What Is A Volunteer Plant: Learn About Volunteer Plants In Gardens

A Sprouting Volunteer Plant
(Image credit: amenic181)

Some gardeners think of volunteer plants in gardens as free bonus plants- serendipitous. Others consider them weeds- especially tree seedlings in the yard. This article explains how to use volunteer plants to your best advantage and how to eliminate unwanted volunteers.

What is a Volunteer Plant?

Volunteer plants are those that come up in the garden with no effort on your part. They germinate from seeds dropped by flowers in previous years or seeds can arrive stuck to the fur and skin of small animals. Birds that visit your garden bring seeds contained in berries and fruit that they ate at their last stop. Plants can sneak under fences by means of underground stems and rhizomes. Regardless of how they found your garden, once they arrive you must decide which ones are keepers and which ones you need to eliminate. There is no doubt that it's easier to get rid of volunteer plants when the seedlings are small, but volunteer plant identification is difficult, even for experienced gardeners. You'll probably find yourself carefully nurturing a few noxious weeds until they are large enough to identify, but you'll learn to identify your favorites with time and patience.

What Can be Done About Plant Volunteers?

Volunteer plants rarely come up exactly where you want them, but you can move them while they are small using a teaspoon. In the flower garden we move volunteer seedlings for aesthetic reasons, and in the vegetable garden we move them for the health of the garden. Vegetables must be rotated each year to help discourage insects and diseases. So when a volunteer appears where the crop grew last year, move it to a new location as soon as possible. If you'd rather not have unexpected plants showing up in your carefully planned garden, there are a few things you can do to discourage them. Here are some ways to reduce the number of volunteer seedlings:

  • Deadhead your plants before faded flowers have a chance to form seeds.
  • Apply a thick layer of mulch around your plants. If seeds don't come in direct contact with the soil, they won't survive to become seedlings.
  • Pull up seedlings as soon as they appear. It's much easier to pull up seedlings than to eliminate mature plants.

Common volunteer plants include many of the bedding annuals that we rely on to fill out a garden, as well as wildflowers and herbs. It's impossible to list them all, but here are a few useful examples:

Jackie Carroll

Jackie Carroll has written over 500 articles for Gardening Know How on a wide range of topics.