Volunteers are those individuals who give of themselves to help other people or causes. Volunteer flowers aren’t quite so selfless, but they still bring a smile to a gardener’s face. They’re also a nice way to effortlessly fill out a garden.
Over the past several years, spiderworts have been serendipitously popping up in my perennial borders. I’ve done nothing to propagate the plants. They are the self-seeded progeny of spiderworts I planted in two borders moons ago — one at the edge of a backyard garden and the second in a small border along the sidewalk at the garden gate.
Now I have spiderworts blooming in every backyard bed and border in shades of purple from grape to the palest lavender and faintly pink flowers. Luckily, they’ve tucked themselves into good spots, and I haven’t pulled them – except one that appeared in the brick path.
Numerous annuals will reseed without you lifting a finger. They germinate from seeds dropped near the base or in the vicinity of the mother plant. They can be carried around the garden by squirrels, chipmunks, voles and other critters. Whatever tasty seeds or berries went into a bird’s beak at one stop may drop from the other end on a visit to your garden.
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Gardeners can gather seeds at season’s end and broadcast them where desired in the garden. Other plants spread by rhizomes or underground root systems and come up unexpectedly yards away from the original plant. Newer perennial cultivars like “Star Cluster” coreopsis in the “Big Bang” series are sterile and won’t self-seed.
Volunteer flowers are usually welcome; volunteer weeds and trees, like the maple seeds that helicopter into my garden, not so much. It’s difficult to tell the difference between weed and flower seedlings, so I usually wait until the plant is large enough to identify. I can be ruthless about removing unwanted volunteers, but occasionally one will escape my notice.
Some volunteers can be invasive. Way back when, maiden silvergrass (Miscanthus sinensis) made a break for it from my backyard into the side yard by tunneling rhizomes under the fence. It also spread like wildfire in the long border. I’ve won some battles, but so far, it’s winning the war. Another tenacious invader, pink bush honeysuckle, springs up willy-nilly around the front yard. And let’s not get started on morning glories.
On a happier note, here’s a list of some favorite flowers that will step forward when you ask for volunteers: Bachelor buttons, cleome, cosmos, sweet alyssum, poppy, forget-me-not, flax, gloriosa daisy, hollyhock, foxglove, moss rose, four-o-clocks, nasturtium, marigold, Nicotiana sylvestri and zinnias.