarters (or pigweed) can be eaten as a substitute for spinach or chard, and even kochia seedlings can break up hard soil and leave it more friable and workable, and it was introduced in this country as cattle forage. It’s all a gray area. Maybe you’re cutting calendula flowers to make a healing salve this year, so let those seedlings grow! Echinacea is a native Montana medicinal herb used by Native Americans for its immune system and healing properties, so dig one up and dry the roots to save for cold season. Maybe you LOVE cilantro and don’t care that you have a 20 square foot patch of it. It’s really your call. While you’re contemplating the relative value of the volunteers in your garden, contemplate the value of offering your time to your favorite not-for-profit organization or your neighbor, and then go do it. A little bit of volunteering can go a long way.
Happy gardening and happy volunteering!
PS I'm having trouble getting my photos into this blog, so if anyone wants to volunteer to tutor me I would appreciate the help!