Monday, March 07, 2005

volunteers and suckers

The Taming of the Band-Aid, a very interesting Florida blog based on the homeowner's work at building a natural habitat out of his family's yard, writes here about volunteer sunflowers popping up in his yard.

Volunteers in the garden can be a source of amusement. Why is a tomato plant or a dill plant growing among my bed of tulips and irises in the front yard? Or a cedar tree in a hosta bed under the sweetgum tree? Probably some squirrel or bird delivered the seed to this spot. Think of the cycle of life. I once read a friend's description of tomatoes growing out of her father-in-law's septic tank area, the re-gifting of seed eaten at the dinner table and distributed back into the backyard. Supposedly that is why West Texas is covered with mesquite trees -- the cows on cattle drives ate the berries of the trees and then distributed that seed as part of their digestion.

Volunteers also cause gardeners to be concerned, particularly in terms of trash trees, or shrubby plants that end up growing in the wrong place, killing out other plants or trees, and disturbing the order of the place. Gardeners make up sites -- AKMA reminds us today that the word fictive doesn't mean fiction but something made -- and gardens in any form are certainly fictive works, inventions that are to some degree artificial and arbitrary, no matter how natural or informal we make them.

And when wild honeysuckle trees or vines or poison ivy or mulberry trees, for example, make an appearance in the middle of our garden, what is a nuisance today may be a real problem in three years when the roots are deeper, the stems thicker, and the presence of the volunteer has transformed from a sapling into a real tree.

So the gardener, practicing the morality of gardening, must make a judgment on rooting out the volunteer, moving it somewhere else (rare, but I've done it) or letting it be. Because we are imperfect, and we cannot do everything, sometimes we compromise, allowing the volunteer to grow, yet cut it back each year. This is not very productive, and perhaps it is a gardening discipline to keep us humble. And we sometimes inherit the volunteers that thrived under previous owners, and again, we hack away at them, hoping to learn humility.

These attempts at humility lead us to having a sharper eye at rooting out new volunteers.

Suckers are the off-shoots of shrubs, plants and trees that come from the root of the original plant. Flowering quince is prolific in shooting out from the roots of the mother plant. I have a small quince growing in the front yard that I hacked off of a friend's plant last year. I've successfully started oakleaf hydrangea out of suckers, so there is some good for them. Gray Dogwood shrubs put out lots of suckers, as do many ornamental trees (crabapples, ornamental pear, e.g.) As a rule, suckers should be cut off -- you want to give energy to the main plant. If you have a tall ornamental pear, you don't need a thousand new pear trees unsuccessfully striving to grow out of the roots of the mother.

Re-seeding is another way to propagate new plants. Brazilian verbena and larkspur and many other kinds of annual flowers put out seeds that germinate the next year. The last two years, we've gotten sunflowers along side the vegetable garden, the result of the original flowers planted three years ago. I like re-seeding. I also know that I have to control it. And I don't always do that.


Rob Merola said...

Just happened upon your site from Blogging Episcopalians. I love your writing.

Reading your posts is just what the doctor ordered while I wait for the spring gardening season to arrive.

Don said...

Rob - thanks for your kind words. It's always good to hear from a fellow gardener.

I am in that period where I am terribly impatient about getting into the dirt. In winter, I feel like a fish out of water.

Rob Merola said...

I know the feeling. Have you discovered this on line catalog of garden catalogs: ?

I hate to admit it, but I spent a whole Friday night not too long ago just looking at daylilies...